The Social Animal

The central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most. The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious.

David Brooks, The Social Animal

Maybe it’s my training in the rational, linear engineering sciences of math and physics. Maybe it’s my distaste for the irrational scientific shortcomings of modern religion. Maybe it’s our culture – and our collective bias that “assigns the conscious mind the starring role” in the autobiographies of our species.

We have inherited an image of ourselves as Homo sapiens, as thinking individuals separated from the other animals because of our superior power of reason. This is mankind as Rodin’s thinker – chin on fist, cogitating alone and deeply. 

Whatever the cause, I’ve always been drawn to reason over emotion, conscious over unconscious, linear mechanics over organic systems, and so on. So when I picked up David Brooks’ The Social Animal, a book that showcases the latest research into the depths of our unconscious brain, I was intrigued and surprised and delighted. For how much do we really know ourselves if we don’t understand our brain’s most elementary processes?

In fact, we are separated from the other animals because we have phenomenal social skills that enable us to teach, learn, sympathize, emote, and build cultures, institutions, and the complex mental scaffolding of civilizations. Who are we? We are like spiritual Grand Central Stations, We are junctions where millions of sensations, emotions, and signal interpenetrate every second. We are communications centers, and through some process we are not close to understanding, we have the ability to partially govern this traffic – to shift attention from one thing to another, to choose and commit. We become fully ourselves only through the ever-richening interplay of our networks. We seek, more than anything else, to establish deeper and more complete connections. 

Brooks takes the reader on a journey through the lives of two fictional characters, Harold and Erica, while interweaving anecdotes on the science behind how our brains are shaped during each stage of our lives. It’s a fascinating read. Here are my notes…


How Decisions Are Made

The heart has reasons the head knows not of. 

– Blaise Pascal

The mechanism by which we make decisions – either the huge, life-altering ones (choosing a spouse) or the minute-by-minute ones (what to order for dinner) – is fascinatingly complex. It’s also nothing like I imagined it. This is why I was so hooked on this book – page after page highlighting how much I don’t really know myself. 

I imagined a decision as the moment when you consciously pull together all the facts and select the best choice. According to researchers, this decision model is quite flawed. How? Let me count the ways.

Reason vs. Emotion

We tend to view reason and emotion as distinct processes. They are opposing forces and we should separate them in order to make the most “well-reasoned” decision. Actually, our power of reason is completely dependent upon emotion.

As we go about our day, we are bombarded with millions of stimuli – a buzzing, blooming confusion of sounds, sights, smells, and motions. And yet amidst all this pyrotechnic chaos, different parts of the brain and body interact to for an Emotional Positioning System. Like a GPS that might be in your car, the EPS senses your current situation and compares it to the vast body of data it has stored in its memory. It reaches certain judgements about whether the course you are on will produce good or bad outcomes, and then it coats each person, place, or circumstance with an emotion that helps us navigate our days. 

Our conscious mind then can make decisions on the basis of the millions of emotional valuations fed up from the unconscious. In fact, researchers have shown that if brain injury takes away our EPS, our minds get stuck on the easiest of decisions. Imagine trying to decide which method to use to tie your shoe… for hours and hours… bunny ears or loop-swoop-and-pull?

There is no one decision-maker

We also tend to view our ourselves as the “captain in the cockpit making decisions”. As Sam Harris says, there’s a sense of being perched somewhere behind our eyes. This sense of self is imaginary, and so is the sense of one unified mind making decisions.

There is no Cartesian theater – a spot where all the different processes and possibilities come together to get ranked and where actions get planned. Instead, as Nobel Laureate Gerald Ebelman put it, the brain looks like an ecosystem, a fantastically complex associative network of firings, patterns, reactions, and sensations all communicating with and responding to different parts of the brain and all competing for a piece of control over the organism. 

Decisions aren’t one point in time

Also incorrect is our tendency to view a decision as a concrete moment in time. Brooks says it’s best to view us as wanderers, not decision-makers.

We wander across an environment of people and possibilities. As we wander, the mind makes a near-infinite number of value judgements, which accumulate to form goals, ambitions, dreams, desires, and ways of doing things.

Our choices, and their origins deep in our emotional subconscious, are extremely messy. But now that we know this awesome piece of science, how do we use it to make better decisions and live a better life? That’s what the rest of The Social Animal is about – how to train the emotions to send the right signals and to be sensitive enough to know how to read them.


Early Brain Development

The average baby demands adult attention of one kind or another every twenty seconds. New mothers lose an average of seven hundred hours of sleep during that first year. Marital satisfaction plummets 70 percent, while the risk of maternal depression more than doubles. 

