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The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement Paperback – January 3, 2012

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Editorial Reviews Review

Guest Reviewer: Walter Isaacson on The Social Animal

Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and of Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.

David Brooks has written an absolutely fascinating book about how we form our emotions and character. Standing at the intersection of brain science and sociology, and writing with the wry wit of a James Thurber, he explores the unconscious mind and how it shapes the way we eat, love, live, vacation, and relate to other people. In The Social Animal, he makes the recent revolution in neuroscience understandable, and he applies it to those things we have the most trouble knowing how to teach: What is the best way to build true relationships? How do we instill imaginative thinking? How do we develop our moral intuitions and wisdom and character? Brooks has always been a keen observer of the way we live. Now he takes us one layer down, to why we live that way.

--Walter Isaacson

An Amazon Interview with David Brooks

We talked with David Brooks about, among other things, Jonathan Franzen, Freud, and Brooks's own unfamiliar emotions, just before the publication of The Social Animal. You can read the full interview on Omnivoracious, the Amazon books blog, including this exchange: Speaking of Tolstoy, I bet a lot of people are going to quoting the first line of Anna Karenina to you: "Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Is there a consistency between what makes a family happy, the way that this family turns out to be?

Brooks: You know, I never bought Tolstoy's line. I didn't either.

Brooks: I didn't know many happy families that were alike. One of the things you learn is that we're all so much more complex. We all contain multitudes, so someone who might be a bully in one circumstance is incredibly compassionate in other circumstances. We have multiple selves, and the idea that we can have a very simple view of who we are, what our character is, that's actually not right.

One of the things all this research shows you is how humble you have to be in the face of the complexity of human nature. We've got a 100 billion neurons in the brain, and it's just phenomenally complicated. You take a little child who says, "I'm a tiger," and pretends to be a tiger. Well that act of imagination--conflating this thing "I" with this thing "tiger"--is phenomenally complicated. No computer could ever do that, but it's happening below the level of awareness. It seems so easy to us. And so one of the things these people learn is they contain these hidden strengths, but at the same time they have to be consciously aware of how modest they can be in understanding themselves and proceed on that basis.

A Letter from Author David Brooks

© Josh Haner, The New York Times
Several years ago I did some reporting on why so many kids drop out of high school, despite all rational incentives. That took me quickly to studies of early childhood and research on brain formation. Once I started poking around that realm, I found that people who study the mind are giving us an entirely new perspective on who we are and what it takes to flourish.

We’re used to a certain story of success, one that emphasizes getting good grades, getting the right job skills and making the right decisions. But these scientists were peering into the innermost mind and shedding light on the process one level down, in the realm of emotions, intuitions, perceptions, genetic dispositions and unconscious longings.

I’ve spent several years with their work now, and it’s changed my perspective on everything. In this book, I try to take their various findings and weave them together into one story.

This is not a science book. I don’t answer how the brain does things. I try to answer what it all means. I try to explain how these findings about the deepest recesses of our minds should change the way we see ourselves, raise our kids, conduct business, teach, manage our relationships and practice politics. This story is based on scientific research, but it is really about emotion, character, virtue and love. We’re not rational animals, or laboring animals; we’re social animals. We emerge out of relationships and live to bond with each other and connect to larger ideas.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

New York Times columnist Brooks (Bobos in Paradise) raids Malcolm Gladwell's pop psychology turf in a wobbly treatise on brain science, human nature, and public policy. Essentially a satirical novel interleaved with disquisitions on mirror neurons and behavioral economics, the narrative chronicles the life cycle of a fictional couple—Harold, a historian working at a think tank, and Erica, a Chinese-Chicana cable-TV executive—as a case study of the nonrational roots of social behaviors, from mating and shopping to voting. Their story lets Brooks mock the affluent and trendy while advancing soft neoconservative themes: that genetically ingrained emotions and biases trump reason; that social problems require cultural remedies (charter schools, not welfare payments); that the class divide is about intelligence, deportment, and taste, not money or power. Brooks is an engaging guide to the "cognitive revolution" in psychology, but what he shows us amounts mainly to restating platitudes. (Women like men with money, we learn, while men like women with breasts.) His attempt to inflate recent research on neural mechanisms into a grand worldview yields little except buzz concepts—"society is a layering of networks"—no more persuasive than the rationalist dogmas he derides. (Mar.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (January 3, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780812979374
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812979374
  • ASIN: 0812979370
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (411 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #14,358 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and appears regularly on "PBS NewsHour," NPR's "All Things Considered" and NBC's "Meet the Press." He teaches at Yale University and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the bestselling author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement; Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There; and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. He has three children and lives in Maryland.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

361 of 398 people found the following review helpful By G. Anderson on March 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover
In this book, New York Times columnist David Brooks takes on the audacious endeavor of weaving together a unified picture of the human mind through various discoveries from the sciences. Oh ya, and it's all presented in the context of a story about two fictional characters, Harold and Erica.

