The Social Animal

August 8, 2011

In his recent Commentary article (see my previous post of 7/20/11), Peter Wehner mentions David Brooks’s recent book, The Social Animal. Wehner finds Brooks’s book “marvelous” and repeats a statement that Brooks quotes with approval from Jonathan Haidt: “unconscious emotions have supremacy but not dictatorship”.

I’m pleased to report that I too found much to admire in The Social Animal. In highly readable fashion, Brooks presents a feast of delectable morsels from studies in psychology and neuroscience. Many lines of evidence that reveal the operation of our unconscious brain processes are clearly explained, and we get insight into how they affect everything we do, including actions that have deep and lasting consequences for our lives.

Inevitably, recognition of our dependence on unconscious processes raises questions about the extent to which we control our actions, and the extent to which we are responsible for them. These questions come up for discussion on pages 290-292 of The Social Animal. It is these pages – less than 1% of the book – that I want to comment on today.

Most of what Brooks says in these pages is presented in terms of two analogies and a claim about narratives. I’m going to reflect on each of these. I believe that we can see some shortcomings of the analogies and the claim just by being persistent in asking causal questions.

The first analogy is that we are “born with moral muscles that we can build with the steady exercise of good habits” (290), just as we can develop our muscles by regular sessions at the gym.

But let us think for a moment about how habits get to be formed. Let us think back to early days, before a habit is established. Whether it’s going to the gym, or being a good Samaritan, you can’t have a habit unless you do some of the actions that will constitute the habit without yet having such a habit.

Some people habitually go to the gym; but what got them there the first time? Well, of course, they had good reasons. They may have been thinking of health, or status, or perhaps they wanted to look attractive to potential sex partners. Yet, many other people have the same reasons, but don’t go to the gym. What gets some people to go and not others?

That’s a fiendishly complex question. It depends on all sorts of serendipitous circumstances, such as whether one’s assigned roommate was an athlete,  whether a reminder of a reason arrived at a time when going to the gym was convenient, whether one overdid things the first time and looked back on a painful experience, or whether one felt pleasantly tired afterward.

The same degree of complexity surrounds the coming to be of a good Samaritan. In a more general context, Brooks notes that “Character emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences” (128). And he cites evidence that behavior is “powerfully influenced by context” (282). The upshot of these considerations is that whether a habit gets formed, and even whether an established habit is followed on a particular occasion, depends on a host of causes that we don’t control, and in many cases are not even aware of.

The second analogy is that of a camera that has automatic settings which can be overridden by switching to a “manual” setting. Similarly, Brooks suggests, we could not have a system of morality unless many of our moral concerns were built in, and were “automatic” products of most people’s genetic constitution and normal experience in families, schools, and society at large. But, like the camera, “in crucial moments, [these automatic moral concerns] can be overridden by the slower process of conscious reflection” (290).

Actions that follow a period of deliberation may indeed be different from actions that would have been done without deliberation. But if we take one step further in pursuit of causal questions, we have to ask where the deliberation comes from. Why do we hesitate? What makes us think that deliberation is called for?

The answers to these questions are, again, dependent on complex circumstances that we know little about and so are not under our control. To put the point in terms of the camera analogy, yes, if you decide on “manual” you can switch to that setting. But some people switch to manual some of the time, others do so in different circumstances, and some never do. What accounts for these differences? That’s a long, complex, and serendipitous matter. It depends on how you think of yourself as a photographer, whether you were lucky enough to have a mentor who encouraged you to make the effort to learn the manual techniques, whether you care enough about this particular shot. That history involves many events whose significance you could not have appreciated at the time, and over which you did not have control.

The claim about narratives is that “we do have some control over our stories. We do have a conscious say in selecting the narrative we will use to organize perceptions” (291) The moral significance of this point is that our stories can have moral weight: “We have the power to tell stories that deny another’s full humanity, or stories that extend it” (291).

We certainly have control over what words we will utter or not utter. But any story we tell about our place in society and our relations to other people has, first, to occur to us, and second, to strike us as acceptable, or better than alternative stories, once we have thought of it. On both counts, we are dependent on brain processes that lie outside our consciousness and that depend on long histories involving many events over which we have had no control.

We can provide a small illustration of this point by thinking about something Brooks brings up in another context. This is confirmation bias – the tendency to overvalue evidence that agrees with what we already think, and undervalue conflicting evidence. People don’t make this kind of error consciously. They tell themselves a story according to which they are objective evaluators who believe a conclusion because they have impartially weighed all the evidence. But, sometimes, they can find such a story about themselves acceptable only because they are unaware of their bias.

I am not being a pessimist here. Those who are lucky enough to read The Social Animal, or the experimental work that lies behind it, may very well be caused to take steps to reduce the influence of confirmation bias. The point remains that the acceptability of a narrative about one’s place in the scheme of things depends on many factors that lie in unconscious effects of complex and serendipitous histories.

[The book under discussion is by David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2011).]

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