The Social Animal

The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement


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March 8, 2011 | ISBN 9780307739018

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March 8, 2011 | ISBN 9780679603931

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About the Book


With unequaled insight and brio, New York Times columnist David Brooks has long explored and explained the way we live. Now Brooks turns to the building blocks of human flourishing in a multilayered, profoundly illuminating work grounded in everyday life. This is the story of how success happens, told through the lives of one composite American couple, Harold and Erica. Drawing on a wealth of current research from numerous disciplines, Brooks takes Harold and Erica from infancy to old age, illustrating a fundamental new understanding of human nature along the way: The unconscious mind, it turns out, is not a dark, vestigial place, but a creative one, where most of the brain’s work gets done. This is the realm where character is formed and where our most important life decisions are made—the natural habitat of The Social Animal. Brooks reveals the deeply social aspect of our minds and exposes the bias in modern culture that overemphasizes rationalism, individualism, and IQ. He demolishes conventional definitions of success and looks toward a culture based on trust and humility. The Social Animal is a moving intellectual adventure, a story of achievement and a defense of progress. It is an essential book for our time—one that will have broad social impact and will change the way we see ourselves and the world.

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Praise for The Social Animal

“Provocative and fascinating . . . seeks to do nothing less than revolutionize our notions about how we function and conduct our lives.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“[A] fascinating study of the unconscious mind and its impact on our lives . . . Brooks has done well to draw such vivid attention to the wide implications of the accumulated research on the mind and the triggers of human behaviour.”—The Economist

“Multifaceted, compulsively readable . . . Brooks’s considerable achievement comes in his ability to elevate the unseen aspects of private experience into a vigorous and challenging conversation about what we all share.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Brooks surveys a stunning amount of research and cleverly connects it to everyday experience. . . . As in [Bobos in Paradise] he shows genius in sketching archetypes and coining phrases.”—The Wall Street Journal

“Authoritative, impressively learned, and vast in scope.”—Newsweek

“An enjoyably thought-provoking adventure.”—The Boston Globe

“An uncommonly brilliant blend of sociology, intellect and allegory.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred revew)

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The Social Animal

chapter 1

Decision Making

After the boom and bust, after the go-go frenzy and the Wall Street meltdown, the Composure Class rose once again to the fore. The people in this group hadn't made their money through hedge-fund wizardry or by some big financial score. They'd earned it by climbing the meritocratic ladder of success. They'd made good grades in school, established solid social connections, joined quality companies, medical practices, and firms. Wealth had just settled down upon them gradually like a gentle snow.

You'd see a paragon of the Composure Class lunching al fresco at some shaded bistro in Aspen or Jackson Hole. He's just back from China and stopping by for a corporate board meeting on his way to a five- hundred-mile bike-a-thon to support the fight against lactose intolerance. He is asexually handsome, with a little less body fat than Leonardo's David, and hair so lush and luxuriously wavy that, if you saw him in L.A., you'd ask, "Who's that handsome guy with George Clooney?" As he crosses his legs you observe that they are immeasurably long and slender. He doesn't really have thighs. Each leg is just one elegant calf on top of another.

His voice is like someone walking in socks on a Persian carpet-so calm and composed, he makes Barack Obama sound like Lenny Bruce. He met his wife at the Clinton Global Initiative. They happened to be wearing the same Doctors Without Borders support bracelets and quickly discovered they had the same yoga instructor and their Fulbright Scholarships came only two years apart. They are a wonderfully matched pair, with the only real tension between them involving their workout routines. For some reason, today's high- prestige men do a lot of running and biking and only work on the muscles in the lower half of their bodies. High-status women, on the other hand, pay ferocious attention to their torsos, biceps, and forearms so they can wear sleeveless dresses all summer and crush rocks into pebbles with their bare hands.

So Mr. Casual Elegance married Ms. Sculpted Beauty in a ceremony officiated by Bill and Melinda Gates, and they produced three wonderful children: Effortless Brilliance, Global Compassion, and Artistically Gifted. Like most upper- and upper-middle-class children, these kids are really good at obscure sports. Centuries ago, members of the educated class discovered that they could no longer compete in football, baseball, and basketball, so they stole lacrosse from the American Indians to give them something to dominate.

The kids all excelled at homogenous and proudly progressive private high schools, carefully spending their summers interning at German science labs. Junior year, their parents sat them down and solemnly informed them that they were now old enough to start reading The Economist. They went off to selective colleges with good sports teams, like Duke and Stanford, and then they launched careers that would reflect well on their parents-for example by becoming chief economist at the World Bank after a satisfying few years with the Joffrey Ballet.

Members of the Composure Class spend much of their adult lives going into rooms and making everybody else feel inferior. This effect is only magnified by the fact that they are sincere, modest, and nice. Nothing gives them greater pleasure than inviting you out to their weekend place. This involves meeting them Friday afternoon at some private airport. They arrive with their belongings in a tote bag because when you have your own plane you don't need luggage that actually closes.

