“We are not who we think we are.”
In The Social Animal, David Brooks tells the story of a composite American couple Erica and Harold, from their first moments of life to their last. Weaving in and out of this tale of their early childhood, high school years, career highs and lows, and the opportunities and challenges of aging, Brooks offers insights from recent research in a variety of fields which provide a new understanding ourselves.
of us think we are the same thing as our conscious self. We make decisions about what to fix for dinner. We laugh at the jokes on a sit com. We learn history and science and math in school. We play tennis or basketball or chess, and with practice get better. That’s us.
But that’s only part of who we are, and maybe not the main part. David Brooks brings to the forefront two other major dimensions of every human being that have long been neglected.
First, as the title of the book suggests, we are not isolated beings who make ourselves. We are neither masters of our fate nor captains of our souls. Rather at every point in our existence–emotional, physical, mental, psychological–we are enmeshed in a social fabric that connects us to others (for good or ill) from before we are born till the hour of our death. Yes, we make decisions. But that is only part of the story.
Second, our unconscious (or intuitive) reactions often override or supersede our conscious processes. Both our social dependence and the power of our unconscious point to the myth and futility of the Enlightenment project to subsume all human life under the power of reason. This explains why so many Democratic and Republican policies have failed. They’ve both depended on people being merely rational.
Brooks gives plenty of credit to the researchers he depends on, especially to Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. So this book pairs nicely with Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow, reviewed here.
All the while we are caught up in the successes and failures, the hopes and disappointments of Erica and Harold. By unfolding all this research while telling us the very different but intertwining stories of Erica and Harold, Brooks never loses touch with the humanity he seeks to explain.