I recently finished David Brooks’ book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. While there were certain moments of surface brilliance – such as when Brooks opens the book by mocking the “culture class” and the upper class techie-come-do-gooder lifestyle that seems to be very a-la-mode right now (which unfortunately, he then embraces wholeheartedly later on) – overall the discussion felt shallow and forced.
The primary reason for this shallowness, I contend, is Brooks’ choice to frame the discussion around two imaginary characters, Harold and Erica. Brooks’ intentions may have been good, but it was difficult to emotionally or mentally connect with Harold and Erica’s lives. I think there’s an important lesson to be learned here. These characters might have had interesting stories to tell, but we’ll never know. They remained one-dimensional, screens upon which Brooks could project facts and stereotypes to support his arguments. For me, this proved to be very unsatisfying.
Throughout the book, Brooks explores the influence of the unconscious on human development. He breaks up the Harold/Erica fictional narrative with discussions of real-life studies. These studies examine a number of areas, such as the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) influence of environment, relationships, peers, and parenting on our lives. Many of them were already familiar to me, but it was a good review of some of the more prevalent research in the field.
It’s here that I found another flaw. While Brooks presents the positive findings from the studies he references, he rarely discusses the weaknesses. This stuck out because, just as I was reading this book, I stumbled across an article from The Chronicle Review about John Bargh, one of the best-known researchers on unconscious influences, who is facing challenges to his earlier work. Given that such challenges exist, and given that there’s still an active debate in the intellectual community about the weight or validity of some of these studies, I think the book would have benefitted from presenting both sides.
Now here’s my confession: I almost stopped reading the book around the time that the fictional characters joined a political campaign and headed for to the White House. I just don’t have the patience for that kind of thing. I stuck it out, however, and actually found Brooks’ discussion of political party affiliation and voting trends to be interesting, although I’d seen read about such studies before. This research reinforces my views about the ridiculous nature of two-party politics, particularly in the United States. I have no doubt, in fact, that Brooks could come up with a psychological study to explain precisely why I feel this way (not that I’m sure that it would help much).
Towards the end, the book explores the mental and psychological changes Erica and Harold experience in their later years of life, closing with what is intended to be a bittersweet moment (which unfortunately for me, was impeded by my lack of empathy for the characters).
My overall verdict: I reluctantly finished the book, but wish that Brooks had spent more time diving into the research, rather than the Harold/Erica narrative. Would I recommend it to others? Nope, but if you decide to read it anyway, follow these two conditions (and possibly a third – see the postscript for more details). First, don’t feel compelled to read every single page or to buy into Harold/Erica. Second, after you’ve finished, take some time to read other books or articles on the subject. Brooks’ book is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with this line of effort, but for those, like me, who’ve already done reading on the subject, it may seem a bit redundant.
I wish I had stumbled upon PZ Myers’ snarky Salon review of The Social Animal sooner. It would have saved me a lot of pain and suffering. Myers’ claims to have only made it through the book by yelling “Die, yuppie scum, die!” at the end of every page. Hilarious. My favorite Myers quote about the book: “it’s like watching a creepy middle-aged man fuss over his Barbie and Ken dolls, posing them in their expensive accessories and cars and houses and occasionally wiggling them in simulated carnal relations…while periodically pausing to tell his audience how cool it all is.”