Posted by: istop4books | April 28, 2011

THE SOCIAL ANIMAL, DAVID BROOKS

“A gifted social observer, Brooks makes some valid points regarding the duality of the human mind, but he too often bases his conclusions on questionable data and unduplicated experiments, “commit[ing] a variety of statistical errors and tiptoe[ing] through a minefield of contradictory evidence” (Wall Street Journal). The Social Animal may not be the last word in neuroscience, but it nonetheless provides an engaging and thought-provoking tour of the human mind. Bookmarks magazine.”

Let’s be clear: this is not the end all examination of the human mind meant for scholars. This is pop-psychology meets sociology-lite. He himself says, “[this book] is an attempt to integrate science and psychology with sociology, politics, cultural commentary, and the literature of success.” He looks at the unconscious mind and how it influences our feelings, opinions, education levels, success and lives in general. Brooks is insightful, readable and great for further discussions around the kitchen table. He illustrates his conclusions through the narrative of two fictional characters, Harold and Erica from pre-birth to death, and their success in life. Coming from two distinct backgrounds and two very diverse personalities, they go through life oblivious to the inner background of the decisions that have taken them through life. Why they picked the roads they chose is thoughtfully analyzed through the book.

Some of the tidbits that I highlighted along the way (and there are quite a few of them, so I’ve left my commentary to a minimum):

  • Page 11: Vocabulary as a form of measuring IQ: “People tend to choose spouses of similar intelligence.” In other words, they don’t rationally measure IQ, but at some level are measuring the people around them, and one way they do it is through vocabulary:
    “People with an 80IQ recognize words such as fabric, enormous and conceal but not sentence, consume and commerce

    “People with 90IQ will probably know, sentence, consume and commerce but not designate, ponder or reluctant

