MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Our regular political commentator, New York Times columnist David Brooks, has written what he calls the happiest story you've ever read. It's a book about the insights of contemporary neuroscience, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and it's all wrapped into the fictional lives of Harold and Erica, husband and wife, successful professionals.

We start with the early lives of Harold's parents, and we end with Harold's death of natural causes on a porch in Aspen, Colorado.

Along the way, the social scientists and neurobiologists appear and reappear like a Greek chorus explaining to us that what Harold and Erica do is hardly random. Their nature is our nature, and we are far more predictable beings than we might think. The book is called "The Social Animal."

And, David Brooks, thanks for being here.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, The New York Times; Author, "The Social Animal"): Oh, thank you. Great to be with you.

SIEGEL: What led you to abandon or at least dilute your day job as a Burkean conservative monitor of political Washington for peering inside our brains?

Mr. BROOKS: Failure. I covered a bunch of policy failures, so in - and when the Soviet Union fell, we sent all these economists into Russia, when what they really lacked was social trust. We invaded Iraq totally oblivious to the psychological trauma and the cultural realities of Iraq. We had financial regulatory policies based on the idea that bankers were sort of rational creatures who would make smart decisions.

And I've covered education for 20 years, and we've reorganized all the boxes to very little effect. And the reality of education is that people learn from people they love. But if you mention the word love at a congressional hearing, they look at you like you're Oprah.

And so all these policy failures were more or less based on a false view of human nature: that we're cold, rationalistic individuals who respond to incentives. And so while all these failures based on this bad view of human nature were over in one side of my life, all these scientists, philosophers and others were developing a more accurate view of human nature, which is that emotion is more important than reason, that we're not individuals, we're deeply interconnected. And most importantly, that most of our thinking happens below the level of awareness.

SIEGEL: So to give an example of how the book reads, we follow Erica, who's the daughter of an absentee Mexican immigrant father and a bipolar Chinese immigrant mother, and when she's a kid, she enters charter school. We read that, and in short order, we're reading about ant colonies and emergent systems.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: Yes. Well, you know, I wanted to tell it as a story, in part because I want to illustrate the science in the real world and, most importantly, because I wanted the way the story is told to match the subject matter.

SIEGEL: Without giving away the entire story here, Erica succeeds in -comes to Washington, and her husband, Harold, follows her. And he discovers things about what people in Washington, the city that you and I both work in, what people value, what you can talk about, what you can't talk about.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. Well, this is the most emotionally avoidant city on Earth, as we know. And as I mentioned, you know, you can't talk about love. You can't talk about things that are unconscious. We have economists really serving as the gateway between human nature and the way we do policy-making and CBO reports.

And economists have human nature like half right, but half wrong. And so some of the things that really influence how we do are these forces below consciousness driven by emotion, and some of them are sort of trivial that I admire. One bit of research shows that people named Dennis are disproportionally likely to become dentists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: People named Lawrence become lawyers because we unconsciously gravitate toward the familiar, and I've named my daughter President of the United States Brooks for that reason.

So those are some of the subtle unconscious things, but more powerfully, our moral intuitions are not based on reason. They're based on our feelings about empathy and fairness.

So human nature is really based on these social connections, seeing relationships. And in Washington, we see individuals. We do not see relationships.

SIEGEL: And in the larger sense, you write that the way we are taught to think about things is to break them down...

Mr. BROOKS: Right.

SIEGEL: ...is to dissect them, rather than to think of phenomena more broadly and more connected.

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. And let's go back to education, the thing I care most about. We've spent all this time with big schools, small schools, but what really matters is how good people are relating to one another. So scientists can take an 18-month-old kid and look at how the kid relates to Mom, and they can predict with 77 percent accuracy if the kid is going to graduate from high school.

And the question is, are you able to relate? Some kids have - of communications. When they get to school, they know how to communicate with teachers. About 20 percent of kids are what they call avoidantly attached. And so when they come into the classroom, it's like a sailboat tacking into the wind. They want to get close to teachers, but they're going at diagonals because they don't know how to do it.

And those kids, even at age 30, will have two-thirds fewer friends because they do not know how to relate to people. And it's tough to talk about that in a world of CBO reports, but that actually is the most important thing when you're talking about how we raise our kids, how we conduct business and everything else.

SIEGEL: But it's also a little threatening to talk about these things, which you talk about the early signs that are determinant of children's...

Mr. BROOKS: Right.

SIEGEL: ...future because we think in terms of profiling and...

Mr. BROOKS: Right.

SIEGEL: ...tracking and figuring out, inferring too much about 6-year-olds, about what lies in store for them and what kind of training...

Mr. BROOKS: Right.

SIEGEL: ...we should provide for them.

Mr. BROOKS: That's absolutely right. There's nobody whose life course is determined at 18 months or 6 six years old. Things happen later: You can have a mentor, you can have a strong relationship, but they open up pathways. And those pathways are always changing. But the key point is not to think of people as these rational creatures responding to incentives, think of the models in their heads, think of the way they see the world, think of how they emotionally react to the situation. Some people perceive fear. Some people don't.

And I'm, you know, I'm a middle-age white guy. I'm not exactly comfortable talking about emotion. I told my wife that me writing about emotion is like Gandhi writing about gluttony.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: It's not like the natural thing I'd do, but that's where the evidence lies.

SIEGEL: Do so many findings about what we are, which would show that we're wired for much of what we become, our very early experiences determine where we'll be, for you, does it reinforce a conservative skepticism about schemes that assume our perfectibility or at least our potential for great improvement?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, we're a lot more complicated than we think, and we should be modest. One of the things it teaches us: There's a lot more going on than we understand, and we should be really curious or cautious about overconfidence. So 94 percent of college professors think they're above average teachers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: Ninety-six percent of high school students think they're above average leadership skills. And so we should be aware that there are things going deep down inside, and so you should be cautious. It doesn't lead to classic conservatism, though. It leads to an awareness of community, I think.

SIEGEL: So since you've been writing about politics and Washington all the time, has this involvement in social science and psychological neuroscience research, has it significantly altered the way you see the politics of, say, an election year?

Mr. BROOKS: Yeah. Absolutely. Because you see the - you learn to see, first of all, emotional connections. You learn to see relationships first. So, for example, the Middle East is blowing up one nation after another. You learn to see the power, how those signals transfer from person to person, how moods can swing across a country.

And it's made me much more suspicious, actually, of the free market, because we have to have - you know, the free market produces a lot of wealth, but it's embedded. It's embedded in a series of understandings. And if you don't have those relationships, then people can't thrive in that free market.

Do they have an ability to control their impulses? Do they have an ability to work in groups?

Groups are much smarter than individuals. And the groups that do well, it's not shaped by how smart the people are in the group, it's shaped by how well they signal each other. Do they take turns when they're having a conversation? And so, even when you see something like the free market, you don't see like Ayn Rand rational individuals. You see groups and competing groups and collaborating groups deeply intertwined with one another.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BROOKS: Great to be with you.

SIEGEL: David's new book is called "The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character and Achievement."

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.