Why David Brooks Gets the Meaning of Life Wrong

I am not a member of the Composure Class, journalist David Brooks’s term for young achievers with perfect hair and teeth. An example of the type meets his mate, writes Brooks, “at the Clinton Global Initiative, where they happened to be wearing the same Doctors Without Borders support bracelets.”

I am far closer to the "bourgeois bohemians" skewered in his 2000 book Bobos in Paradise. I’ll even confess that I found his earlier take on my Restoration-Hardware-grooving peers entertaining.

It was shallow, of course. But shallow is the least of the problems with “Social Animal,” Brooks’s latest article in the New Yorker and an excerpt from his soon-to-be-published book of the same name.

In a "live chat" with readers in a New Yorker blog this week, Brooks called himself a “comic sociologist.” Yet “Social Animal” is so at odds with itself that I found myself gaping in pained awe at its conflation of society, culture, and evolutionary psychology. It’s all swirled into a weird confection told from the perspective of “I’ll call him Harold” and “let’s call her Erica,” two fictional members of the Composure Class.

Brooks’s big idea is that the most crucial kind of human hardwiring involves social connectedness. Our ability to read social situations—that “maybe sentiments were at the core of everything,” rather than achievement or rationality—is what makes us most successful in life.

The blurb for the article claims that it’s about “How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life,” but there’s nothing new about this realization or the science behind it. And the old head-vs.-heart argument has been with us for millennia.

I’m reminded of management articles I helped edit in the early ‘90s for a certain business magazine, in which the writers seemed awed by the power of “soft” people skills (as opposed to the “hard” skills of financial planning). Once I suggested to a senior editor, who also thought this was a revelation, that the need to acknowledge emotions would sound laughably obvious to any woman. (To his credit, the editor then blushed.)

However, the problem with “Social Animal” is not just obtuseness about gender. It is steeped in such unconscious privilege that it mashes up personal observations, the insights of fictional characters, and truckloads of contentious research. Brooks writes:

“Many members of this class, like many Americans generally, have a vague sense that their lives have been distorted by a giant cultural bias. They live in a society that prizes the development of career skills but is inarticulate when it comes to the things that matter most.”

Then Brooks, in his illustration of how the “new” research on social behavior plays out in Harold’s life, indicates that it’s all hardwired, anyway.

So which is it? “A giant cultural bias” that makes everyone unhappy or social hardwiring that makes Harold destined to be a successful member of the Composure Class—and yet he’s still anxious? So all he has to do is realize that emotions matter?

Then he’ll be really happy and really composed, because he’s upper middle class, handsome, tall, and presumably white.

That last paragraph is my own sarcastic take. But early on in the Harold story, I was so confused by Brooks’s comic tone that I wondered if the entire article was a parody. For example, in describing the biological connection babies make with their mothers even before birth, he drops in this nugget with no source: “Fetuses who have been read ‘The Cat in the Hat’ while in the womb suck rhythmically when they hear it again after birth, because they recognize the rhythm of the poetry.”

Apparently I’m not the only one who was confused. In that New Yorker Internet chat, reader Roland puts it to Brooks: “To what extend [sic] was the piece meant as a joke?”

Brooks’s reply: “Probably not as much as you might have taken it.”

There’s a longer explanation for that remark, of course, which is why the interview is far more instructive than the article itself.

Another reader asks why he only focuses on the Composure Class in the article. Brooks says, “This is an excerpt from a larger book. Much of the book is actually about people in poverty and those who live in disorganized homes.”

He appears to understand that the real social problems are faced by those not in the Composure Class. Yet such nuance isn’t in the New Yorker piece.

That may not have been his editorial decision to make, but I do hold Brooks accountable for the way he glosses decades of social science and neuroscience research. That’s the biggest sin of “Social Animal” and likely the book as well.

In the interview with readers, Brooks notes that in writing the book he realized he’s not a science writer. “I’m not very good at describing how something is happening,” he admits. But what he doesn’t acknowledge is the degree of imprecision in social science research and even the biases in measurement that can crop up in the physical and biological sciences.*

In describing the way “Erica was subconsciously looking for signs of trustworthiness” in her first meeting with Harold, Brooks refers to research by evolutionary psychologists Marion Eals and Irwin Silverman (here, at least, he cites the source) “suggesting that women are sixty to seventy percent more proficient than men at remembering details from a scene. In the previous few years, Erica had used her powers of observation to discard entire categories of men as potential partners….”

Yes, such a gender difference may be hardwired. But the problem with sticking the reference into a narrative about a fictional character is that it sounds like a simple fact. Brooks doesn’t stop to indicate how many research studies this fact is based on, how many subjects were involved, and how many other variables were accounted for in the source research. Race? Age? Country of origin? Economic class? Who knows?

The damning implication is that such crucial variables don’t matter.

