David Brooks Defines The New 'Social Animal' "If you mention the word love at a congressional hearing, they look at you like you're Oprah," David Brooks says. But new research has convinced the New York Times writer that to make truly effective public policy, you have to see the emotional and social connections behind the numbers.

David Brooks Defines The New 'Social Animal'

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


And, David Brooks, thanks for being here.

BLOCK: 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?

BLOCK: 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.

BLOCK: 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.


BLOCK: 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.

BLOCK: 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.


BLOCK: 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...

BLOCK: Right.

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

BLOCK: 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...

BLOCK: Right.

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

BLOCK: 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...

BLOCK: Right.

SIEGEL: ...we should provide for them.

BLOCK: 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.


BLOCK: 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?

BLOCK: 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.


BLOCK: 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?

BLOCK: 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.

BLOCK: Great to be with you.

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

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