It's best to tuck away a few granola bars if you go on one of these jaunts because the sumptuary code of this new gentry means that they will semi-starve you all weekend. This code involves lavish spending on durables and spartan spending on consumables. They'll give you a ride on a multimillion-dollar Gulfstream 5, and serve a naked turkey slice sandwich on stale bread from the Safeway. They will have a nine- bedroom weekend mansion, but they brag that the furniture is from Ikea, and on Saturday they'll offer you one of those Hunger Strike Lunches-four lettuce shards and three grams of tuna salad-because they think everybody eats as healthily as they do.

It has become fashionable in these circles to have dogs a third as tall as the ceiling heights, so members of the Composure Class have these gigantic bearlike hounds named after Jane Austen characters. The dogs are crossbreeds between Saint Bernards and velociraptors, and they will gently lay their giant muzzles on tabletops or Range Rover roofs, whichever is higher. The weekend itself will consist of long bouts of strenuous activity interrupted by short surveys of the global economic situation and bright stories about their closest friends-Rupert, Warren, Colin, Sergey, Bono, and the Dalai Lama. In the evenings they will traipse down to a resort community for ice cream and a stroll. Spontaneous applause may erupt on the sidewalks as they parade their immaculate selves down the avenues, licking their interesting gelatos. People will actually choose to vacation in these places just to bathe in the aura of human perfection.

The Meeting

It was in one of those precincts that, one summer's day, a man and a woman met for the first time. These young people, in their late twenties, would go on to be the parents of Harold, one of the heroes of this story. And the first thing you should know about these soon- to-be parents is that they were both good-hearted, but sort of shallow-even though their son would go on to be intellectually ambitious and sort of profound. They had been drawn to this resort community by the gravitational pull of Composure Class success, which they someday hoped to join. They were staying in group homes with other aspiring young professionals, and a blind lunch date had been arranged by a mutual friend.

Their names were Rob and Julia, and they got their first glimpse of each other in front of a Barnes & Noble. Rob and Julia smiled broadly at each other as they approached, and a deep, primeval process kicked in. Each saw different things. Rob, being a certain sort of man, took in most of what he wanted to know through his eyes. His male Pleistocene ancestors were confronted with the puzzling fact that human females do not exhibit any physical signals when they're ovulating, unlike many other animals. So the early hunters made do with the closest markers of fertility available.

And so Rob looked for the traits almost all heterosexual men look for in a woman. David Buss surveyed over ten thousand people in thirty- seven different societies and found that standards of female beauty are pretty much the same around the globe. Men everywhere value clear skin, full lips, long lustrous hair, symmetrical features, shorter distances between the mouth and chin and between the nose and chin, and a waist-to-hip ratio of about 0.7. A study of painting going back thousands of years found that most of the women depicted had this ratio. Playboy bunnies tend to have this ratio, though their overall fleshiness can change with the fashions. Even the famously thin supermodel Twiggy had exactly a 0.73 percent waist-to-hip ratio.

Rob liked what he saw. He was struck by a vague and alluring sense that Julia carried herself well, for there is nothing that so enhances beauty as self-confidence. He enjoyed the smile that spread across her face, and unconsciously noted that the end of her eyebrows dipped down. The orbicularis oculi muscle, which controls this part of the eyebrow, cannot be consciously controlled, so when the tip of the eyebrow dips, that means the smile is genuine not fake.

Rob registered her overall level of attractiveness, subliminally aware that attractive people generally earn significantly higher incomes.

Rob also liked the curve he instantly discerned under her blouse, and followed its line with an appreciation that went to the core of his being. Somewhere in the back of his brain, he knew that a breast is merely an organ, a mass of skin and fat. And yet, he was incapable of thinking in that way. He went through his days constantly noting their presence around him. The line of a breast on a piece of paper was enough to arrest his attention. The use of the word "boob" was a source of subliminal annoyance to him, because that undignified word did not deserve to be used in connection with so holy a form, and he sensed it was used, mostly by women, to mock his deep fixation.

And of course breasts exist in the form they do precisely to arouse this reaction. There is no other reason human breasts should be so much larger than the breasts of other primates. Apes are flat- chested. Larger human breasts do not produce more milk than smaller ones. They serve no nutritional purpose, but they do serve as signaling devices and set off primitive light shows in the male brain. Men consistently rate women with attractive bodies and unattractive faces more highly than women with attractive faces and unattractive bodies. Nature does not go in for art for art's sake, but it does produce art.

Julia had a much more muted reaction upon seeing her eventual life mate. This is not because she was unimpressed by the indisputable hotness of the man in front of her. Women are sexually attracted to men with larger pupils. Women everywhere prefer men who have symmetrical features and are slightly older, taller, and stronger than they are. By these and other measures, Harold's future father passed the test.

