On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
For generations, American culture has celebrated the power of the individual. But recent brain research suggests the idea of community may be more important to humans than previously thought. Simply put, we’re not rational animals, we’re social animals. David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of Bobos In Paradise, spent three years culling research on sociology, neuroscience and philosophy to understand how emotions shape our lives. He explored how these findings might change the way we see ourselves, conduct business, manage relationships, and practice politics. David Brooks talks with Diane about why he believes humans crave contact and community above all else.
- David Brooks columnist with the "The New York Times" and author of "Bobos in Paradise."
Author Extra: David Brooks Answers Audience Questions
Q: Over a decade ago, I was adjunct faculty in a local Leadership program. While the program utilized a plethora of psychometric measures, the most convincing example of leadership behavior I witnessed was that of a young man who was one of 12 siblings. He actually anticipated the group’s needs and appeared to do so with no ego motivations. Did you find that, culturally, we tend to rely on measures that have academic cache and dismiss the more obvious factors for leadership, career preferences, etc. such as birth order, family size and the like? – From Shela in Arlington
A: I’d say we have two different sets of measures in society. College admissions committees rely on grades and SAT scores and some people judge others by what college they went to. But the things that get you in to the Ivy League are not necessarily the things that help you excel in life, or even make a lot of money. There’s been a fair bit of research on this and there is a low correlation between attending a prestigious college and making a lot of money. Employers are looking for exactly those leadership skills you describe. It’s just that they have a hard time defining it. And if this is true in the workplace, it’s even more true in other parts of life, where people like the young man you describe are rare and invaluable.
Q: I have two related questions. Has Mr. Brooks read “The Politics of Denial” by Milburn and Conrad? This book highlights the power of parenting on the formation of conservative political views. Second question is has his research enlightened him to how early development creates adult political identity? – From Fred in Phoenix
A: I have not read that book, but I’m a little suspicious of a lot of the explanations of that sort I have read, linking, say, authoritarian fathers to political conservatism. I’d say where you grow up matters more than parenting style. People who grow up in Wyoming are more conservative than people who grow up in San Francisco. Any difference in parenting styles are probably washed away by the larger cultural differences. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia has done a lot of work trying to isolate different political value systems. His work is the best I’ve seen.
Q: More and more schools are changing from alternative education programs to computer-based learning due to tightening budgets. Many alternative education students are the very ones who need small group learning and building student/teacher bonds. Regular high school hasn’t worked for them. Their social interactions are less than productive. Putting them in front of computers seems counter productive if our goal is to graduate socially appropriate, emotionally healthy, productive problem solvers. Thoughts? – From Penny in Michigan
A: I’m hopeful that we can combine the two techniques. That is, many companies are trying to devise computer programs that will tailor information transmission to each student’s learning approach. Then teachers would be free to move around from student to student coaching them as they run into difficulty. That may allow for more interaction, not less.
Audio Excerpt: The Social Animal
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In the opening lines of his new book David Brooks writes, this is the happiest story you've ever read. It's the story of Harold and Erica. It's the story of all of us. The New York Times columnist and author of "Bobos in Paradise" has made a career out of trying to understand how and why people make political decisions.
MS. DIANE REHMIn his latest work, he creates two fictional characters to explore an even larger goal, the meaning of a successful life. The book is titled, "The Social Animal." David Brooks joins me in the studio and, of course, you're welcome to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com David, it's always good to see.
MR. DAVID BROOKSIt's always great to be here, Diane.
REHMI must say the hidden sources of love, character and achievement. Could you have bitten off more?
BROOKSYeah, Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1950s wrote a book called, "The Nature and Destiny of Man." I thought that covers a lot of ground.
REHMYeah, it sure does. So you seem to move away from your day job as a columnist, as a commentator on the NewsHour. You were writing this over a period of three years on your off time?
BROOKSWell, it started with my day job. I was trying to figure out, why do 30 percent of kids drop out of high school? And when I went into that, I began to look at the first three years of life. And then, when I began looking there, I looked at a lot of the brain research and what I found when I began that, interviewing those people and reading all those books, was that they're giving us a different view of life, a different view of who we are. And it answered a lot of problems, a lot of my policy problems. Why do so many of our problems fail?
BROOKSWhy do we raise our kids the way we do, in such of, what I think of as a shallow way? We're really good at coaching them to get good grades, but when it comes to things like character, we often have nothing to say. Why are we so good at talking about rational things like economics and economic interests, but so bad at talking about emotion?
BROOKSAnd here are these scientists who are, after all, scientists, but they were talking about emotion. They were talking about things below the level of awareness that are happening deep inside of us and reminding us of some old ways of seeing the world. So the book is really an attempt to take their work and to show how it applies to our personal lives, to our political lives, to business life. And it's really a synthesis of a lot of different fields of research.