Well doesn’t that sound like a nightmare? Yes, but the sleepy parent knows deep down the effort is worth it. Just how worth it? Early brain development depends on the attachment between child and parents – it’s almost an entirely social process, according to Brooks.

Mammal brains grow properly only when they’re able to interpenetrate with another. (…) A brain is contained within a single skull. A mind only exists within a network. It is the result of an interaction between brains. 


A Framework for Optimum Learning

As Brooks’ story reaches high school, we’re introduced to a process for learning new ideas via fictional high school lit teacher Ms. Taylor. She takes Harold through this “ideal” learning process so he can write his senior paper linking ancient Greek life with high school life – he goes from zero knowledge to writing the paper in four steps.

This process really resonates with me, and I’m sharing it (just as Brooks did) because it applies to learning throughout our lives – not just for papers in school.

This would be the way Harold would build for himself a mind that is not stuck in an inherited rut, but which jumps from vantage point to vantage point, applying different patterns to new situations to see what works and what doesn’t, what will go together and what will not, what is likely to emerge from the confusion of reality and what is not. This would be his path to wisdom and success. 

Step One: Knowledge Acquisition

You’re probably thinking, “duh, you need to gain knowledge to learn!”. I was thinking that, too. It may seem obvious, but the point in this first step is to simply lay down some core knowledge. Ms. Taylor asks Harold to start out by reading five books on Greek life, but she didn’t tell him to learn every minute detail. She just wanted him to get a feel for the subject while sparking enough curiosity to get him wanting more.

Human knowledge is not like data stored in a computer’s memory banks. A computer doesn’t get better at remembering things as its database becomes more crowded. Human knowledge, on the other hand, is hungry and alive. People with knowledge about a topic become faster and better at acquiring more knowledge and remembering what they learn. 

Step Two: “Automatize”

The next step is to make the new knowledge automatic through repetition. This step is crucial, but at first glance it seems even more boring than the first step. I’m supposed to read the books again? Yes, except this time it’s going to be different. This time through the material, the brain will take previously-learned knowledge and send it into the unconscious.

Learning consists of taking things that are strange and unnatural, such as reading and algebra, and absorbing them so steadily that they become automatic. That frees up the conscious mind to work on new things. 

Your brain “internalizes” the stuff you learned the first time, allowing you to see new insights in the text and, most importantly, make connections between the pieces of information.

Before reading this book, I misconceived learning as a linear phenomenon. Not true at all. It’s nonlinear… it’s messy.

Harold was stunned to find that the second time through they were different books. He noticed different points and arguments. Sentences he had highlighted seemed utterly pointless now, whereas sentences he had earlier ignored seemed crucial. The marginalia he had written to himself now seemed embarrassingly simpleminded. Either he had the books had changed. 

What had happened, of course, is that as he had done more reading; he had unconsciously reorganized information in his brain. (…) He had begun to inhabit the knowledge differently and see it in a new way. He had begun to develop expertise. 

What is expertise?

Expertise is about forming internal connections so that little pieces of information turn into bigger networked chunks of information. Learning is not merely about accumulating facts. It is internalizing the relationships between information. 

Charlie Munger calls these mental models.

Step 3: Write about it

The next step is to write a journal about the subject you’re learning. There’s no better way to bring the dormant, unconscious knowledge to the surface. When you write about a new subject, you’re taking the intuitions developed in your powerful unconscious mind and making them useful by turning them into language.

Spread the journaling out over multiple sessions, even a few weeks, to give the mind time to connect things in different ways. Think of this like a fermentation period –  the mind needs time to look at the material in different moods and during different times of the day and week.

(Ms. Taylor) was a firm believer in Jonah Lehrer’s dictum ‘You know more than you know.’ She wanted to give him an exercise that would allow him to wander around the problem in a way that might seem haphazard and wasteful, because the mind is often most productive when it is the most carefree.

Step 4: Make an argument

Harold’s next step was to turn his new knowledge on Greek culture into a 12 page senior paper. This is definitely not one of my goals this weekend… however, step 4 still applies to any type of intellectual endeavor. It’s the step where you grow. Where you begin to see the world around you in a new way. You take the paradigms you held in your mind before your learning and enmesh them with the paradigms of the new world you have just entered. You begin to form your own perspective. Step 4 is why I started writing this blog – to force myself to have a perspective.

Sounds great, but how do you actually do it?

