In The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, the New York Times bestseller by Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, the writer attempts what could be called a hybrid socio-novel, featuring the lifelong journey of an allegorical couple named Harold and Erica, whose lives serve as paradigms that springboard into broad-ranging examinations of subjects ranging from genetics to culture, economics to education, and towards the end, a familiar forte for Brooks: politics.
Brooks the intellectual has it all over Brooks the novelist in what is ultimately a highly disjointed effort to meld the world of fiction with what is essentially a big factoid of a book. Using outside characters to make larger points about the basics of the human mind and existence turns out to be unnecessary and obtrusive; no sooner are you connecting with Harold and Erica than the narrative jumps right back into data mode.
The fits and starts ultimately make it impossible to see them as anything more than stick figures around which Brooks builds an assortment of stats and abstracts – all valuable, no question – but making you wonder whether a straight-on sociological treatise may have made more sense.
Though the fiction conceit falls short as a whole, the research studies cited by the author are impactful. One, “The Famous Marshmallow,” has to do with impulse control and groups of four-year-olds involved in a 1970s study. Apparently, those kids who were able to refrain from devouring a marshmallow by several minutes in anticipation of another one if they did so, would go on to execute SAT scores a full 210 points higher than those who could only wait a few seconds. Naturally, they were also more successful in later life. (The experiment proved to be even more predictive than actual IQ tests.) Another interesting discussion involves something called “Metis” (reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of “The Tipping Point”), where an individual’s acquisition of practical skills allows him or her to preanticipate change.
Many other make-you-ponder moments permeate, such as philosopher Andy Clark’s observation, “We use intelligence to structure our environment so that we can succeed with less intelligence.” And Brooks’ own definition of wisdom as “a willingness to confront counterevidence and to have a feel for the vast spaces beyond what’s known.”
The megainformation (much of it tidbits and percentages, and supplemented by 26 pages of notes) is consistently compelling. More importantly, Social Animal lays out Brooks’ breadth of mind as a thinker, which, though misguided in the basic construct of this book, is nevertheless extraordinary in its expansiveness.