There are all sorts of other howlers like this in “Social Animal." But what saddens me most is that they undercut Brooks’s revelatory conclusion. At the end of the piece, he has Harold see the light while listening to a speaker at an “ideas festival” in Aspen.

This speaker, a fictional young and hip neuroscientist, is asked by an audience member how all his research has changed him personally. As part of a long, lovely, unexpected response, the neuroscientist says:

“I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks….  Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.”

If only Brooks had put these words in his own voice. If only this excerpt had been about his own heartfelt struggles to come to terms with the meaning of life as a “social animal,” especially in a world in which bourgeois bohemians or the Composure Class seemingly have it all. If only he’d taken his own advice.

 


 

* Another recent New Yorker article, “The Truth Wears Off” by Jonah Lehrer, describes in fascinating detail why even the hardest science can be difficult to replicate. As Lehrer notes, “[I]t appears that nature often gives us different answers.”

 

 

4 thoughts on “Why David Brooks Gets the Meaning of Life Wrong

  1. I particularly noticed the presumption that adults in the Pleistocene lived alone until they formed nuclear families, like modern city people. It’s a notion that’s been dead for decades among paleoanthropologists. But sociology, from what I hear, is full of this same kind of blindness to cultural bias. It’s not unusual for researchers to come up with conclusions about supposed deep, genetically determined human characteristics at the end of a study in which all the subjects are middle-class Westerners. If a survey includes a little research from Israel or Japan, they think they’ve covered the full range of possible human backgrounds.

    As for the gender bias, there seems to be a trend for a certain kind of supposedly leftish magazine to publish articles pushing the pre-feminist view of the female personality. In the current issue of The Atlantic there are two: “Hard Core”, by Natasha Vargas-Cooper and “The Hazards of Duke” by the always irritating Caitlin Flanagan. I remember a time when this kind of thing would result in significant subscription cancellation and possibly picketing of editorial offices, but for some reason the editors of these magazines have decided that this is what their 21st-century readers want.

  2. So right about the bias in various forms of research, from evolutionary psych to sociology to neuroscience. Brooks is certainly not the only sinner here, but his failure to note the issue of bias in social science research–not a new idea by any means–is what really stuck in my craw.

    And, yes, pre-feminist thinking is now fashionable the way anything “hot” or “naughty-boy” is in magazine terms. I’ll be reading that latest issue of the Atlantic soon, and I was thinking I’d weigh in on some of this–or on the article about “the new global elite.”

  3. To Joan: Wait, wait! That’s not sociology, believe me, that’s evolutionary biology that’s full of SHEEET, in my experience – sociology is obsessed with examining cultural bias, though nothing is immune from it.
    My only comment is: Yes, I read that piece with a weird sense of confusion: was this pure parody? review of evolutionary biology research? Disguised story with a moral – which I agree with, by the way (“Only connect.” – Howards End, E. M. Forster). I should know, I’m about to expire from lack of connection. But so MUCH is “mashed up” – great term, Martha – that i truly need (without rereading his article) more unpacking on your part. I think your piece needs to be about twice as long, minimum, for me to get the full sense of your critique, for instance, about class. (Alternatively, I’m a dolt.) After all, his piece is clearly written about one class fraction, as the Marxists would put it, so exactly which parts are steeped in unconscious privilege, and is it class prilegel, or more male privilege? Or just an uncritical restatement of biased/bad science? Well – see what he does in the book and then go at him guns blazing (if he deserves it). What really bothered me the most is the lack of footnotes (! yeah, I know) – if he’s going to draw from all that supposed science, I want to know exactly what it is – maybe that’s what offended me most: In New Yorker articles, if someone makes claims from academic research, they at LEAST give the researcher’s name so you can go check it out – but he stated everything as just fact, so you couldn’t go sniffing for which was decent research and which was crap. IF anything, that was most profoundly offensive to me – passing off all manner of claims as truth without playing fair.
    Also – keep up the great feminist critique – in these dark times, we need it more than ever. Academia is safer for feminists than journalism, Got forbid pop culture.

  4. Heidi — Yes, of course, I could have gone on for pages unpacking the Brooks piece and did before I chopped it down to blog-post size, but (1) unless you’re talking about an academic audience, this kind of review needs to be short; and (2) is a lightweight writer like Brooks really worth the effort? The only reason I went after him is that his piece was featured prominently in the New Yorker. That’s why I hesitate to go after him once his book is out in March. I suspect that the book will contain footnotes, because books like this usually do; I suspect that all of the other sins on display in the article will be there, cubed. Even the footnotes will not delve much beyond certain hackneyed caveats about research bias. Regardless, the New Yorker ran this piece in its current form, and as far as I’m concerned should have known better. That probably reflects my own idealism, but I’m still disappointed. This kind of sloppy argumentation shouldn’t get a free pass by the media elite.

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