David Brooks: From Spouses to Sofas, 'Emotions Tell Us What to Value'

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, an age-old question: What makes us who we are?

New York Times columnist and NewsHour political commentator David Brooks tackles something entirely different in his new book, "The Social Animal."

I talked with David at his Maryland home late last week.

David Brooks, hello in your own home.


DAVID BROOKS: Thank you. Welcome.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, for you, this started with a practical problem, right? Why are so many kids dropping out of school? And that somehow led you to some real deep issues.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it's a completely irrational decision to drop out of school. Why are so many kids behaving irrationally? And why are we unable to sort of get the problem solved?

And I came to the conclusion is that we have a very shallow view of human nature in the policy world. We're really good at talking about material things, really bad at talking about emotions, really good at stuff we can count, really bad at the deeper stuff that actually drives behavior.

So, I'm stuck in this shallow world of policy. And over here, in the world of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, I see a much deeper world, where they're really getting at some of the core issues of why we do what we do. So, basically, I want to take their world and bring it into my world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And it turned out the sort of headline here is, we've been wrong in a sense about who we are or what makes us who we are.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. We think we're divided. We think we have reason over here, which is trustworthy, and then emotion over here, which is — sort of we're suspicious of.

But we're not divided. One of the things this world is finding is that emotion is the basis of reason. We really have to trust our emotions, which are much smarter than our reason in some ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: We tend to think the reason is — reason rules, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. That's wrong.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's wrong?

DAVID BROOKS: Because our emotions tell us what to value. They're like a little GPS system: Go that way. Don't go that way.

Now, we don't have the choice to control our emotions, but we do have the power to educate our emotions. And we do that through literature and through art and music to give ourselves a repertoire of emotional experiences.

If you choose to go to a college, you're — you're educating your emotions by who you surround yourself with. If you go to the Marine Corps, different sort of education. So simply because I'm saying it's unconscious and emotional, that doesn't mean it's beyond our control. We have the choice to choose how we're going to educate our emotions.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, sort of a dumb question, I guess, but how come we don't know that — we don't know this because it's happening at an unconscious level?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. The human mind — well, the brain writes the autobiography of our species at the conscious level.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, we decide we are thinking beings, and that is what is pushing me, and my behavior is because of that?

DAVID BROOKS: And all these things are happening at the low level of awareness. So, when you meet somebody — we are synchronizing our vocabularies right now. We're synchronizing our breathing.

And so, when we make our marriage decisions, often, it's on the basis of things we're not even aware of. People tend to marry people with similar-width noses, eyes similarly apart, with complementary immune systems.

JEFFREY BROWN: Without ever making a conscious decision that that's important, obviously, right?

DAVID BROOKS: No. No one thinks about that stuff. It just feels right.

And that's true in politics, by the way. We have this pretense that we make our political decisions on the basis of who has the right policies. That's not it. It's: Who do we feel comfortable with? Who, unconsciously, do we commune with…

JEFFREY BROWN: But that means — I mean, that means going with your gut. It means some part of your unconscious is actually working real hard.


And the question is do you know how to deal with it and train it? And so, for example, if you do something really cognitively demanding, like buying furniture, it turns out buying furniture is one of the most difficult things we do. Go into a furniture store and look at a sofa.

JEFFREY BROWN: Somehow, that doesn't surprise me.


DAVID BROOKS: You know, try to imagine what it's like in your living room. That's really hard.


DAVID BROOKS: And so that's a very difficult to do.

And what you should do is, you should look at the sofa, marinate with it, not go by your first instinct. You have got to give your unconscious mind time to process. So, think about it. Study it. And then distract yourself. Take a nap. Go to sleep. Think about it the next day. And then go with your gut.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you have chosen a — to tell your story, you have created two characters, Harold and Erica…


JEFFREY BROWN: … follow them from cradle to grave…


JEFFREY BROWN: … and look at their lives and their decisions through the research.

Now, why — why that device?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I did it for…

JEFFREY BROWN: Real — real research, but fictional characters.


And so I did it for a couple of reasons. One, I wanted to show how the research played out in sort of concrete situations that I could put the characters in. Second, I thought it was just more fun to read when you can see the flow of a life and the problems people face.

And then, finally, you know, when you write about the unconscious and the conscious communicating, the conscious mind thinks in essay form and sort of logical argument. But the unconscious thinks in narrative form.

And so I wanted the book to match the subject matter. And so stories are just more powerful.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now for all the emphasis on this deep emotional life, as you say, you admit that you're like most of us. You're not really in touch, fully in touch with your emotions, right?


DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Like, I'm not the most emotionally attuned guy in the world. My wife says that me writing about emotion is like Gandhi writing about gluttony.


DAVID BROOKS: But that is where the reality is. This is where the research led me. It's not where my natural proclivities led me.

And I must say, having spent these years with the — with these researchers, and reading this, and thinking about it, I'm not sure it's, like, made me perfect husband kind of guy, but it's made me more aware of shortcomings. But, mostly, it's just given me a different viewpoint on myself and the world, because you — we inherit this view of what really matters, logic, conscious thinking.

And once you become aware of all the many different levels of sort of intellectual traffic that are happening below, you — suddenly, you see it everywhere around. You see it in yourself. You see it in relationships. So, you don't — you don't focus as much on individuals. You focus on relationships.

And you don't focus as much on just pure reason and incentives. You focus in on perceptions and emotions. And you see the world in a different way.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. The book is "The Social Animal."

David Brooks, nice to talk to you at your home. Thanks.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's great to be with you here.