REHMSo what you've done is to create a novel with Harold and Erica from the womb on, starting at the womb with the integration with the beginning of that relationship with a parent?
BROOKSYeah and it's more or less -- I call it an allegory because the characters are not idiosyncratic characters. They are there to give examples of the research, to show how the research plays out in real life. And so for example, there's a lot of research into how early we're learning. In the womb, if a mom reads the book, (sounds like) "Camhet." When the baby comes out and hears that book again, it will suck rhythmically on a pacifier because it's comfortable with the rhythms of that poem. If it reads a different poem, it will suck differently.
BROOKSAndrew Meltzoff, a scientist at the University of Washington, leaned over a baby that was 43 minutes old and wagged his tongue at the baby and she wagged her tongue back. Even at that phenomenally early age, we're wired to interconnect one to another. And really what babies are wired to do is invade our minds sort of and download what's happening. And that's a beautiful process. It's also a tough process. Moms lose on average 700 hours of sleep in that first year of a baby's life. They get interrupted on average every 20 seconds and so it's a very intimate connection, but it is out of that merger of minds that an individual emerges.
REHMSo as they grow, they're given choices and one choice is to operate on one's own. The other choice is to operate cooperatively.
REHMWhat happens then?
BROOKSYeah, we have this view of ourselves as very highly individualistic creatures. We're self-made creatures. That's not true. We're deeply intra-penetrated creatures and so when we look at other people, we reenact in our own minds what we see other people doing. And we don't only reenact what we see, but we reenact the intention behind what we see. And so if I pick up a glass to drink it, you will reenact to drinking in your mind. If I pick up a glass to put it in the dishwasher, you will reenact a totally different action. And so we have these many ways of communicating, one to another, through our eyes, through our senses.
BROOKSThere was one experiment that I liked. It was done in Germany. They took a bunch of people, took gauze pads and put them under their arms and some of the people watched a horror movie and some of the people watched a comedy. And then, they took other people, hopefully well-paid, and they had them sniff those gauze pads and say, did the person wearing this gauze pad watch a horror movie or a comedy? And people could predict way above chance what movie they were watching and women by the way were much better at this than women.
REHMBecause women tend to have a sharper sense of smell.
BROOKSAlso, you know, the male and female brain is alike in many ways.
BROOKSOne way it, women seem to have an advantage in picking up details in a scene. When they do these tests and they ask you to describe what you've seen, women tend to be a little more perceptive in picking up details in a scene.
REHMDavid, you were so broad in your research for this book.
BROOKSRight. Because I wanted to show all these different fields are really telling one story, that we have a version of our lives which is the conscious version, which is the voice in our heads. But there's this whole other layer below the level of awareness and in all these fields whether it's childhood, the skills we learn in childhood or the skills when we get married or even how we judge politics, there's another stream of information that's flowing through us unconsciously. So I'm really telling the different episodes of life always just trying to describe that lower level and trying to give illustrations of how that lower level is acting in a lot of different spheres.
REHMGive me a sense of that?
BROOKSWell, let's say there are many different ways we -- our brains work and the way we think unconsciously. One, I find amusing is that -- and this is just an oddity, people named Dennis are disproportionally likely to become dentists. People named Lawrence become lawyers disproportionately because unconsciously we're sort of biased toward the familiar and we sort of lean in that direction, even something as shallow as a name. And that's sort of an oddity, that's just weird.
REHMWhat about the choice of a spouse?
BROOKSSee, this is a perfect example. Some of the choices we make when we marry are rational. A lot of the choices are below consciousness because love sort of sweeps over us. And some of them are very rational. For example, people tend to marry those who have immune systems that are complementary to their own. And we can detect that by smell. People tend to marry people of similar nose widths because we like people who are like ourselves. Generally, that's the thing. And so there is some canniness there. But there's also some deep emotion.
BROOKSI quote in the book, Stendhal, the great French writer who has this concept called crystallization and he was describing some miners in Austria who threw branches, wooden branches into a mine, a salt mine, and they'd come back weeks later and they'd be covered by the shimmering crystals. And Stendhal says this is what we do to our beloved, we cover them in shimmering crystals and we see them as sort of glorified versions of themselves and that's an emotional process, an emotional need. And so love is like all the decisions we make. It's partly rational and partly an enchanted process.
BROOKSAnd so I'm trying to describe how these two different things work together. And just in talking about the book with people, one of the things I'm constantly struck by is we have a sense that reason is over here and emotion is over here and that they're on like a see-saw and that if reason is up there, then emotion must be down there and vice versa. But that's not the way it works. They're intertwined with each other. They're part of the same process. We have unconscious ways of perceiving the world and conscious ways of perceiving the world. There are two different ways to help us figure out what we're seeing, how to act and they work together.
REHMAnd how we get along with other people whether it's in the workplace or at home?