You can get a good feel for the topics he covers from the chapter titles:

1 - Decision Making
2 - The Map Meld
3 - Mindsight
4 - Mapmaking
5 - Attachment
6 - Learning
7 - Norms
8 - Self-Control
9 - Culture
10 - Intelligence
11 - Choice Architecture
12 - Freedom and Commitment
13 - Limerence
14 - The Grand Narrative
15 - Metis
16 - The Insurgency
17 - Getting Older
18 - Morality
19 - The Leader
20 - The Soft Side
21 - The Other Education
22 - Meaning

If you think that's a lot of chapters, you're right on target. It's a pretty thick book at 450 pages, but it's easy to move through (not quite novel easy, but much more so than typical nonfiction).

Book's strengths:

- If you are familiar with Brook's social commentary (and like it) you won't be disappointed, but this isn't the real strength of this book.

- In a style that's reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell, Brooks offers a pop view of experimental psychology that is downright fascinating. The studies he explores are the real meat and merit of this book, and they expose many fallacies in the way we think that we think. Here are a few of the topics:
* The hidden role emotions play in making decisions.
* How mirror neurons in the brain are wired to mimic the person we're talking to.
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364 of 428 people found the following review helpful By Dave English VINE VOICE on March 8, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I wanted to enjoy this book -- a grand idea to integrate disparate threads of human research by a smart writer I enjoy reading in the New York Times, a book profiled over two pages in Newsweek and featured by the Scientific American Book Club -- but unfortunately I found it ultimately unsatisfying. For someone who hasn't read about modern psychology advances, this may be a good primer. But for most people the wide range and added space of a narrative device results in too shallow a depth to be fulfilling. It's not that Brooks has things wrong or couldn't go deeper if he tried; it's that there is not room.

In the introduction Brooks explains "I'm writing this story, first, because while researchers in a wide variety of fields have shone their flashlights into different parts of the cave of the unconscious, illuminating different corners and openings, much of their work is done in academic silos. I'm going to try and synthesize their findings into one narrative." This is exactly what he does, combining the wide expanses of psychology from neuroscience to social groups and behavioral economics, using a literary device used by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1760 for the book "Emile". We follow two fictional characters through their life, seeing how recent scientific findings shape them and their inner life. Some of this fiction is witty and insightful, all of it is well-written, but as fiction it is not enough. It does not work as literature that shows not tells. The science is fascinating, and fully referenced, but the sketches are too fast and pass too quickly. The insights and implications of human connection, friendship and love are illuminating and sometimes exhilarating, but somehow it doesn't quite gel.
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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Greg M on October 28, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I generally appreciate columns in the New York Times by Mr. Brooks. This book, however, was too much. He tries to use a pair of characters to illustrate a series of opinions about the social nature of humanity. I do not disagree with this approach, but the way it is executed in this piece is disjoint and provides little flow. As soon as you get comfortable with a line of reasoning and storytelling, he changes voice or direction that makes you lose all reading momentum. This, put simply, makes the book a chore.

I would characterize the book largely as ADD-ridden. He explores none of the ideas he covers completely, and leaves you feeling like you have been told what to think rather than led down a path of thoughtful discovery.

What makes it worse is the tone with which the book is written. I understand Mr. Brooks is an intelligent man. Indeed, he may be in the top 1% of intelligent people. That does not make it necessary to write a book like he is speaking to a room of 1st graders. His pedagogical methods are simplistic and assume that the reader is a donkey who must have basic tenets of logic explained to him at the expense of the actual philosophies that he proposes. His characters are flimsy and the lessons learned through his linked vignettes are poor, thin, disorganized, and cover such a broad range of topics (personal decisions like cheating on one's spouse all the way to broad political policy questions -- only Dante to my knowledge has ever covered such a broad range of topics effectively, and that required epic poetry). His parable system is simply ineffective in keeping him as an author on a central, narrow message and allows him to embark on whimsical flights of philosophical fancy into areas in which he has no background or authority.
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