Babbling Spirit

David Brooks has earned his reputation as a conservative whom liberals can like by appearing both more principled and more flexible than the Republican consensus. For example, he argues in support of gay marriage that it would shore up the unfashionable virtues of traditional marriage. Like President Barack Obama—with whose administration he is said to be on exceptionally good terms—Brooks thinks in broad strokes, loves a choice bit of data, and exhibits an irrepressible urge to transcend partisan preconceptions.

Before becoming a regular columnist at the New York Times in 2003, Brooks became known at the Weekly Standard for something called “national-greatness conservatism”: a vision of an America where a limited but vigorous government (Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt are the main points of reference) embodies the nation’s collective will and reinforces its economic dynamism and sense of community. Like most conservatives, Brooks believes government efforts to provide goods and services the private sector can provide to be a source of malaise and disaffection. But unlike many conservatives, he also thinks that only strong institutions—including government—can imbue citizens with desires and allegiances beyond self-interest, and so ward off the anomie lurking in the libertarian ideal. Both the Left and the Right, he thinks, have focused too much on the unencumbered individual’s pursuit of happiness and not enough on the social milieu that determines our moral development and ultimate well-being.

In his new book, The Social Animal, Brooks argues that this simplistic individualism yields failed public policies because it fails as a theory of human nature. At the heart of his communitarian ideal is a claim he traces back to British Enlightenment thinkers like Edmund Burke and David Hume: The most important sources of fulfillment are not matters of rational choice, because individuals have neither the awareness of their own interests nor the freedom of will they would need to make themselves happy just by choosing rationally (a fallacy he associates with the French Enlightenment). Happy lives have much more to do with properly cultivated emotions and predispositions. Brooks tries to buttress this claim with a vast collection of studies from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, and sociology—disciplines that are leading a “cognitive revolution” and displacing “an obsolete, shallow model of human nature” that was too narrowly focused on the power of reason. According to Brooks, science is now showing that successful lives take shape in “the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms.”

To illustrate “what this unconscious system looks like...when the affections and aversions that guide us every day have been properly nurtured,” Brooks imagines a successful American couple living in the wake of the recent financial crisis. Erica is born to a financially struggling mother and mostly absentee father but attends an urban charter school. Irrepressibly ambitious, she goes on to lead a cable company and serve in the administration of a charismatic Democratic president. Harold, an upper-middle-class kid with no guiding ambition, finds his path cleared in all directions by his tremendous social acumen. A great communicator, he helps Erica articulate her vision to the clients of her consulting firm. After writing several popular histories in the vein of David McCullough, Harold finally joins a Washington think tank, where he advocates decidedly Brooksian policy positions.

The lives of this couple provide some structure for research findings that are not otherwise arranged into any system or theory. Erica’s climb up the corporate ladder, for example, illustrates findings about the effects of corporate culture on productivity, while the story of Harold’s midlife depression functions as a peg for a summary of neuroscientific theories about alcoholism. Invariably, the discussion hews to two themes: the impotence of will and reason before emotion, habit, and culture; and the importance of social life in forming the individual’s mind. Modish clichés predominate: you are not a sovereign individual, Brooks informs the reader, but “the spiritual entity that emerges out of the material networks in your head.”

Much of the science in The Social Animal is superfluous. The fables of evolutionary psychology that Brooks uses to explain Harold’s conception, for example, manage to be both glib and lurid, the kind of thing one would expect to find in a Cosmopolitan spread on boyfriend psychology. Much more of the science is simply too breezily explained to be memorable, let alone useful. Descriptions of the automatic cognitions involved in mundane tasks like driving run into discussions of spooky phenomena like “blindsight” (a blind person’s awareness of an object’s physical characteristics), which in turn run almost seamlessly into experiments suggesting that some kind of unconscious cogitation, happening while the conscious mind is distracted, leads to better decisions. Brooks argues that creativity and imagination—topics that bring out the best in his writing—are fundamental components of the ability to look around a room and find a door. Opposing the ineffable subtlety of the human mind to the clumsiness of artificial intelligence, he rhapsodizes, “We are smart because we are capable of fuzzy thinking.”

Brooks can be winningly blithe about this kind of generalization because it obviously contains a kernel of truth. Of course our “fuzzy concept” of what a door is leads us more directly and reliably than any possible series of purely logical deductions. But the claim that this kind of insight refutes some broadly accepted notion of what a person is and how one should live and be governed would require an analytic rigor that The Social Animal doesn’t offer. One problem is that Brooks never quite makes it clear whether he is arguing against the belief that humans generally act rationally (who believes that?) or against the use of reason as a tool for understanding circumstances and acting accordingly (a practice hard to discredit and harder to avoid).