BROOKSRight. And that's one of the big lessons here. We're really good at talking to our kids about SAT scores and IQ scores. If you go in a kindergarten class and ask kids this, who is friends with whom in that classroom? Some people are aware of friendship networks and those people have a social sense and they'll do very well in life. One of the things we should really be cautious of is relying too much on e-mail, I think, from this research because so much of our communication is face to face, is verbal, that just e-mail doesn't spread communication very well.
BROOKSAnd so, for example, some scientists at the University of Michigan took groups of people, had them meet face to face and solve a math problem and they gave them ten minutes to do it. And then, the other groups of people solved the same problem, but they had them meet electronically through e-mail and they gave them 30 minutes. The face to face group solved the problem. The electronic groups basically broke apart and had real trouble and just because we communicate so much better face to face and so beware of e-mail and teleconferencing.
REHMBut you know it's interesting because more and more offices have taken to e-mailing from the top down. What do you think that does to the organization at large?
BROOKSYeah, I think it -- aside from the lack of the connection and a less happy place and one of the clear signs of the research is just the more around people you are, the happier you're likely to be. Not only people that are alive, but even people who are dead, some of us commune very well with writers who died hundreds of years ago. That's a real legitimate source of communion and sociability. But productivity -- one of the things I wrote, my last book was about the suburbs and I was sort of celebrating the far-out suburbs. But one of the things I've learned is I got some of that wrong, that density really does matter, getting people face to face.
BROOKSSo for example, they look at who -- when you submit a patent application, you list all the other patents you've consulted to come up with your creation. And the number of patents that inventors cite that were designed by people who live within 25 miles of them is very high because they rely on people they know. And so if you look at the firms that are most productive, they tend to be in the geographic epicenter of their industry in the downtown area and that, those firms become more productive just because they have so much more face to face interaction with others in the same industry.
REHMDo you have a large family from which you come and which you live in now?
BROOKSI have one brother and I have three kids so I'm -- I've gone from a two-child family to a three-child family.
REHMDavid Brooks, his new book is titled, "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement." When we come back, we'll talk more and take your calls, stay with us.
REHMDavid Brooks spent three years writing his newest book. It's titled "The Social Animal." And in doing so, David, you spent lots of time around scientists, physicians, musicians, philosophers. What did you find?
BROOKSYeah. I really came to admire them. You know, we spend a lot of our time here looking at politics and it's the war of spin and no one ever really seems to be persuaded by the evidence. But in the scientific world they really are interested in a quest for knowledge. And, you know, they have the human foibles...
BROOKS...of any other group of people. But when the counter evidence is provided I found them much more likely, than people in my political world, to really respond and say, oh that's true. I just want to get to the truth. And what they're doing is so exciting. They're all really captured by the excitement of their field. I, just a couple of weeks ago, was at the National Institutes of Health here in Bethesda, Maryland, sitting around with a group of neuroscientists and other researchers, and just the bubbling over with what they're discovering, 'cause we're just at the beginning of all this.
BROOKSAnd really, you know, one of the researchers there, for example, showed me a video of a girl with William Syndrome. And William Syndrome from the outside looks like reverse autism. So the girl, all she wants to do is have social connections. And she's in a -- in the video, she's in the room with a 12-year-old boy and he's juggling and knocking over things and she has no interest in the objects. She just wants to peer into his eyes, get close to his face and look at him. And so it was fascinating to see people with these traits and it shows you -- and people with William Syndrome sometimes have different disabilities that go along with it, but socially, they're just hyperactive. And just to see this stuff is just amazing.
REHMI would think that after three years working on this book, speaking to the kinds of people you've been talking to, investigating the kinds of science you have, that it would've changed your own behavior, not only with your family, your children, your brother but the people around you.
BROOKSYeah, it's really given me a whole new way of seeing the world because I see these lower unconscious level processes everywhere. I spend a lot more time thinking about the interrelations between people, the context people are in. And frankly, I think a lot more about emotion. This is not natural to me, believe me. We've...
REHMNot natural to you.
BROOKS...known each other a long time...
REHMWe have indeed.
BROOKS...and I'm not a naturally effusive person. I sometimes do the show with a fellow named E. J. Dionne who is -- he's a big hugger, very emotionally outgoing person.
REHMAs I am...
BROOKSAs you are.
REHM...a big hugger.
BROOKSYeah, but I'm not. I'm normally reticent.
REHMBut you hugged me when I walked in.
BROOKSYeah, well, see. Yeah, so maybe I'm getting a little better. My wife says that me writing a book about emotions is like Gandhi writing a book about gluttony. It's not my natural thing. But -- and I must say, to be perfectly honest, I think I see emotion a lot better and I think I'm aware of it in myself. It's still hard for me to express it. It's because we have certain patterns of the way we are in the world, and those are quite hard to change. And so it's something I'm much more conscious of trying to be better at but it's hard to change who we are.
