NY Times David Brooks

New York Times columnist and author of The Social Animal explains why the complex workings of our unconscious minds determine so much of who we are.

David Brooks has been described as a provocative thinker and a sensible conservative. A New York Times Op-Ed columnist, his articles have appeared in numerous other publications. He's a regular commentator on PBS NewsHour, among other programs, and has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and Op-Ed editor at The Wall Street Journal. He's also a best-selling author. Brooks' latest text, The Social Animal, is the story of how success happens.


Tavis: David Brooks is, of course, a widely read columnist for “The New York Times” and a regular contributor to “The NewsHour” right here on PBS. He’s also a best-selling author whose latest text is called “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement.” He joins us tonight from New York. David Brooks, as always, good to have you on this program, sir.
David Brooks: Great to be with you again, Tavis.
Tavis: Let me go right to what the book is really about. It is about this notion that who we are is, to a great deal, determined by these complex workings in our unconscious minds. Tell me more.
Brooks: Yes. So we’re living in the middle of a scientific revolution across an array of spheres peering into the mind and really beginning to figure out what’s going on down there. Some of the things they’re finding is sort of trivial things I like, like people named Dennis are disproportionately likely to become dentists (laugh), people named Lawrence become lawyers.
Unconsciously, we sort of gravitate toward things that are familiar, which is my own daughter is named “Presidents of the United States Brooks” – steering you in that direction. But some of the things are kind of important – how we relate to people, how we scan the world.
So one of the things you find is the first 18 months and how a mother and a child relate sets up a model for how that child is likely to deal with a teacher or deal with employees in school. And scientists can predict with about 77 percent accuracy at age 18 months whether somebody’s gonna graduate from high school just by looking at how mother and child interact.
Now lives aren’t set at 18 months, but models are laid down and pathways are opened up. So there’s just so much happening early in life not only to determine how we shop and all that kind of stuff, but really who achieves, who doesn’t. I really think it gives us a different view of who we are and it gives us a different way of seeing the world.
Tavis: A different view of who we are, a different way of seeing the world, but what does it really mean? What I’m suggesting by that is the fact that so much of who we are is done or created unconsciously. Now that we know that, that impacts us in what ways?
Brooks: A couple things. First of all, we see relationships more. We have a tendency to look at individuals when we should really be looking at relationships.
The second thing is, we have this story we tell of how you achieve. So people emphasize getting good grades, getting good SAT scores, getting certain professional skills, but I think we’re sometimes inarticulate when you talk about character – where does character come from.
And we’re sort of confused sometimes when we talk about emotion. We think emotions are to be distrusted, but sometimes your emotions are phenomenally smart.
Most of the processing goes on under your brain and the underside of your consciousness and the emotions tell you what you value and what you don’t. So in a very practical sense, for example, if you’re having trouble making up your mind on a subject, one of the things you can do is flip a coin and tell yourself you’re gonna go with whatever the coin flip tells you.
But then don’t actually go with the coin flip – go with your emotional reaction to the coin flip. Are you happy or sad it came up that way? Because deep down, you’ve really made a discovery yourself and you just haven’t told your conscious mind about it. Another thing is just how to judge somebody’s temperament.
Again, this is sort of practical thing, but say you’re dating someone. One of the things you can do is come up behind them and startle them. The startle response in someone tells you a lot practically about what that person’s temperament is like. Are they angry when they’re startled or do they just sort of laugh it off? That tells you about what people are like deep down in those sort of practical things.
But I really think in sphere after sphere of life, whether it’s politics or business, we have an official story of how we think we behave, but underneath there are all these forces we’re only vaguely aware of.
Tavis: Tell me more, David, then – I’m fascinated by this – about the struggle, then, the struggle between our unconscious and being conscientious. Because unless you’re gonna disabuse me of this notion right quick, I’m starting to wonder why I even have values, why I have ethics, what morals are all about. If it’s all done unconsciously, then why behave in a conscientious way?
Brooks: Right, because you can’t only rely on your instincts. You have to supervise it. Your unconscious mind has certain strengths. There are certain soldiers, for example, in Iraq – my newspaper did a story about this. They could look at a street and they could tell when there was a bomb on the street. They didn’t know how they did it. They just had an instinctive sense. They felt cold.
So in some way, what’s going on down there is very perceptive, but in some ways, it’s not perceptive and you have to consciously be aware of your own weaknesses. So, for example, most of us have a tendency to be over-confident, to over-estimate what we can do. So 96 percent of college professors believe that they are above average in teaching skills.
“Time” magazine recently asked Americans, “Are you in the top one percent of earners?” Well, 19 percent of Americans say they’re in the top one percent of earners. So we tend to over-value what we think we can do (laugh) and that’s especially true of us guys, by the way.
So men drown at twice the rates as women because we think we’re really good swimmers and we’re not as good as we think we are. But if you’re aware of this inner bias – and that’s the sort of bias that a lot of us share – but we all have our own biases. And if you’re aware of that, then you can correct for yourself. You can approach life with a sense of modesty and you can build modesty devices for yourself.
