Jim Fleming: David Brooks is one of America’s most popular pundits, a New York Times’ columnist, as well as a regular commentator on public radio and T.V. If you’re a regular reader of his columns in The Times, you know he’s fascinated by new findings in neuroscience and cognitive psychology. He wants to know what makes us tick and that’s the subject of his latest book, “The Social Animal.” He says the brain sciences are overturning centuries of old thinking about human nature. Steve Paulson talked with Brooks.
Steve Paulson: You are best known for your columns on all things political, but this is a book that’s really about new insights from psychology and neuroscience. Is there a connection here?
David Brooks: Yeah, this book started because I was tired of policy failures so I covered, say, education for 30 years and we really did a very poor job of figuring out why 20 percent or so of the kids dropped out of high school when it’s completely irrational thinking to do, and one of the major times when they’re influenced to make that decision is really in the first couple of years of life with the relationship they establish with mom, whether they have the ability to say, by the age of four, to control their impulses, what sort of sense of themselves do they have, and a lot of that is really early brain formation. So that work took me into what the economists call non-cognitive skills which means non-IQ and really it’s those things, that’s where the action is, so I got into this field which is just tremendously exciting, a field where we’re learning so much about who we are deep inside, and once I got in there, it solved all sorts of problems I had from the political about why we get so many policies wrong because of our shallow view of human nature, to the personal.
Paulson: So you’re saying politics pretty much ignores the emotional realm. I mean it tries to deal with all kinds of questions strictly on the basis of rational decision making, and the suggestion is, that’s not really the way the world works.
Brooks: Right, and so we, you know, we’re very comfortable in the political realm talking about things that we can count and measure and put into social science models, but that’s just not how the world is. We had a financial regulatory regime based on the assumption that bankers were rational creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid en masse, but in fact, they’re not fully rational. They’re involved with emotional contagions like anybody else.
Paulson: Now the irony is, the best politicians have incredible people skills. I mean they know how to read other people emotionally and they ooze empathy, and of course, they’re masters at remembering the names of people they’ve met. You’re saying somehow that doesn’t translate into the actual political work they do.
Brooks: Right, I mean this is the great irony to me. When you meet them, they soak you up. They reflect back whatever you believe. They have phenomenal social skills, but yet when they start making policy, suddenly they devolve into a dry world of CBO reports and international relations theory and game theory because they’re not comfortable talking about the things that really matter, say, in education, the fact that people learn from people they love, but if you try to talk about love at a Congressional hearing, they’d look at you bizarrely.
Paulson: So you’re saying there’s really an intellectual revolution going on. I mean actually the way we understand human nature is changing. Our emotional intelligence is actually more important than cognitive reasoning.
Brooks: We have this prejudice that we’re divided creatures, that we have reason over on one side and emotion over on the other side. That’s not true, we’re not divided creatures. Emotions are in front of reason. Emotions tell us what we value. My newspaper did a great story about some guys in Iraq, some soldiers, who could look down a street and they could tell whether there was a IED, a bomb on that street, and they couldn’t tell you how they could tell. They just knew something felt cold and felt wrong and some people have superior intuitions in that sense, but both systems work together.
Paulson: But it does seem that your larger argument is that we are much more controlled by our unconscious mind than we realize.
Brooks: Right, and so this has sort of subtle effects, so for example, if I give you these words, bingo, Florida, shuffleboard, and you walk out of the room, you will walk more slowly than otherwise because I have cued you to think about old age. This can have very serious effects by the way, so one of the more disturbing bits of research, if you take, say, Asian American women and give them a math test, but before the test you remind them that they’re Asian, a certain stereotype kicks in and they do better on the test. If you remind them they’re women, another stereotype kicks in and they do worse on the test, significantly worse.
Paulson: You’ll have to explain that so the assumption is that Asians do well on tests so they’re going to somehow internalize that...
Paulson: ...and try harder on the test?