“To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan,” Brooks writes early in the book, “the central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most. The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious.” One is left wondering, though, how seriously Brooks takes the latter truth. He pays lip service to some of the many philosophers who have tried to understand reason and the unconscious mind in complex relation to each other, but the questions a philosopher would ask—about what the conscious or rational mind is, about what unique human accomplishments it does make possible, and how it interacts with unconscious forces—mostly fall by the wayside in Brooks’s rush to cast doubt on the power of reason.

This lack of theoretical clarity matches an incoherence in Brooks’s method. Criticizing “wonks who are comfortable only with traits and correlations that can be measured and quantified” is a strange way to introduce four hundred pages of traits and correlations, measured and quantified. When Erica’s adventures in management consulting run across the work of behavioral economists—whose critique of classical economics is the obvious pattern for the cognitive revolution—Brooks writes:

Erica suspected they were trimming their sails. If they acknowledged that behavior was not law-governed—if it was too unpredictable to be captured in mathematics and models—then they would no longer be economists.... They’d have to move their offices over to the psychology departments, a big step down in the academic pecking order.

This is typical of the wry inanity with which Brooks often parries difficult theoretical questions. Although he is eager to line his political philosophy with the prestige of the scientific method—the circumspect gathering and parsimonious interpretation of facts—his commitment to that method is provisional. He wants science to remind us how much of our lives falls outside our self-consciousness, how much is subject to conditions over which we have no direct control. Yet he doesn’t want the workings of the unconscious to become too predictable, because that might make them subject to rational control after all. The point, for Brooks, is not so much to understand the unconscious as to humble the conscious mind so that we’ll consider its deliberations less decisive. And when we do have to deliberate (about public policy, for example), Brooks thinks the aim should be to nudge people in the right direction, rather than to control or to persuade them rationally. Good leaders offer the public not well-formed arguments but the right incentives.

Brooks tells us that the policies of both Left (“more dollars to fix broken schools...student-aid subsidies to increase college-completion rates”) and Right (“child tax credits to restore marriage…school vouchers to improve the education system”) have failed because they assume “a direct relationship between improving material conditions and solving problems.” The more we understand the deep causes of human behavior—“character, culture, and morality”—the better we can construct the appropriate “choice architecture” to encourage healthy behavior.

Brooks’s unaccountable disdain for considerations of “material conditions”—a disdain ill-suited to his pretensions to empiricism—extends to a near-complete indifference to political and macroeconomic history. When these forces intervene in Brooks’s story, it’s merely to set up plot elements that illustrate his essentially ahistorical worldview. So Erica’s consultancy is wiped out by the financial crisis only to compel her to greater prosperity at the cable company. As in his earlier books, Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive, Brooks wants to insist on a certain averageness of his subjects’ skills and backgrounds. They are not especially intelligent, ambitious, or well born, but simply have well-developed “social skills.” Yet Brooks seems not to have noticed his imaginary subjects’ most salient feature: their luck. This is a story about what happens when everything goes right. He has nothing to say about why many average people with social skills much like those of Harold and Erica can’t find jobs—let alone become CEOs—after the financial crisis.

Brooks’s discussion of poverty is a perfect storm of suggestive research, extrapolation, incuriousness, and ideological partiality. First, he suggests that poverty is an emergent property, arising from “some mixture of the loss of manufacturing jobs, racial discrimination, globalization, cultural transmission, bad luck, bad government policies, and a thousand other factors.” Of these, only cultural transmission is amenable to a psychological analysis. He cites some developmental research detailing how poverty reproduces itself. Compared with wealthy kids, poor kids are not encouraged to undertake projects or develop skills; the parts of their brains associated with language and social skills develop more slowly because their parents don’t talk to them as much and don’t involve them in adult conversations; due to the instability of their domestic lives, poor kids have higher levels of stress-hormones that “affect...memory, pattern awareness, cognitive control...and verbal facility.” This discussion, however incomplete, is one of the most probing and interesting sections of the book.

But then Brooks gives us the magic bullet: a charter school that interrupts this defective cultural transmission by replacing the family and training kids “to see childhood as a ladder to college.” The school’s methods are long hours, strict discipline, and lots of indoctrination into an ethos of aspiration. To emphasize that this school is the only way out for people like Erica, Brooks includes two Waiting for “Superman”–style tear-jerking scenes in which young Erica pleads for a spot in the class.

Young Erica’s extraordinary willfulness here tends to undermine Brooks’s larger point, which is that the conscious will has little to do with how we turn out: we are mainly the products of unconscious influence and external circumstance. But the real problem with this episode isn’t the way Brooks tells the story, but the story itself. A 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford found that only 17 percent of charter schools outperform local public schools while “over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse.” The policy wonks Brooks disparages know these things because they do real research, which is painstaking, unglamorous, and often inconclusive. But for all his portentous enthusiasm for cutting-edge social science, Brooks often prefers his own intuition, or unconscious wisdom, to the messy facts on the ground.

Published in the 2011-08-12 issue: 
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