Until now, we’ve followed Ms. Taylor’s process as we “mastered core knowledge” and then let it “marinate playfully” in our unconscious minds. Now it’s time to try and impose order on the new knowledge. You form an argument all your own. Harold writes his argument out in the form of a 12 page paper, but the medium is irrelevant – it could be a blog post, a presentation, a conversation with a friend, or an email to a colleague.

Forming new arguments – deciding how YOU feel about things rather than taking someone else’s position – is tough work. But what’s the point of learning things if you don’t use them? If you don’t grow towards a better version of yourself? I’d say the hard work is worth it. Here’s Brooks’ tip for getting through it: when you hit a roadblock, you take a break and return to it over and over until conscious and unconscious processes work together enough to produce a new paradigm – a combination of old and new knowledge.


Emergent Systems

Our lives are full of complexity – full of dynamic, impossible-to-explain, crazy complexity. Like our brains… our whole bodies… poverty… our cultures… climate change… the earth as a whole… our marriages…

We often try to explain complexity using reductive reasoning. To comprehend, we think, we must reduce the system down into its various parts. We divide up the whole and then specialize and become experts in the details of each part.

Although this way of thinking is the most linear and logical way to think, it gets us into trouble when we try to solve complex problems. We think because we understand to minutiae, we must also understand how it all fits together into an “emergent” system.

Emergent systems exist when different elements come together to produce something that is greater than the sum of their parts. Or, to put it differently, the pieces of a system interact, and out of their interaction something entirely new emerges. 

Emergent systems make it very difficult to boil problems down to a root cause. But just as it can be quite uncomfortable to realize we don’t understand something like we thought we did, I think it’s also quite beautiful. If you look at it another way, you realize that the power of emergent systems can also be used for our benefit.

The positive side is that if you have negative cascades producing bad outcomes, it is also possible to have positive cascades producing good ones. Once you have a positive set of cultural cues, you get a happy avalanche as productive influences feed on and reinforce one another. 


Perception and Self-Control

Traditional thinking says we perceive, decide through reason, and then act through willpower. If we want to live a better life, we therefore need to get better at reasoning and foster a stronger power of will. Brooks says this model has placed too much faith in the strength of reason and willpower and their ability to produce the best results.

The evidence suggests reason and will are like muscles, and not particularly powerful muscles. In some cases and in the right circumstances, they can resist temptation and control the impulses. But in many cases they are simply too weak to impose self-discipline by themselves. In many cases self-delusion takes control. 

The most recent research points towards the first step, perception, as by far the most important.

Perceiving isn’t just a transparent way of taking in. It is a thinking and skillful process. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes, they and linked and basically simultaneous. The research of the last thirty years suggests that some people have taught themselves to perceive more skillfully than others. The person with good character has taught herself to see situations in the right way. When she sees something in the right way, she’s rigged the game. She’s triggered a whole network of unconscious judgments and responses in her mind, biasing her to act in a certain way. Once the game has been rigged, reason and will have a much easier time. 

At the center of perception is that which we choose to give our attention. It is much easier to perceive in the right way if we decide which parts of our outer worlds will get let in and which parts of our inner worlds will dominate our behavior. Those who can control their attention control their lives, says Brooks.

The whole drama of voluntary life hinges on the amount of attention, slight more or slightly less, which rival motors ideas receive… Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of the will. 

-William James


Cultural Scaffolds

Humans have large brains, but even larger minds. Our minds extend far beyond the boundaries of our skull and into our cultures. The human race succeeds because cultures create mental “scaffolds” on which to guide and hang future thought.

An individual human mind couldn’t handle the vast variety of fleeting stimuli that are thrust before it. We can function in the world only because we are embedded in the scaffold of culture. We absorb ethnic cultures, institutional cultures, regional cultures, which do most of our thinking for us. 

This underlines how the culture we grow up and exist in – our environment – has an overwhelming impact on our development and who we are. Although I’m thankful for the culture I exist in, there are many pieces of it I would like to grow out of or throw out all together. I’m sure you feel the same way about yours. How do we do that? Brooks offers some advice from the research.

Play the long game

Our species as a whole is intelligent because of many, many tiny gains in intelligence over a long period of time that we pass on between generations. I think we often underestimate the power of these tiny gains in one lifetime. Yes, life is short, but we can also accomplish a lot. What separates the geniuses from the merely accomplished? According to Brooks, it’s the ability to get better and better over time.

Check your mindset

A requirement for continually improvement over a long period of time is to have the right mindset – you need a mindset built on progress. Brooks outlines the difference between progress-prone cultures and progress-resistant cultures – the key difference for me being the ability to shape your own destiny.