  • Off the wall nuts: Compensating for physical or other lacking qualities: short men “grow” with an additional $175,000 of income to the stature of a 6 ft man; rich men marry younger women, the beauty of a woman is a strong indicator of the wealth of her spouse – all these indicators are not looked by two dating people or analyzed, they are simply processed and left somewhere in a back pocket of the brain.
  • Page 19: “emotions measure the value of something, and help unconsciously guide us as we navigate through life—away from things that are likely to lead to pain and toward things that are likely to lead to fulfillment.”
  • Page 41: “the ability to unconsciously share another’s pain is a building block of empathy, and through that emotion, morality.” Without empathy, morality is blurred and at its extreme, sociopathic behavior develops.
  • Social cognition within groups: pages 76-> He talks about the ability to walk into a room full of people and scan it within seconds and come to conclusions regarding pecking orders, leaders, jesters, peacemakers, daredevil, organizer. What he says about girl groups resonated with me, I feel that it goes beyond high school (US centric) and permeates grown women. He describes a troika: Girl 1 is hot, girl 2 is the sidekick and girl 3 is “less attractive one who is the object of the other two’s loving condescension.” Girl 3 gets replaced often.
  • Food for thought and discussion; page 78: “the adult personality, including political views – is forever defined in opposition to one’s natural enemies in high school.” Wow. That’s quite a statement, but looking back does it have a grain of truth? Maybe more? It’s hard for me to say as I didn’t go to a US hs. But later on, in work situations? Perhaps.
  • Page 106 talks about the differences in bringing up lower vs middle class kids and the tremendous difference it makes in their later lives, moreso than IQ or work ethics. The huge advantages of being brought up with educated parents makes coming from a poor background and trying to make it similar to climbing Mt. Everest – nearly impossible. On an hourly basis, professional children hear 487 utterances. Welfare kids hear 178. Page 107: Children from a poor population have an 8.6% chance of getting a college degree. …top quarter kids have a 75% chance. Most of the differences have to do with unconscious skills – attitudes, perceptions and norms learned during the first 18 years of life. Simply stunning.
  • Page 123: Self control as a predictor of high school performance: some researchers say it’s twice as important as IQ. I’m not so sure about that, but I do think that without self control no amount of IQ will help.
  • Page 152: Social/ethnic groups and their socio-economic rise: “Cultures do not exist as simply static differences to be celebrated. They compete with one another as better and worse ways of getting things done – better and worse, not from the standpoint of some observer, but from the peoples themselves, as they cope and aspire amid the gritty realities of life.” In this area Brooks skated around and pretty much cowarded away from touching the plight of the African American family here in the States. He talks about Dominicans vs Haitians, Jews and Italians and Chinese Americans, but doesn’t really go into clarifying why the great divides of work ethics, life expectancy, corruption, education. Cultural subcultures as being an enormous factor in our lives.
  • Page 166: He touches on the importance of mental character, used in conjunction with IQ to make decisions, life decisions. To think about the various possibilities, weigh the alternatives, and ponder the outcomes will contribute heavily to correct decision making.
  • Page 177: “People who succeed tend to find one goal in the distant future and then chase it through thick and thin. Schools ask students to be good at a range of subjects, but life asks people to find one passion that they will follow forever.” Interesting concept – my question is how will a kid know what he wants unless he is exposed to and challenged in many different fields of study during high school?
  • Page 181: The power of subliminal messages blows my mind, if these are indeed well researched statements. “If you tell somebody stories about high achievement just before they perform some test or exercise, they will perform better than if you had not told them those stories. …If you play into negative stereotypes, they will do worse.” Priming, anchoring and framing is what marketers do with their products and what makes us buy a more expensive product than we meant to, or accede to have a procedure done – it all depends on how you hear the pitch. Are we that naïve? Does this stuff really permeate our daily lives? I’m afraid the answer is probably yes.
  • Page 204: he talks about perceptions. That we judge ourselves by our intentions, our friends by their deeds and our rivals by their mistakes. If that ain’t the truth I don’t know what is.
  • P. 238: I loved this: he’s illustrating how bad at math our unconscious mind is with the following question: “Let’s say you spent $1.10 on a pen and pad of paper. If you spent a dollar more for the pad than the pen, how much did the pen cost?” What was your first answer, the one that just came to the top of your head? Most likely it was that the pen cost 10 cents. Duh. Well, that would be wrong.
  • Page 288: here Brooks touches on Moral development and how we achieve it through relationships, habits and practices, habits. Structured rules of etiquette, (like the fork goes on the left) which may seem trivial, “but nudge us to practice little acts of self-control. They strengthen networks in the brain.” I’m not sure how, still mulling over this concept, although I’m a big enforcer of fork-on-the-left type rules. For me they are very meaningful, but I could never even begin to enunciate why. Brooks goes on to add our conversations as a point of development, and institutions such as family, school and our professions which impart rules which tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do.
  • Page 321: This is the crux of what Brooks is talking about: Relationships. He talks about politics and governments and says, “Everything came down to character, and that meant everything came down to the quality of relationships, because relationships are the seedbeds of character. The reason life and politics are so hard is that relationships are the most important, but also the most difficult, things to understand.” To this effect he states that, “you can pump money into poor areas, but without cultures that foster self-control, you won’t get social mobility.” Agreed.
  • Page 327: Economic rewards of an education: “median American with a graduate degree is part of a family making $93,000/yr. ..with a college degree is in a family making $75,000…with a high-school degree is in a family making $42,000, and the average high school dropout is in a family making $28,000.” Stunning statistics, however, not everyone can go to college either because of cost or ability. Are they all destined to the 42 grand a year life?
  • Page 329-330: Difference in college educated and non college educated families (a real eye opener): “Over 2/3s of middle class children are raised in intact two-parent families, while less than a third of poor children are raised in them. About half the students in community colleges have either been pregnant or gotten somebody pregnant.” While both groups want many of the same things, the more educated people have more emotional resources to execute their visions. “If you get married before having children, graduate from high school, and work full time, there is a 98% chance that you will not live in poverty.” “Show up for the job interview, take the SAT test you registered for. Study for the final so you can graduate from college. Don’t quit your job just because it’s boring or because you’ve got a minor crisis at home. …there is no substitute for individual responsibility and no prospect for success unless people are held accountable for their decisions and work relentlessly to achieve their goals.”
  • Page 365, Sunlight and Nature: “Sunlight and natural scenes can have a profound effect on mind and mood. People in northern latitudes, where the sunlight is less bright, have higher rates of depression than people in lower latitudes. So do people on the western edges of time zones, where the run rises later in the mornings.”

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