The hidden wiring of left and right

Listen to this article


The Social Animal: A story of how success happens
By David Brooks
Short Books, £14.99

How we conceive of human nature has deep political implications. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes thought people were at base chaotic and nasty, an insight he used to justify a strong state. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought the opposite: humans were naturally good, and their system of political organisation should reflect this fact.

David Brooks, the writer and New York Times columnist, thinks we can now be more precise about how people really are, with equally far-reaching consequences for politics. In The Social Animal he argues that mankind is “living through a revolution in consciousness”, in which insights from disciplines such as neuroscience and social psychology are unpicking the hidden wiring of our souls, and in turn undermining our “overly simplistic” self-image as rational, choosing beings.

Brooks tells this story via a cradle-to-grave portrait of an imaginary couple, Harold and Erica, whose lives are used as clothes hangers on which to peg intriguing snippets of social science research. The duo’s differing childhoods – Harold’s wealthy, Erica’s deprived – thus become a canvas for a brisk rundown on the latest thinking on developmental psychology.

The scholarly tid-bits are frequently fascinating. Perceptions of character, for example, frequently form subliminal reactions: baby-faced soldiers won many more medals for valour during the Vietnam war when compared with their more traditionally rugged
compatriots, because their superiors unconsciously did not expect bravery from those with cherubic features. Similar underlying factors affect moral judgments too: brain scans can detect opinions about issues such as euthanasia within 200 milliseconds, suggesting that instinctive reactions to moral issues sometimes precede our ability to think them through.

In weaving together this mixture of fact and fiction, Brooks is also especially adroit at poking fun at the foibles of America’s overachieving upper-middle classes: those, such as Harold and Erica, who treasure Mac laptops, enjoy expensive lattes and take brunch in a “neighbourhood place with country furniture and distressed wood tables”. There are, however, two deeper problems with the case this book makes; one of style, the other of substance.

The stylistic issue is that the central narrative conceit – the couple themselves – does not work. At times it is a powerful way of telling a story, as when Brooks writes with empathy and insight about Erica’s youthful anger, her struggle to get into a good school, and her later status anxiety as she heads off to a smart university. But more often than not the device leads in implausible directions, such as the moment when Erica (now a businesswoman) first meets Harold by hiring him to conduct research on behavioural economics; a ruse that simply facilitates authorial musing on the irrationality of decision-making.

As the book comes towards it conclusion Brooks has an argument to make, and Harold and Erica end up getting in the way of him making it. This is a shame, and contributes to the second drawback – that The Social Animal never nails its case that these insights into human motivations do lead to profound political conclusions.

Here Brooks has high hopes, kicking off the book with the sweeping claim that such findings represent a slam dunk for the softly conservative philosophy he himself favours: when all the research is tallied up, he says, “the French enlightenment, which emphasised reason, loses; the British enlightenment, which emphasised sentiments, wins”.

In truth, however, the political picture is more nuanced. David Cameron, UK prime minister, has argued that behavioural science can underpin a revival on the right, and there are elements of this research that back up conservative nostrums – on the importance of the family, for instance, or the natural impulse to identify with one’s own kind. But there is plenty to please those of a liberal disposition, such as how insights into formative experiences in kindergartens and schools seem to justify providing such institutions with greater resources.

Brooks is on safer ground when drawing more limited conclusions. He thinks too much attention is paid to globalisation as the central social change of our time; and too little to what he dubs a crisis of “cognitive load”, in which our brains struggle to cope in an information-soaked world. A lucky, highly educated few flourish, but the majority live lives of insecurity and anxiety. He also makes a convincing case that individualists
on both left and right have much to learn from a more socially aware, communitarian style of politics. But beyond that no amount of clever research unpicking our biases and foibles seems likely to solve the century-old arguments of Hobbes and Rousseau; for that we must continue to think for ourselves.

The writer is FT comment editor

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.