See culture in others

Just as our culture is embedded in ourselves, it helps immensely to see the culture embedded in others. What is their mindset or perspective or lens they’re viewing their day through? How much does that lens affect their decisions?


Intelligence vs. IQ

This next lesson is one that feels intuitive, but I’ve never seen a list like this before so I thought I would share it.

We all want to be intelligent. But why? For me, when I’m not caught in an ego trip, it’s so I can perform at my highest level… reach my full potential… become the best version of myself.

Brooks laid out an argument about intelligence I think we all already know – IQ scores are not the best proxy for intelligence. People with high IQs do very well when there are concrete rules to follow, but as it turns out, that scenario doesn’t really describe real life. Real life is messy, non-linear, without rules. In the research, there’s little evidence that performance increases as IQ rises above 120.

Here’s what IQ is missing, and the qualities we need to perform at our best in a world without rules:

  • The restraint and patience to collect information before making decisions
  • The willingness to seek various alternative points of view
  • The ability to pause and think before acting
  • The skill of calibrating our opinions to the available evidence
  • The desire for nuance, and the disdain for absolutism
  • The forethought to weigh consequences and outcomes ahead of decisions and actions


Behavioral Economics

The human being imagined by classical economists is smooth, brilliant, calm, and perpetually unastonished by events.

I don’t know about you, but this definitely doesn’t describe my behavior. This person doesn’t exist. This model human does, however, allow economists to build mathematical models that describe our decisions and their effect on the economy. It also makes economics more like physics and less psychology.

Behavioral economists argue that these models are inaccurate in the real world. They leave out the the cognition below the level of awareness – they leave out the subconscious. Rationality and therefore decision-making are bounded by emotion. As a result of our tangled up emotion vs reason struggle, our real-world decision-making can be messy. Self-control is hard. We have biases. We’re influenced by context. We’re extremely prone to group-think. We discount the future.

We store if…then rules in our heads called heuristics that are great shortcuts when they’re appropriate for the situation, but sometimes they’re not. Here’s some examples from the research.


One perception cues a string of downstream thoughts that alters subsequent behavior. If you ask test subjests to read a series of words that vaguely relate to being elderly (“bingo”, “Florida”, “ancient”), when they leave the room they will walk more slowly than when they came in. 


No piece of information is processed in isolation. Mental patterns are contagious, and everything is judged in comparison to something else. A $30 bottle of wine may seem expensive when surrounded by $9 bottles of wine but cheap when surrounded by $149 bottles of wine.


Every decision gets framed within certain linguistic context. If a surgeon tells his patients that a procedure has a 15 percent failure rate, they are likely to decide against it. If he tells them the procedure has an 85% success rate, they tend to opt for it.


The mind makes models of what it thinks will happen, which colors its perceptions of what is actually happening. People who are given a prescription pail reliever they are told costs $2.50 a pill experience much more pain relief than those given what they are told is a 10-cent pill (even those both bills are placebos).


The mind doesn’t like to expend mental energy. As a result people have a bias towards the status quo. 

Loss Aversion

Losing money brings more pain than winning money brings pleasure. Investors are quicker to sell stocks that have made them money than they are to sell stocks that have been declining. They’re making self-destructive decisions because they don’t want to admit their losses. 


Choices in your 20s

The social critic Michael Barone argues that the US produces moderately impressive twenty-year-olds but very impressive thirty-year-olds. He says that the hard pressures and choices that hit people during their wide-open, unsupervised twenties forge a new and much better kind of person. 

In the Social Animal, Brooks tells the story of Harold’s Odyssey years – the decade of wandering that occurs between adolescence and adulthood – and it really resonated with me. Although I’m usually in denial, I’m nearing the end of my twenties. Looking back, a lot of tough choices have been made, and I’m a much, much different person walking out on the other side.

The Odyssey years are crazy because they’re so unstructured. As Brooks says, there are no guardrails. It is completely open-ended. Who will you spend your time with? What is your vocation – your calling in life? If you don’t have an immediate calling, what career will you pursue? Will you settle in one place and integrate yourself in a community or roam about?

Oh, and free time. Over ten years, it might not seem like it when we’re all so busy, but there is a lot of free time. What will you spend it on? Will you invest it in yourself?

If you’re lucky, you exit this time of self-forgery having made choices that will give you the most happiness.


A successful marriage

If you have a successful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many professional setbacks you endure, you will be reasonably happy. 

A job or hobby that absorbs all of your abilities

Then he wanted to find some activity, either a job or a hobby, which would absorb all his abilities. He imagined himself working really hard at something, suffering setbacks and frustrations, and then seeing that sweat and toil lead to success and recognition. 

