David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, has covered some of the most significant events in recent time — the fall of the Soviet Union, the invasion of Iraq and the economic recession. Looking at the effects of these events from a broader view, Brooks began to think that perhaps other people besides policymakers — such as scientists, philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists — were the ones who had real insight on how people thrive, and what causes failure on such a large scale.
"When the Soviet Union fell, we sent all these economists into Russia, when what they really lacked was social trust," Brooks tells Robert Siegel on All Things Considered. "We invaded Iraq totally oblivious to the psychological trauma and the cultural realities of Iraq. We had financial regulatory policies based on the ideas that bankers were sort of rational creatures who would make smart decisions."
In Washington, D.C., which Brooks calls "the most emotionally avoidant city on Earth," Brooks notes that decisions are made based on the assumption that people are cold, rationalistic individuals who respond to incentives. Those assumptions didn't quite match what the research in other fields began to illustrate, however.
"Scientists, philosophers and others were developing a more accurate view of human nature, which is that emotion is more important than reason, that we're not individuals — we're deeply interconnected," Brooks says. "And most importantly ... most of our thinking happens below the level of awareness."
To convey this new psychological research in a more accessible way for his new book, The Social Animal, Brooks created two characters — Harold and Erica, a married couple and successful professionals — and followed their lives from birth to Harold's death from natural causes on a porch in Aspen, Colo. He created the characters to make the book more enjoyable to read, to illustrate the science in the real world and, most importantly, to have the way the story was told match its subject — convincing us that personal connections matter.
Instead of relying on rational decisions, Brooks says, people tend to be influenced by their underlying, unconscious emotional state, which is in turn influenced by the social relationships surrounding them. For example, Brooks has covered education reform for 20 years and writes that he has seen little improvement from multitudinous policy changes.
"The reality of education is that people learn from people they love. But if you mention the word love at a congressional hearing, they look at you like you're Oprah," he says.
Brooks emphasizes that what really matters in people's lives today is how they relate to one another. Scientists can now study an 18-month-old child interacting with his or her mother and predict with 77 percent accuracy whether the child will graduate from high school. While Brooks cautions against letting these early signs determine a child's future, as mentors or other strong relationships can intervene along the way, he stresses the importance of looking at the impact that emotional relationships have on our lives from the very beginning.
"It's tough to talk about that in a world of CBO [Congressional Budget Office] reports, but that actually is the most important thing when you're talking about how we raise our kids, how we conduct business and everything else," Brooks says.
Viewing people's actions through the lens of the unconscious feelings and how they're influenced by the people closest to them has caused Brooks to see events like those unfolding in the Middle East in a new way. He notes that in situations like the one in Egypt, signals transferred from person to person affected the mood and emotions of the entire country. A key way to understand why individuals make the choices they do, Brooks says, is to "think of the models in their heads, to think of the way they see the world."
Brooks finds himself much more suspicious of the free market after his research into the social nature of relationships, and sees the financial system less as an Ayn Rand-type vision of rational individuals, but instead as several groups of people competing and collaborating with each other. The most successful groups, he says, are the ones who take turns having a conversation and are good at signaling each other.
"The free market produces a lot of wealth, but it's embedded ... in a series of understandings. And if you don't have those relationships, then people can't thrive in that free market," he says.