REHMWhat seems to have happened here in Washington is that emotions, especially around the White House, for example, if President Obama expresses an emotion, if Mrs. Obama expresses an emotion, somehow they're ridiculed. What is it that we fear so much from our emotional life that that happens?
BROOKSYeah, well, I think this city in particular is a very emotionally avoidant city. I don't think we're very good at it and if -- you know, the things that matter in, say education, it's the love between a teacher and a student.
BROOKSThat's how people -- people learn from people they love. But if you went to Capitol Hill and talked about love, they wouldn't -- a lot of people wouldn't take you seriously. They want to talk about budgets and accountability and all that sort of stuff. But it is that loving relationship that's the key to a lot of policy areas. Even looking at what's happened in the Middle East you see people swept up in an emotional cotangent wanting dignity. And so that's a psychological response, but we, I think, have a policy process that it tries to reduce everything to things that can be counted and correlated and modeled.
BROOKSAnd so I think it makes us -- it amputates our view of reality. And I think that's the cause of a lot of policy failures. And I’m not sure how that got started. I think there was a philosophy that said we progress as reason dominates the passions. And my argument would be that emotions are part of reason. They're not separate, that emotions tell us what we value. And there's a great scientist named Antonio Damasio, studies people of lesions who can't experience emotion because of strokes. And those people are not hyper-rational. They don't know what they want, they're decision-making landscape is flat so they can't make decisions. And it's the emotions that tell us which way to go, what we want, what we don't like, what we do like. And if you don't understand that you're really not making rational decisions.
REHMBut if you've got a body of legislatures who have put aside, for the most part -- I mean, seems to me that Teddy Kennedy was one of the last to allow his emotions to come to the fore. If you have legislatures who are trained to hold those emotions in, not pay attention to them, where are we as a society?
BROOKSWe all have good emotions and bad emotions.
BROOKSI spoke earlier about groups that function well that communicate. And you can tell a group that's functioning well by how often they take turns when they're talking. There's sort of real exchange. Well, if you want a dictionary definition of a group that is not functioning well, that is dysfunctional, I would say the U.S. Congress is that group.
BROOKSBecause they have -- they are divided into tribes, there's very little communication across tribes, they know each other not very well. And the team mentality sort of thwarts the natural desire that people would have to converse and to get to know one -- each other. I spend a lot of time up there and I'm always amazed at how little people in one party know about the other, and how little they're willing to even walk across the floor of the chamber. They don't know -- it's like a foreign territory to many of them. And that's an example of tribalism, which is something built into us, but (unintelligible) ...
REHMDavid, you've lost the love of many of your conservative brothers and sisters because of comments you've made about what's happening, not only here in Washington, but around the country. You've talked about the rhetoric people use. You've talked about the kinds of policies people are pushing. What's happened to your thinking about rational politics?
BROOKSYeah. Well, a couple things. When you get into this research, you realize how little you know about yourself and how complicated the world is. And if you go with that sense of modesty, then you realize you need people who disagree with you to correct your own weaknesses and your own ignorance. So you need the conversation. And there are a lot of people, I would say, on both sides who think that I know the truth, I know what we should do and the people who disagree with me are just in the way. And let's just get them out of the way.
BROOKSAnd so that's part of it. The second thing and the issues I care most about are social mobility, how we give people who are disadvantaged a chance to rise. And to me we've done a decent job of getting people into college and high school but we've done a very poor job of getting them through these institutions, giving them what they need to graduate from high school and graduate from college. And to me those -- what they -- what we can do now is not only give them money or the academic stuff, but to give them the social skills they need. If you go to a high school and you ask a kid, who's your favorite teacher, and that kid gives you an answer, that kid will graduate. If they look at you like the question is insane because they could never have a favorite teacher, that kid will probably drop out. They don't have an emotional connection to the teachers.
BROOKSAnd so when you try to figure out this problem you begin to look at their first few years of life. You begin to look at mentoring, you begin to look at early childhood education, nurse home visits, all the stuff that we regard as soft, but I think is actually the hard and practical stuff to giving people a good chance in life. And I'm not sure when I look at some of the Republicans that are cutting -- and I -- believe me, I think we need to cut spending and probably raise taxes, but they're cutting some of the things that I think are important.
BROOKSWell, you know, Head Start is a program that has not lived up to its potential because it hasn't been administered well, but it's spending money in the right area. And so I would not be cutting Head Start, I would not be throwing kids out of places in pre K programs. I would be investing in those areas and reforming them. But I'm afraid what I see the Republicans doing -- and again, I think we need to cut much more aggressive than the president does -- but I think the Republicans are often cutting without doing any evaluations of what's important. They're just cutting what's available. And if we cut badly without evaluation, without thought it'll be a double disaster.
