The Social Animal is not the answer to all of our social problems, and Brooks makes no pretense that it is. His intent is to start the conversation, and in my view he does so in elegant fashion.
The recent revelations from research about human behavior are not totally unsuspected. Astute observers have for centuries noted that we readily gravitate toward group allegiance at the expense of our reasoning facilities, that we make frequent use of self-deception for self-serving purposes, and that our moral sense is hardwired and seldom influenced by reason.
This tendency for developing an allegiance to our respective in-group is deeply imbedded in our nature. Our relationships trump our beliefs; they cut to the core of religion and our universal sense of belonging to anything and everything. Studies show that we humans relate to the notion of God precisely as if to another person, and thus it’s not surprising that the particular beliefs of a religion are treated as being much less important than the belonging itself.
People join a church and then accept that church’s beliefs, not the reverse. Moreover, the threshold for believability knows no bounds because credulity is far less important than membership.
Brooks doesn’t deal at length with the dark side of our emotional predispositions, but I find them extremely important. Our human groups come in all sizes and shapes, but most embody a ready-made template with all of the useful traits of a psychopath, ready at a moment’s notice to deal with the sudden appearance of too much otherness. And all that’s necessary to put our psychopathic capacity to use is to summon enough contempt among members to override our ability to feel empathy.
Indeed, in most humans there is a tipping point—too much otherness and our mutual contempt will take over. Then the spreading of our scorn will become the social adhesive that further bonds our association. We are readily equipped to dehumanize those whom we perceive as adversaries. If our respective in-group applies the right political pressure, we can shift into a dehumanization mode as fast as a new Mercedes goes from first to second gear.
As anyone who pays close attention to political debate already knows, the subject of debate is much less important than whose side is being represented. In so many cases, the position of a particular subject is not the issue. Who is presenting it is what matters, and the participants are apt to switch sides over the argument at hand in the flash of an eye, if it is to the advantage of their group to do so. Relating is easy; we do it by default. Reasoning objectively is difficult, but we can do it if we have the resolve, especially if we are aware of how easily we tend to let our emotions tune out what we would rather not hear.
Ideally we are able to fill the crevices of our differences with the knowledge that derives from a munificent liberal education, and in this way the humanities have much to offer in helping us to be human. Knowing that others are as we are helps to dissipate our anxieties over differences that appear much more pronounced that they actually are.
If a person’s only knowledge of the world revolves in its entirety around one’s local allegiance, then an us and them mentality is all that can be expected. But, as David Brooks makes clear, we are social animals, and being aware that we are is the best hope for our species. Human flourishing is contingent upon whether or not we begin to understand the nature of our behavior, especially our penchant for conflict.
Simply being aware of insightful revelations about human behavior is meaningless unless we put it to practical use. If nothing else, reading The Social Animal should make us pause over those things in life that require deliberative reason instead of emotional reactions. Strong emotion feels like reason precisely because it is so strong.
But, as many behavioral scientists point out, the fact that our unconscious emotional predispositions steer our behavior does not mean they are destiny. We can still override our unconscious predilections, provided we are aware of their existence and have the will to do so.
How disturbing a notion that many of our daily behaviors are reliably predictable. How disappointed would you be to discover that some scientist could study the details of your life and then accurately predict the things you will do or say in the near future?
The disappointment, I suspect, would derive from the fact that we could not predict these things ourselves. And if we could not, what would this suggest about whether or not we are in control of our lives?
The first step to gain better control is to learn more about the recent scientific revelations that guide our behaviors. David Brooks offers an inspirational way to begin.
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