So Peter Drucker, the great management theorist, had a great modesty device. He said, “Whenever you make a decision, write it down on a piece of paper, seal it in an envelope and then open it nine months later and you’ll see that a third of your decisions were right, a third were wrong, and a third were sort of in the middle, but the reasoning for your decisions will almost always turn out to be irrelevant.”
That’ll remind you of how little we know and then so you go through life protecting for your own ignorance. So that’s an example of using reason to check up on your intuitions.
Tavis: I want to ask you how all this affects this research you’ve done about the unconscious, how all this affects two particular issues. In no particular order, number one, I had as a guest on this program not long ago, Professor Chua out of Yale, who you know kicked up a firestorm in this country with that book called “Tiger Mom.”
I’m wondering what this says – I saw a piece, by the way, that you wrote about her and her work. You can top-line that for us if you want, but what does all of this research say about the way that we parent?
Brooks: Right. First of all, I always like to emphasize that it’s not my research. The scientists and the neuroscientists are the real heroes of this. I’m just sort of reporting on what they’re doing. But my reaction to the “Tiger Mom” name, the Chua book, was that she thinks she’s really being very demanding of her kids when she makes them do their homework, makes them do the violin lessons.
But I would say that one of the things we’re learning is, if you want something really cognitively, very demanding, send your daughter to a sleep-over with a bunch of other 14-year-old girls (laugh). The social relationships and the politics of that are very complicated, very hard to navigate. Most of what our brain is built for is relating to each other and you better learn to do that if you want to survive and thrive in life.
When I made this line – I wrote this line about the sleep-over with 14-year-old girls – Stephen Colbert over on the Comedy Channel put my head on top of a body of a 14-year-old girl and had me dancing at a 14-year-old girl’s sleep-over. I don’t know the most about 14-year-old girls’ sleep-overs, but I imagine and I know about social relationships and they’re really very difficult and take a lot of brain power to figure them out.
Tavis: I don’t know if the question, David, is how can this or how should this – you tell me – but how can or should this research impact the way we go about social policy, public policy, in this country?
Brooks: It really grew out of that for me and that’s how I got into this. I’m not naturally doing this, but I just found it so important because, you know, I covered the decline of the Soviet Union and we sent economists into Russia, but we were oblivious to the fact that the Russians really lacked social trust. We were blind to that. Then in Iraq, we sent the military in and our leaders were oblivious to the cultural and psychological complexities.
Then most germane, I think both you and I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, we’ve spent 30 or 40 years trying to reduce high school dropout rates. Why do people drop out of high school at such high rates when it’s a completely irrational decision? Well, when I started looking at that, I found a lot of the influences that contribute to that decision happen in the first few years of life and happen in the emotional relationship.
Does a kid know how to relate to teachers? Does a kid feel an emotional attachment to school? Does a kid have a connection to their future self? A lot of these things are unconscious and, really, it was that issue that took me into this whole area. So a lot of it is focusing on what’s happening in those first few years of life.
Tavis: So here’s an exit question I think that’s completely out of left field – not the first or last time you’ll be asked a question out of left field. But since you and I are both writing and talking about this all the time, how much of what we are getting or not getting, as it were, out of President Obama, given what we thought we were going to get, has to do with who he is unconsciously?
Brooks: Well, I think, you know, this is my armchair psychology of him. You know, I interview him periodically. I think he’s a phenomenally complicated person. I think he’s a very honorable person. I speak to people on his staff almost every day and I would say, in general, I believe, though I’m to his right, I think he’s conducting himself with an honor and an integrity that is inspiring and they have open debates in the White House.
But I would say one sees from day to day many different sides to President Obama. I think he’s a very complicated personality and I think he is aware of the many different personalities and is always self-regarding and looking at himself and observing. That’s one of the reasons his first book was so brilliant because he has this ability.
I say the good side of that is he’s able to self-correct and form opinions on himself. I would say the down side is that often it’s hard and one doesn’t see this administration committing totally saying we want that and we’re totally committed to that. I think, in some cases, often sees them not leading from the front, but leading from the back. I sometimes think there’s a little less passion than there could be, a little less just simple drive to get something done.
Tavis: David, it sounds to me like a tweaking a bit of this notion in your text, urge to merge.
Brooks: Well, we all have this desire to get close to one another and some people have it more openly than others. Bill Clinton had it pretty openly. President Obama has it a little less openly, but, you know, he’s a good people person. He wouldn’t be President of the United States if he didn’t know how to deal with people.
Tavis: Well, David Brooks is a good person too, and his new book is called “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement.” Of course, you see him every week on “The NewsHour” and we read him every week in “The New York Times.” David, as always, good to have you on this program, sir.
Brooks: Oh, great to be with you, Tavis.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm