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Some good science, some bad explanations and some terrible recommendations
on August 30, 2013
The author sets out to tell us that human brains have evolved to weigh social considerations, our interactions with other people, far more heavily than we realize. Unfortunately, he chooses to accomplish this by telling us we never had any idea that they were important at all. Everyone knows social factors matter. Even when you're fed up with everyone and just want to be left alone to read a book or play with your toys, you rely on others to write the book or make the toys. And you always rely on others for food, protection, healthcare, hey, for existence--even if you care nothing for love, companionship, stimulation and other pure social joys. On the flip side, interactions with people can be deadly, so you have to care. There may be a few hermits who live solitary and self-sufficient lives, but everyone knows they are both rare and weird.
This is not a single annoying sentence at the beginning of the book, it is pounded home every few pages. For example, "People often talk as if their company, job, or workplace is solely about getting a paycheck and helping the company increase profits. This is all predicated on the norm of self-interest--the belief that material self-interest is the only thing that motivates people individually and corporately. We have been bombarded with this idea for so long that it's the only conversation we know how to have about the workplace." Huh? Someone may be following the author around bombarding him, but I have seldom heard that idea expressed. Read any book, watch any movie or TV show, and you see it's about people pursuing goals with respect to other people: love, sex, respect, kindness, fear and lots of other stuff. Most organizations are not for-profit corporations, they have explicit social goals and often no material ones. Even the for-profit ones claim goals beyond making money: helping customers, empowering employees, being good corporate citizens. True, someone will sometimes say his job is "just a paycheck," but it's a statement of discontent. If he really couldn't imagine anything else, he wouldn't bother to say it. Almost no one says the people he works with are just impersonal instruments for growing corporate profits, or that he cares nothing about his physical workspace except how efficient it is.
The author's low opinion of the reader's intelligence applies to everyone else. "Imagine the face of a CEO of a Fortune 500 company when being pitched the idea that in order to motivate his employees, he should focus less on financial incentives and more on status, relatedness and fairness. His expression might reveal contempt or confusion as to why you would make such a ridiculous claim." I will spare you the rest, the author waxes on about his imagined triumph in almost pornographic detail. He has clearly spent a lot of time daydreaming about powerful people being overwhelmed with his knowledge. Unfortunately, it's not only knowledge everyone has, but that a CEO in particular needs a firm grasp of in order to survive. Forget the Fortune 500, talk to anyone who has to manage people, from a kindergarten teacher to a drill sergeant to the manager of the college dining hall. All of them know this stuff far better than the author. Even if you manage no one, you know it.
In fact, it is the author's understanding of these issues that is weak. He cites a study of a gold star program that motivated sales people successfully. The study calculated that employees would give up $27,000 of cash compensation to get a gold star. The author goes crazy with this, imagining telling his CEO that he can give out gold stars instead of paychecks. "Recognition is a free renewable resource. . .the $27,000. . .went straight to the company's bottom line--as profit."
The first thing that's wrong with this is the author has just undercut his entire argument by suggesting he is motivated entirely by money. He doesn't think about how to use this insight for social gain. This happens a lot in the book, it's clear the author doesn't believe his own story. The second thing is recognition only works when it is fair, recognition from someone who regards it as a "free renewable resource" to be substituted for money is worthless. Moreover, the employees in the study were still paid fairly, the recognition was in addition to that. Recognition is not a way to cut pay, it's a way to increase employee motivation and satisfaction.
What's even more important than what the author thinks you don't know, is what he doesn't know. This is a sugar-and-spice story of how social interactions can make people feel better. Nowhere is it mentioned that social forces have a dark side as well. People can drive you crazy, or torture you. The same forces that make an effective work group can make a lynch mob. The security of being inside a group creates outsiders, and sometimes horrific violence. Everything the author celebrates has been around for thousands of years, probably millions, during most of which there was little enlightenment, progress, learning, respect for rights, justice for outsiders or dozens of other things that are the pride of human civilization. He despises the tools that made this possible, including money, legalistic and rationalized human relations and sometimes simply leaving other people alone. He's just wrong that the answer to every question is to get more warm and fuzzy with other people.
Fortunately, there is some redeeming merit. When the author is not abusing the reader or daydreaming he summarizes a good deal of fascinating neuroscience. His writing is clear and stylish, and gets better the closer he gets to his research and the farther he gets from self-congratulation.
Unfortunately, I have some gripes even here. They're milder than the ones above, but they detract significantly from the value of the book. He oversimplifies the science enormously. He discusses brain imaging as if you can see regions switching on and off when people engage in certain mental behavior. Despite massive advances in the last 20 years, the reality is far more complex. Conclusions are based on complex processing and statistical aggregation over many individuals. We can detect only certain gross features: chemicals released over macroscopic areas, things thought to proxy for metabolic activity, electrical emissions. We only know what people say they're thinking about, and even if they tell the truth, know very little about what is going on in their brain. Tests while people are engaging in activity are better in one sense, we do know what they are doing, but worse in the sense that we know little about the connection between what people do and what they think.
This does not invalidate the science, but it does mean conclusions are far more tentative and complex than as presented in the book. The areas of consensus come from many people studying things from different ways, and there are many anomalies and areas of ignorance. The author would have to have much more faith in his reader's intelligence to convey an accurate picture of what we know, and what we might learn.
The farther he gets from his field, the worse this gets. He mixes rigorous scientific studies with uncontrolled, small sample, ad hoc experiments by people without qualifications hoping to make money from the results--and he doesn't note the difference. He constantly discusses evolution as if it is run by a designer, which is exactly not the point. He makes wild assumptions, like if two current species share a trait their last common ancestor must have had the trait; or that the order the brain develops in an individual is the same order as the features emerged in evolution. He treats all human institutions, including ancient ones, as badly-designed because (of course) no one but him understands the importance of social forces. But institutions evolve too. The time scale is shorter than biological evolution, but it doesn't make sense that suboptimal institutions would continuously win out over the author's ideas if they were not better in some way.
I actually learned a lot from this book, annoying as it was. If you're willing to do the work separating the wheat from the chaff, I think you'll find some good in here. But I suspect most readers will find it too annoying and too imprecise to be worth reading.