Brooks: Right, and these primary things are very powerful and they will just feel more confident. These can have substantial effects. Shelby Steel and others have done work on African Americans, when you give them a test and when you surround them with sort of stereotypes of African Americans, it has a huge effect on the test scores and this can be profoundly disturbing. Some of these ways are incredibly destructive, some of these ways are just odd. If you play French music at a grocery store, people will buy more French wine. If you play German music, they’ll buy German wine. If you give a doctor a bag of candy and ask him or her to make a diagnosis, the doctors you give a bag of candy to will do a much, much better job at diagnosing say, a liver ailment, than those who do not receive the candy.
Paulson: Well, and you also say that a lot of these tendencies that people have start very early and you cite some astonishing studies I have to say. For instance, scientists apparently can watch how an 18 month old child interacts with her or her mother and draw all kinds of conclusions from that.
Brooks: In one research study, they could predict with 77 percent accuracy who would graduate from high school and that’s because some kids learn and establish relationships with adults through the relationship they’ve established with their mother and when they get to school, they know how to deal with teacher, they know how to emotionally relate to teacher. Other kids, about 20 percent, are what they call, have what they call avoidant detachments and they have trouble relating. They send signals, but nothing’s coming back, so they don’t have a good relationship. Another 20 percent have what they call disorganized detachments, everything’s sort of chaotic at home and everything becomes chaotic at school, and as a result, at age 70, they have many fewer friends than people with secure attachments. Now it should be emphasized that one’s life is not determined at 18 months, but certain pathways are opened up which can either be confirmed by later experience or not confirmed, but some kids who haven’t established a good relationship, if they never in the course of their life, get a mentor or somebody who teaches them how to relate to other people, they’re going to find school very frustrating and they’re likely to drop out of that school.
Paulson: There’s also a famous study of how well four year olds can postpone gratification, and apparently this is also a very good predictor of their success in the world.
Brooks: Yeah, this is the most famous and most charming study in the whole field. It was done by a guy named Walter Mischel and it’s called The Marshmallow Experiment and basically he took four year olds, put them in a room, gave them a marshmallow and said, â€˜I’m going to leave the room, and if I come back in say 10 to 15 minutes, and if you haven’t eaten the marshmallow, I’ll give you two marshmallows,’ and the kids who could wait seven or eight minutes before eating the marshmallow, or who never ate it at all, 20 years later they had much higher college completion rates and 30 years later, much higher incomes. Some of the kids, the four year olds, they popped the marshmallow in their mouth right away, those kids had much higher drug and alcohol addiction problems 20 years later and much higher incarceration rates going to jail, and that’s because some kids grow up in homes where actions lead to consequences and they have strategies to sort of resist temptation, and if you can do that, then school will be doable, you’ll be able to sit through a boring class, but if you can’t control your impulses, school will be very frustrating and your life outcomes will be harder.
Paulson: So really what you’re talking about are some of the attributes that become key to how well we do in life, to put it simply, if we can define what doing well in life means, but what’s on your short list of key attributes?
Brooks: I would say there’s things like equipoise which is the ability to look inside yourself and be aware of your own biases, your own unconscious processes. Another one would be attunement, the ability to attach to others, to understand what other people are thinking and feeling and at work, most of what we do is work with groups, and some people are just much better at anticipating what other people in the group want. Some people can look at a complicated situation and pick out very quickly what matters and what doesn’t matter. Some people can blend two different things together, so artists have this ability. Picasso famously took western art and blended it with African masks and out of that blending of two different things, he created a whole new way of looking at the world and feeling the world, and that blending is really imagination and creativity.
Paulson: Are you talking partly about character, and I know that’s a word that really eludes what scientists can study or can measure, but is character meaningful?
Brooks: Yeah, no, I really think it is. We sort of have a sense that character is everything, and yet I think we’re pretty bad at talking about character, and so the way to really build character is by training it in the little things first, establishing certain habits of politeness and consideration, and then if you live a certain way, action will change your mind, or as the people at Alcoholics Anonymous say, â€˜Fake it until you make it.’ Change your behavior to change your thought processes and if you change your behavior in small ways, that will build up patterns of neuro networks and that will help you in the large cases to behave in a more moral and character driven way, and this of course, Aristotle sort of knew centuries ago, but we’re rediscovering the truth of how he saw human nature.
Fleming: That’s David Brooks talking with Steve Paulson. Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times and the author of the book, “The Social Animal.”