Friends and community

Harold had grown up in a culture that, for forty years, had celebrated expressive individualism, self-fulfillment, and personal liberation. But he sensed (and the research backs it up) that what he needed was more community, connection, and interpenetration. He couldn’t bring out his best self alone. 



We all have a sort of status sonar. All day long it produces a stream a pluses and minuses and neutrals that lead to happiness, anxiety, or doubt. Much of life is striving toward pluses and adjusting our actions to “plus up the flow”.

Further, this sonar system is actually geared more towards the prediction, or modeling, of the rewards than the rewards themselves.

The mind creates predictive models all day long. When one of the models accurately predicts reality, then the mind experiences a little surge of reward, or at least a reassuring feeling of tranquility. When the model contradicts reality, then there’s tension and concern. 

When there’s tension between the inner models and the outer world, we try to find changes in thoughts or behavior that will help us live in harmony with it. This is the source of our desire, our striving. When we finally grasp something new that we desire, whether it be a situation or mastery of some new skill or task, that tension is erased and we find harmony, happiness.

So the happy life has its recurring set of rythyms: difficulty to harmony, difficulty to harmony. And it’s all propelled by the desire for limerence, the desire for the moment when the inner and outer patterns mesh. This drive, this longing for harmony, is a never-ending process – model, adjust, model, adjust – guiding us onward. 

The best example of limerence in the book is the political talk show host. Cable TV pundits make millions reinforcing their audience’s inner models and telling them how right they are. They often bend reality in order to do so.


Rationalism, the Grand Narrative

Brooks tells the story of The Grand Narrative, a long philosophical tradition stemming from Plato and ancient Greece. ‘

The tradition, rationalism, tells the story of human history as the story of the progress of the logical, conscious mind. It sees human history as a contest between reason, the highest human faculty, and passion and instinct, our animal natures. In the upbeat version of this story, reason gradually triumphs over emotion. Science gradually replaces myth. Logic wins out over passion. 

This great progression helped launch the scientific method, the results of which are unbelievable… just take any one of the great sciences. Physics, chemistry, and biology all have this line of thinking to thank. However, Brooks says that when rationalism made its way to the science of organizing society, it went astray.

This mode of thought is reductionist; it breaks problems into discrete parts and is blind to emergent systems. It assumes that social scientists (and managers) can look at society objectively from the outside, purged of passions and unconscious biases. It highly values conscious cognition – what you might call level 2 cognition – which it can see, quantify, formalize, and understand. But it is blind to the influence of the unconscious – what you might call level 1 cognition – which is cloud-like, nonlinear, hard to see, and impossible to formalize. Rationalists have a tendency to lop off or diminish all information that is not calculable according to their methodologies. 



The word has origins in greek Mythology and can most simply be equated with our modern concept of street smarts. How do we obtain metis? In the book, David Brooks weaves together a story that begins with the French and English Enlightenments and ends in our present day political climate of partisan division. He tells this story in his TED talk.

I could never do this story justice, but wanted to note some key terms because they’re so new and fresh to me, despite their importance in the quest for self-education and personal wisdom.

Epistemological Modesty

Our minds have two systems: often called system 1 and system 2. These can be equated with conscious vs. unconscious, reason vs. instinct, slow thought vs. fast, French vs. English Enlightenments. Brooks laments that we’ve pitted these pieces of our minds against each other and, for hundreds of years, our policies and systems have sided with system 2. We over-emphasize rational and conscious and under-emphasize everything down below. Now it’s time that we melded them together into one way of looking at our lives.

Here’s the kicker: we don’t have access to much of system 1’s magic (that’s why it’s called the unconscious) and therefore we don’t really know ourselves or understand the true workings of our own minds. Epistemological modesty is the humble awareness of this ignorance. As Brooks describes it, this modesty is a disposition for action. It’s acknowledging our weakness, but not being paralyzed by it. It’s designing habits, arrangements, and procedures to partially compensate for it. It’s a wandering curiosity that enables us to get better and better at waging this battle with ourselves without actually ever getting there – because we can’t ever really get there. And finally, it’s the patience to work through things and live with the uncertainty of not knowing everything, of not being perfect. Wisdom is born out of this humility.


Eventually, this humble patience pays off. When it does, it’s in the form of metis – when system 1 and system 2 are in tune – in full force together. Metis is wisdom, street smarts, the ability to pick out patterns and arrive at gists. When you know both the standard operating procedure and when to break the rules. When you have the skill to anticipate change.



Share or Save

2 thoughts on “The Social Animal”

Comments are closed.