It's just that she was, by nature and upbringing, guarded and slow to trust. She, like 89 percent of all people, did not believe in love at first sight. Moreover, she was compelled to care less about looks than her future husband was. Women, in general, are less visually aroused than men, a trait that has nearly cut the market for pornography in half.

That's because while Pleistocene men could pick their mates on the basis of fertility cues they could discern at a glance, Pleistocene women faced a more vexing problem. Human babies require years to become self-sufficient, and a single woman in a prehistoric environment could not gather enough calories to provide for a family. She was compelled to choose a man not only for insemination, but for companionship and continued support. And to this day, when a woman sets her eyes upon a potential mate, her time frame is different from his.

That's why men will leap into bed more quickly than women. Various research teams have conducted a simple study. They pay an attractive woman to go up to college men and ask them to sleep with her. Seventy- five percent of men say yes to this proposition, in study after study. Then they have an attractive man approach college women with the same offer. Zero percent say yes.

Women have good reasons to be careful. While most men are fertile, there is wide variation among the hairier sex when it comes to stability. Men are much more likely to have drug and alcohol addictions. They are much more likely to murder than women, and much, much more likely to abandon their children. There are more lemons in the male population than in the female population, and women have found that it pays to trade off a few points in the first-impression department in exchange for reliability and social intelligence down the road.

So while Rob was looking at cleavage, Julia was looking for signs of trustworthiness. She didn't need to do this consciously-thousands of years of genetics and culture had honed her trusting sensor.

Marion Eals and Irwin Silverman of York University have conducted studies that suggest women are on average 60 to 70 percent more proficient than men at remembering details from a scene and the locations of objects placed in a room. Over the past few years, Julia had used her powers of observation to discard entire categories of men as potential partners, and some of her choices were idiosyncratic. She rejected men who wore Burberry, because she couldn't see herself looking at the same damn pattern on scarves and raincoats for the rest of her life. Somehow she was able to discern poor spellers just by looking at them, and they made her heart wither. She viewed fragranced men the way Churchill viewed the Germans-they were either at your feet or at your throat. She would have nothing to do with men who wore sports-related jewelry because her boyfriend should not love Derek Jeter more than her. And though there had recently been a fad for men who can cook, she was unwilling to have a serious relationship with anybody who could dice better than she could or who would surprise her with smugly unpretentious Gruyère grilled cheese sandwiches as a makeup present after a fight. It was simply too manipulative.

She looked furtively at Rob as he approached across the sidewalk. Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov of Princeton have found that people can make snap judgments about a person's trustworthiness, competence, aggressiveness and likability within the first tenth of a second. These sorts of first glimpses are astonishingly accurate in predicting how people will feel about each other months later. People rarely revise their first impression, they just become more confident that they are right. In other research, Todorov gave his subjects microsecond glimpses of the faces of competing politicians. His research subjects could predict, with 70 percent accuracy, who would win the election between the two candidates.

Using her own powers of instant evaluation, Julia noticed Rob was good-looking, but he was not one of those men who are so good-looking that they don't need to be interesting. While Rob was mentally undressing her, she was mentally dressing him. At the moment, he was wearing brown corduroy slacks, which did credit to Western civilization, and a deep purplish/maroonish pullover, so that altogether he looked like an elegant eggplant. He had firm but not ferretlike cheeks, suggesting he would age well and some day become the most handsome man in his continuing-care retirement facility.

He was tall, and since one study estimated that each inch of height corresponds to $6,000 of annual salary in contemporary America, that matters. He also radiated a sort of inner calm, which would make him infuriating to argue with. He seemed, to her quick judging eye, to be one of those creatures blessed by fate, who has no deep calluses running through his psyche, no wounds to cover or be wary of.

But just as the positive judgments began to pile up, Julia's frame of mind flipped. Julia knew that one of her least-attractive features was that she had a hypercritical inner smart-ass. She'd be enjoying the company of some normal guy, and suddenly she would begin with the scrutiny. Before it was over, she was Dorothy Parker and the guy was a pool of metaphorical blood on the floor.

Julia's inner smart-ass noticed that Rob was one of those guys who believes nobody really cares if your shoes are shined. His fingernails were uneven. Moreover, he was a bachelor. Julia distrusted bachelors as somehow unserious, and since she would never date a married man, this cut down the pool of men she could uncritically fall in love with.

About the Author

David Brooks
David Brooks is one of the nation’s leading writers and commentators. He is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, a writer for The Atlantic, and appears regularly on PBS Newshour. He is the bestselling author of The Second Mountain, The Road to Character, The Social Animal, Bobos in Paradise, and On Paradise Drive. More by David Brooks
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