REHMDo you think that there can or will be some kind of rational compromise between those who want to cut many, many social programs and those who recognize that we have to have more money and would like to see taxes raised?
BROOKSYeah, well, I think that we're going to have to cut and we're going to have to raise taxes, we're going to have to do both 'cause the problem is so big. I do not see the two parties reaching that kind of agreement in the near term. Maybe after the next election, certainly not in the next two years. And so I'm moderately pessimistic that we'll avoid some sort of national fiscal catastrophe.
REHMReally, a catastrophe.
BROOKSWell, I think if our bonds are downgraded or, you know, you can get a lot -- look at what happened in Greece and things like that -- you can get a lot of economic pain. I just don't -- and if I sat together with -- or we all sat together with a group of think-tankers we could devise a program...
BROOKS...that would get us there.
BROOKSBut we just have a political system that can't get us there. And I'd say that's true of global warming, that's true of a lot of problems.
REHMWhat's happened to the political system, David?
BROOKSWell, I do think it's the -- before I came to Washington the thing I underestimated was team as a -- the power of team. And this actually is available in the brain research. When we look at people in our group suffering pain, we react one way. We react with strong reaction. When we have people in -- when we react -- see people in what we perceive as other groups experiencing pain, our reaction's much more callous. And that's measurable in how -- what they can look at in a brain scan. And so we have -- we now have different tribes and the tribes regard each other as barriers. And I think that's the essential problem or breakdown in normal sociability.
REHMThink about the fight currently going on in regard to public broadcasting. You're part of public broadcasting both on "All Things Considered" with E. J. Dionne on Fridays. You're also there with Mark Shields on Fridays with Jim Lehrer on the NewsHour. What do you see happening?
BROOKSYeah, well, first, I'm obviously biased because I get paid -- not a lot -- but I get paid a little by these institutions. And one of the things the book suggests is the power of contacts, the power of the culture to influence who we are deeply. And I do think public broadcasting helps build the common culture and so I think it has value for the whole society. Just politically, what I think is going to happen, the Republicans are very determined to cut it and they say, you know, we're going to have to cut everything. And we can't be subsidizing something when there are all these channels out there.
BROOKSMy basic take on the whole budget thing -- and I've been talking to a lot of people about this -- is that they're going to kick the can down the road. We're not going to have big agreements on large issues over the next two years. Both parties are going to say, we fundamentally disagree. We're going to tinker with the status quo but we're going to have a big argument for the 2012 election. And so if you take that as my basic model of what's going to happen, then I don't think there'll be -- there may not be -- there may be cuts to public broadcasting, but maybe not radical reevaluation. We'll have an election and we'll see who wins. And after that happens than I think 2013 is the year where the budget really gets changed in many ways very radically.
REHMMy question -- and it's not just related to public broadcasting but to all the cuts currently being proposed -- is whether they're actually financially appropriate or whether they are politically motivated.
REHMWell, they're both, and that's fair. If you're going to cut you should cut things you think are ineffective. My problem with it is that we're cutting the 12 percent of the budget that's discretionary and we're leaving out all the rest. And if you want to be serious about cuts you should cut -- we should be cutting in ways that cut consumption and raise investment. And to be perfectly honest, we should be cutting and making higher taxes on affluent seniors and directing spending on the (word?) .
REHMAbsolutely. David Brooks. His new book is titled "The Social Animal." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Paul, who's in Phoenix, Ariz. Good morning to you.
PAULThis is an excellent show. I was -- when the topic came up, I thought, well, isn't that obvious? You know, why would somebody have to study that we're emotional people? And talking about babies in the womb responding, I recall -- it's not in the womb, but my son, when he was just a little over a year old, one day was sitting at breakfast with his chin propped up on his elbow, just real comfortable eating his cereal. And I thought that was just a funny way to eat, I mimicked him from directly across the table, and he looked at me real puzzled. And once he realized that I was a mirror image of what he was doing, you know, he got the joke and he burst out laughing, you know. Just a non-verbal age, you know, we could make a joke like that. That's all I wanted to share.
BROOKSThat's fascinating. I actually have a scene in the book of parents laughing with their child as the child reacts to a bouncing tennis ball. And one of the things I've learned is that laughter comes about when we establish a social connection. So researchers have studied when people are laughing. It's very rarely in response to a joke. It's usually in response to when we're doing something in common together. And the people who do the laughing are usually those talking, not those listening. And they do it because they had attention in a relationship where they just found their asynchrony. And that's how laughter flows. So laughter is a tool we use to bond ourselves together.
REHMBut isn't it wonderful when a group bursts into laughter because there's a sympathetic reaction to something that’s been said?
BROOKSRight. And that's -- there are just cotangents that sweep through us.
REHMAbsolutely. Thanks for calling, Paul. To Miami, Fla. Hi, Steve.
