Friday, May 6, 2011

Will the Social Animal Achieve Adulthood?

© Charles D. Hayes
New York Times columnist David Brooks has a new book out titled The Social Animal. I have watched Brooks for years as a commentator on the PBS News Hour and have always liked him, even though I usually side politically with his colleague Mark Shields. That said, in my view, The Social Animal is a brilliant piece of work, far exceeding my expectations. I have some issues with the book, but they aren’t worthy of discussion in light of what the book accomplishes.
During the past couple of years, I have mentioned the new research in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology so many times that I am always pressed for an original way to bring the subject up again. But David Brooks has this to say: “We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness. Over the past few years, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and others have made great strides in understanding the building blocks of human flourishing. And a core finding of their work is that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness.”
I’m torn between wanting to say amen or duh. My frustration comes from having been aware of and very much interested in this enterprise for several years, while still waiting anxiously to see some societal benefit resulting from this research. Instead, regardless of the context or subject, whenever these new realities are mentioned, the conversation goes on as before with no acknowledgement that anything has been learned.
For example, when it comes to politics, we don’t reason so much as we relate, and if we can’t relate to the other side, we tend to dismiss the others’ legitimacy, or we flood our minds with an emotional response during their argument so we can ignore what they say altogether. An instance of relating over reasoning is evident with the faction know as the “birthers.” These people cannot relate to President Obama; therefore they will not accept any evidence of his having been born as an American citizen. Because he is viewed simply as not being one of them, they can’t accept him as legitimate under any circumstances. Many well-educated individuals felt the same way about George W. Bush; he wasn’t in their group, and therefore wasn’t regarded as intellectually up to the task at hand. His presidency was viewed as illegitimate by nature of his implied incompetence, regardless of the issue.
Relating is relating, period. The principle applies to religion as well, since compelling evidence is no match when pitted against the will to believe. Our propensity for relating can seldom be overstated, nor can its impact on society and matters of politics in particular. Now that President Obama has released his long-form birth certificate, those who can’t relate to him are scrambling for another cause to prove his illegitimacy.       
If we are in the middle of a revolution of consciousness, as Brooks suggests, one can’t but wonder when we will begin to reap the rewards of this amalgamation of research. In The Social Animal, Brooks does something daring. He admittedly sets out to emulate Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile by creating fictional characters to show how our minds are influenced by our biology and the environment. Now, anyone who does this sort of thing risks a great deal of criticism because the possible options for such characters are infinite and author bias is detectable. Some of the simple-minded reviews of The Social Animal on Amazon bear witness to the subjectivity of the enterprise and the very imperfection of human emotions that Brooks writes about. The Social Animal is not the answer to all of our social problems, and Brooks makes no pretense that it is. His intent is to start the conversation, and in my view he does so in elegant fashion.          
The recent revelations from research about human behavior are not totally unsuspected. Astute observers have for centuries noted that we readily gravitate toward group allegiance at the expense of our reasoning facilities, that we make frequent use of self-deception for self-serving purposes, and that our moral sense is hardwired and seldom influenced by reason. This tendency for developing an allegiance to our respective in-group is deeply imbedded in our nature. Our relationships trump our beliefs; they cut to the core of religion and our universal sense of belonging to anything and everything. Studies show that we humans relate to the notion of God precisely as if to another person, and thus it’s not surprising that the particular beliefs of a religion are treated as being much less important than the belonging itself. People join a church and then accept that church’s beliefs, not the reverse. Moreover, the threshold for believability knows no bounds because credulity is far less important than membership.        
Brooks doesn’t deal at length with the dark side of our emotional predispositions, but I find them extremely important. Our human groups come in all sizes and shapes, but most embody a ready-made template with all of the useful traits of a psychopath, ready at a moment’s notice to deal with the sudden appearance of too much otherness. And all that’s necessary to put our psychopathic capacity to use is to summon enough contempt among members to override our ability to feel empathy. Indeed, in most humans there is a tipping point—too much otherness and our mutual contempt will take over. Then the spreading of our scorn will become the social adhesive that further bonds our association. We are readily equipped to dehumanize those whom we perceive as adversaries. If our respective in-group applies the right political pressure, we can shift into a dehumanization mode as fast as a new Mercedes goes from first to second gear.  
As anyone who pays close attention to political debate already knows, the subject of debate is much less important than whose side is being represented. In so many cases, the position of a particular subject is not the issue. Who is presenting it is what matters, and the participants are apt to switch sides over the argument at hand in the flash of an eye, if it is to the advantage of their group to do so. Relating is easy; we do it by default. Reasoning objectively is difficult, but we can do it if we have the resolve, especially if we are aware of how easily we tend to let our emotions tune out what we would rather not hear.
Ideally we are able to fill the crevices of our differences with the knowledge that derives from a munificent liberal education, and in this way the humanities have much to offer in helping us to be human. Knowing that others are as we are helps to dissipate our anxieties over differences that appear much more pronounced that they actually are. If a person’s only knowledge of the world revolves in its entirety around one’s local allegiance, then an us and them mentality is all that can be expected. But, as David Brooks makes clear, we are social animals, and being aware that we are is the best hope for our species. Human flourishing is contingent upon whether or not we begin to understand the nature of our behavior, especially our penchant for conflict.
Simply being aware of insightful revelations about human behavior is meaningless unless we put it to practical use. If nothing else, reading The Social Animal should make us pause over those things in life that require deliberative reason instead of emotional reactions. Strong emotion feels like reason precisely because it is so strong. But, as many behavioral scientists point out, the fact that our unconscious emotional predispositions steer our behavior does not mean they are destiny. We can still override our unconscious predilections, provided we are aware of their existence and have the will to do so.
How disturbing a notion that many of our daily behaviors are reliably predictable. How disappointed would you be to discover that some scientist could study the details of your life and then accurately predict the things you will do or say in the near future? The disappointment, I suspect, would derive from the fact that we could not predict these things ourselves. And if we could not, what would this suggest about whether or not we are in control of our lives?   
The first step to gain better control is to learn more about the recent scientific revelations that guide our behaviors. David Brooks offers an inspirational way to begin.                     
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  1. I’m not at all surprised that The Social Animal is under attack by reviewers from both the political Left and Right. That David Brooks is being accused of creating characters that reflect his own political bias is, in my view, a sophomoric observation. Of course he does, just as anyone else would do in such a case. His personal bias is not the point. His point is that we are all governed by a deep but seldom acknowledged unconscious source of molten subjectivity. So, now that these reviewers have changed the subject, everyone can go back to acting as if we have learned absolutely nothing during the past two decades about human behavior.