STEVEHi there. Thank you very much. I am a big fan of David Brooks. I like to hear what he has to say and read what he has to write. The reason I'm calling today is really twofold. The simple part is has David seen and what does he think of the Monty Python film called "Life of Brian"? And number two, with regard to political decision making I would love to know what David thinks -- or what his point of view is with regard to not religion but spirituality.
BROOKSOkay. First, "Life of Brian," I did see it a while ago and I enjoyed it a great deal. And I'm trying to think how I can express it and tie it in. There's a great final scene. I'm trying to remember the song they're singing as they're being crucified. I don't know if you can remind me. There's a...
STEVE"Always Look on the Bright Side."
BROOKS"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" while they're being -- that's a hilarious scene. One of the things this research shows, when we look at politicians or look at anybody, we look at people on two levels. We're looking, of course, at the policies, but we're also reacting to perceptions of competence and perception, are they like us. So there's a researcher at Princeton who gave people glimpses of two opposing politicians, and people judge with their -- they could tell who was going to win the election very accurately based on a one-second glimpse.
REHMFascinating. David Brooks, "The Social Animal." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us David Brooks is with me. He is, of course, a columnist for The New York Times. He appears weekly on NPR's "All Things Considered," and, also, weekly on "The News Hour" with Jim Lehrer. He's written a new book. It took him three years. He was doing it while he was doing all the rest of his stuff investigating all different sciences, philosophy, medicine. The book is titled, "The Social Animal: The hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement."
REHMAnd on that point Susan in Washington, Va. writes, "Could you please address the issue of education? As a psychotherapist and former teacher, I'm concerned that schools I visit today have stopped addressing emotional and social education in favor of teaching to the test. There's no time, even in kindergartens, for teaching social, emotional education.
BROOKSYeah, well, we have a gigantic bias in our culture to overvalue – or to value – but things that are conscious and seem hard and are measurable. And I'm for those tests. I think we need some accountability but I'm also for the other stuff – the music, the art, the playtime. And I'm for it for a number of reasons: one, the real key to wisdom is how do we educate our emotions. People think, oh, our emotions are just our emotions. But, no, you educate your emotions by art, through literature, by moving with characters, by surrounding yourself with certain sorts of people and not other sorts of people. And that's how ones emotions get smarter. And, then even more practically, you know, I was with an educator recently and he said, you know, if you want to know why kids stay in high school, it's the ABC's -- it's athletic, band and cheerleading.
BROOKSAnd there are a lot of kids who are sort of on the margins of high school life, but that gives them meaning and that keeps them in school. And, so, the art and the music is tremendously important for the fulfilled -- the really fulfilled individual. But some of the athletics and the other things are important because they keep people emotionally connected to the schools.
REHMBut here's the question for you, you're writing about something that you have acknowledged has affected you why do you think you were not an emotionally outward person until you began working on this?
BROOKSYou know, I think there's -- especially for guys -- there's sort of a cultural norm that we should be self sufficient and not express, in this culture and, especially, in some parts of the culture more than others, if you go to maybe certain ethnic groups, they're just more comfortable. And I didn't happen to grow up in that kind of ethnic -- I grew up in a normal suburban place. And, I think, for guys and -- we're just -- we're not informed about it and we're not trained for it early. And so a lot of the things -- well, to be perfectly honest, I think, you develop a phobia of emotion because you're not familiar with it. And so you tend to withdraw. And so I think that's -- I don't think I'm alone in that.
BROOKSI think a lot of -- one of the fake experiments that I cite, even though it's hypocriful, but I think it gets at a truth is they are said to take a bunch of middle-age guys, put them in a brain scan machine, had them watch a horror movie and then they had them describe their feelings toward their wives. And the brains looked the same in both activities was just sheer terror. So I think a lot of us are uncomfortable just expressing the things, even if they're inside, uncomfortable expressing them.
REHMAnd do you think that writing the book has helped you?
BROOKSYeah, because it's spending not only the three years writing but the years before that reading and being with the territory and understanding the emotion of it, or the importance of it, and how it's -- and then when you see the importance of it you begin to see it in yourself. I was just -- well, there's a stupid story, but I think it illustrates something. I sent a very angry e-mail. I was in the parking lot going to my dentist not far from the studio. And I was in the parking lot just before and I sent an angry e-mail. And then I regretted it all week sending that e-mail. And then I -- two weeks later I'm going back to the dentist. I'm in the parking lot. I'm sending -- I find myself typing another angry e-mail and I think, oh, I'm nervous about the dentist and it's affecting my mood and I'm sending angry e-mails. And so it's a silly little example.
REHMIt's not. It's true. It's true. What about the -- this is getting personal, but what about the relationship with your wife?
BROOKSYeah, so there, sometimes to be perfectly honest, my wife says I want to see that guy -- the guy in the book -- the guy who wrote the book. So I still have trouble, to be honest, like I said, expressing a lot of the things. But I do think it has -- it has certainly made me more aware and a little better at doing that stuff. I don't want to hold myself up as a -- someone who's mastered these things.
REHMAll right, to Southern Pines, N.C., good morning, Marian.
MARIANGood morning, Diane and David. And I think, you know, my comment -- or my question – has, you know, you've been talking about -- you know, you've been responding to it before I even asked it but I wanted to ask David, you know, what was the most surprising thing that you learned about yourself -- if you -- and, you know, how did it, you know, affect you or change you, or, you know, this awareness. I mean, you must have had a lot of, you know, responses as you go along.
MARIANAnd you've just been talking about that with Diane.
BROOKSYeah, a lot of the things are the things we inherit even before we're born -- the way we see the world. And so, for example, one of the -- some of the famous ones are even cultural. And so when Americans -- there's a famous experiment -- when Americans -- when U.S./Chinese people and American people to describe a fish tank. You get -- obviously there are groups and there's great diversity within groups, but the Chinese people are more likely, on average, to describe the various context of the fish, the way the fish are relating to each other. The Americans are just -- they take the biggest fish and describe that. And so -- and that's even true to the way we look at the Mona Lisa. Americans tend to look at the eyes and the mouth. Whereas, some people from other cultures look around.
BROOKSAnd so, you know, in myself, I found myself -- I just focused on a few individual character traits and not so much on context. And that's important because we all have multiple personalities within ourselves that get aroused by context. And I would say I've discovered some more of those personalities that were lurking down below.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Laurel in Ann Arbor, Mich. And this one, to me, she says, "If I remember correctly you, Diane, were quite critical of Congressman John Boehner for showing emotion. You're questioning why we're supposedly uncomfortable with politicians expressing emotion. But, it seems, you're uncomfortable with it yourself." No, I don't think I'm uncomfortable with an individual -- a public individual -- who uses or expresses him or herself tearing up once or twice. I found myself wondering why John Boehner cries so much. What's your reaction?
BROOKSI barely know him so I don't know why he does. Some people -- some people they just have the waterworks.
REHMThey -- it's true.
BROOKSAnd it could be just the physical manifestation of an emotion other people could feel equally. It just doesn't show itself publicly. I'd rather see him tear up, I guess, than not. I guess...
BROOKS...My bias is toward the, yeah, the...
REHMNo matter how frequently.
BROOKSEvery five seconds that's what I mean...
REHMOh, that's okay. Okay, good. Let's go to Westminster West, Vt., good morning, Leslie.
LESLIEHi, I have a quick comment and a question.
LESLIEMy comment is I'm totally thrilled with this show. I was talking with my 88-year-old mother yesterday. And we were both talking about wanting to buy your book to read it. But my question is given your -- what you say about emotion and love being at the core of who we are as human beings, I think what I've felt so betrayed and disappointed by was when Sonia Sotomayor was nominated for the Supreme Court and was just vilified for empathy. And, to me, empathy is just so core to our humanity. And, to think of a justice on the Supreme Court without empathy is terrifying to me. So I was just curious what your opinion was about that whole dialogue around empathy and the Supreme Court justices.
BROOKSYeah, no, this I completely agreed with her. I remember thinking -- I was in the middle of the book when a lot of that was happening. And, again, this is the seesaw view we sometimes have. It's a prejudice, and it's a false one, that if somebody is talking about empathy, therefore, they're downgrading reason. But somebody who is empathic is actually better at understanding other people. And that doesn't mean they're going to be squishy. They can -- you can still apply standards. But somebody with empathy is going to be able to have certain values and make decisions.
BROOKSThere are a couple of practical things I mention in the book which -- to register some of these things. One of them I say if you're dating someone one of the things you can do is startle them. And when you look at someone's startle response -- some people just get angry and they have certain temperament that gets them angry when the unexpected happens. Some people laugh and think, oh, that's funny. And so if you startle someone you can tell a lot about their temperament. And if somebody has a temperament that is naturally empathetic they're going to be more sensitive to others. That's not going to mean they're going to make bad decisions. I suspect they'll make better decisions.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Mary in Louisville, Ky. She says, "There is a beautiful video -- YouTube -- of Mr. Rogers addressing Congress in the early 1960s regarding funding for public television. He successfully appeals to the emotional life of the members of Congress by thoughtfully sharing his feelings about his work with children. There is a transformation in the room. I wish we could return to some sense of open-heartedness in politics." That's a good phrase.
BROOKSYeah. No, that's -- that's for sure. One thing I would say -- I had a week a couple of weeks ago where a lot of people were coming to town trying to save their programs. I met with Bill Gates who wanted to save some of the foreign aid programs. I met with university presidents who wanted to save some of the investment funding and some of the early childhood education people. And they all have great cases to make...
BROOKS...That their programs work. But I remember thinking in this political climate the merits often don't matter. That if there's just this huge crush of money that's going to go to the entitlement programs, a huge crush of money going to interest payments on the debt, and that's where the big guns are. And everything else is just going to get squeezed regardless of merit. And so I remember thinking that all these people involved in these good causes have to get together in order to preserve their own programs to say -- to say other ways we can balance our budgets. And to say, okay, let's -- we'll all take a hit on this – entitlement reform or taxes or whatever it has to be -- in order to save these small programs that have such payoff.
REHMAnd, of course, defense.
BROOKSRight, and that, too.
REHMBig, big body out there.
REHMWith lots of lobbyists working on behalf of defense, which the smaller programs may not have to that degree. Here's another e-mail from Sam in Cleveland who says, "Regarding David's research please comment on our impulsive actions." And you talked about it with your -- your trip to the dentist. He goes on to say, "There have been many times in my life when I consciously decide against performing a certain action because it doesn't make sense. Yet, I often find I end up performing the very same action that my conscious brain warned me not to perform. And I do not know why, and, often, regret it."
BROOKSYes. Oh, that's me in front of the refrigerator. And so that's a sign of how our conscious mind can do things, but it can't control the very different complicated processes unconsciously. And so there's a famous experiment, which I cite in the book, called the marshmallow experiment where a guy named Walter Mischel took four year olds, put them in a room, gave them a marshmallow and said, I'm going to come back in ten minutes. If you haven't eaten the marshmallow, I'll give you two. And some kids can wait seven or eight or nine minutes or ten minutes or 12. And those kids 20 years later have much higher college completion rates, 30 years later much higher income. Some kids just popped the marshmallow right in their mouth. They can't control their impulses and they have much higher drug and alcohol addiction problems later in life and are more likely to go jail.
BROOKSAnd it's because some people have grown up in homes where actions lead to consequences. And they develop strategies to control their impulses. And the way they do it is not so much in exercising iron willpower. Four-year-olds really don't have that.
BROOKSThey learn to see the marshmallow differently. So some of the kids will say, oh, it's not a marshmallow. It's a cloud. Or they'll put a frame around the marshmallow. So in seeing it differently the temptation is less. And the way we do that, as Aristotle understood years ago, is through habits. We have habits of politeness. We have habits of self discipline. And you change your mind by changing your behavior. Or as the Alcoholics Anonymous folks say, you fake it 'til you make it. And so by changing your behavior in small ways, that helps you control your impulses on the big things.
REHMDavid Brooks and we're talking about his new book, "The Social Animal." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go to Bruce in Bristol, Va., good morning.
BRUCEGood morning. My question centers around the concept of motivation, whether motivation is a combination of both rational thinking and emotion or one or the other. I'm always amazed at people -- say take a Mother Teresa as an extreme example, perhaps -- someone who found the motivation to make incredible personal sacrifices over the course of her entire life doing work that very few people would want to do, whether they were paid of not. And where does that -- that kind of motivation come from? Or, you know, on the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, a guy who is motivated to get up at 5:00 in the morning, head down to Wall Street and work an 80-hour week in mergers and acquisitions or, you know, whatever it is, to build his own personal empire.
BRUCEThere doesn't seem to be a lot of people who are able to muster and sustain the kind of motivation to do extraordinary things, whether it's in the business field or, as they say, making tremendous personal sacrifices to serve humanity.
BROOKSYeah. So, I think the conscious mind is motivated for success and status and the things we're aware of. But, unconsciously, we're motivated -- in the book, I call it limerence. It's the moment when the skull line disappears and you lost yourself in -- in a task or in something else, where you feel that moment of transcendence, you're not even aware of yourself. And sometimes that happens while you're working and you're doing a good job. You're just so into the task you're lost in it. A naturalist feels it out in the environment. Believers feel it when they feel lost in God's love. And, I think, we're all motivated for those states, those moments when self consciousness fades away.
BROOKSAnd we're involved in something transcendent. And, I think, that applies to people who are doing great selfless things like Mother Teresa. I think it also applies to people, you know, who are writing software code or something. Sometimes doing something phenomenally difficult they get so lost in the task it's really a delicious feeling. And for scholars, for example, there's a great book called, "Uncertainty." And it describes that moment when you've been struggling with a problem and, suddenly, the answer becomes clear to you. It wells up and you have it solved. And it's a moment of ecstasy. And some people, some scholars, chase that their whole lives.
REHMWell, I must say, I got lost in the task this morning. David, I've so enjoyed this.
BROOKSWell, it's been a tremendous pleasure for me. Thank you, Diane.
REHMPlease come back. "The Social Animal," David Brooks. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Andrew Chadwick. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is drshow.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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