Show Hide image

The Social Animal: a Story of How Success Happens

The Social Animal: a Story of How Success Happens
David Brooks
Short Books, 448pp, £14.99

There is an uncomplicated, old-fashioned feel to David Brooks's The Social Animal. It is a readable presentation of research findings from the fields of behavioural and cognitive psychology, as well as neuroscience, and also a guide to how to become a better, more successful person. Moreover, it is another, historic defeat for the Fabian tradition of social science based on gathering the data, developing the policy, pull­ing the levers and achieving equality. In that sense, and in that sense alone, it is a great contribution to humanity.

It turns out that even psychology, which has its roots in individual cognitive structures and behavioural pathology, has discovered that relationships precede thought and rationality. They also shape our character and linguistic abilities. Those who can "read" the "signals" of relationships and dynamics, those who can love and trust others are - and who knew it? - more successful than those who pursue individual career plans and act on the basis of the data, or those who are unloved and suspicious of others. A good and meaningful life, which is also a successful life, turns out to be best served by pursuing the good.

This is an important break with the psychological assumptions of economics. These are rooted in a mutant fusion of a utilitarian pain-and-pleasure calculus with a weird form of Calvinist theology, which holds that living a selfish and graceless life in pursuit of indi­vidual material gain is somehow the greatest gift a man could make - to both this kingdom and the next.

That said, the most remarkable thing about this book is that people have found it remarkable. Only empirically minded social scientists could be surprised by its message that loving, faithful relationships between people bring personal and collective benefits. Brooks combines his reflections on the science with a fictitious family history. The message of the relationship between Rob and Julia, the parents of Harold, is that we learn a lot more about ourselves and others from "non-verbal" and "non-cognitive" signals. The story of their courtship and marriage is the conceit on which Brooks's account of evolutionary selection, emotional intuition and relational adaptation is hung.

Unfortunately, his description of the sexual encounter that led to the birth of Harold is one of the most excruciating things I have ever read, evoking stained velvet rather than human love. There is often a jarring gap between the book's message of relationality on the one hand, and the quality of its depiction of character on the other.

The principal limitations of the book are not stylistic, however. Rather, they concern its central claim: that psychology lacks the language and conceptual range to overcome a series of dualities - between the inner and the outer, the subjective and the objective, the rational and the emotional. While the data speaks of the need for relationships, kindness, patience, perseverance, character, humour and empathy (the pub), the language is still trapped in learning, decision-making, development, skills and cognition (the seminar). It remains rooted in an ideal of self-development that was the reason the political destiny of the 1970s was Thatcherite. The self-fulfilment propounded by the psychological self-help books of the time could not be conceived relationally, institutionally or in terms of virtue. It could only be conceived according to individual capacities, lifestyles and careers. The over-the-counter culture took over.

As the book chugs along, with Erica - a half-Chinese and half-Mexican business consultant who marries Harold - becoming the central character, we surf the learning curves of boom and bust, career change and death. Brooks also dabbles in philosophy and offers a discussion of what he calls the "British Enlightenment", characterised in his view by a sort of bracing scepticism. This is a heterogeneous tradition that lumps together Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, David Hume and John Locke.

Brooke understands that Hume and Burke, if not the others, were trying to grasp the meaning of society and sociability and to acknowledge the limits of rationality. In this, they were reconnecting with an Aristotelian tradition of ethical thought that had been kept alive mainly within the Christian Church, and that was far more sophisticated and analytical than any of its competitors. It was Aristotle who described human beings as social, language-using, political animals.

In trying to explain the nourishment and magic that flow from friendship and love, from adventure and fidelity, Brooks uses the word mystery more than 20 times. And yet he wholly neglects the Christian tradition, which has made mystery a central aspect of its understanding of the world. His attitude to it can be gleaned from his reflections on "attachment". He writes: "Children project souls into their favourite stuffed animals and commune with them in the way that adults commune with religious icons."

This repeated failure to understand how traditions preserve the non-rational forms of wisdom that underwrite family meals, relational loyalty, care for the next generation, love for the old and skilled and vocational practice is a significant lack in Brooks's outlook. To use his language for one moment, there is a certain "autism" here about conventions, institutions, and especially about Christianity. "On the whole," he asserts, "westerners tend to focus narrowly on individuals taking actions while Asians tend to focus more on context and relationships." This ignores Christianity entirely, and the long history of reflection on the relational meaning of the Trinity and the divine message of the human Messiah whose message was love.

The Social Animal purports to be about social success and about strengthening loving relationships, solidarity and trust, yet it has nothing to say about the institutions that promote them. Its shortcomings are best grasped by comparing it to After Virtue by the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre also takes a path from Aristotle, through the Scottish Enlightenment, to a critique of Enlightenment liberalism. But, in contrast to The Social Animal, MacIntyre places virtue centre stage. For him, the ideals of vocation and reason are the means of building and sustaining good character. Civil association is best understood not as the space between individual cognition and external reality, but as what Aristotle called "politics". It is absent from this book, yet it is essential for any explanation of "how success happens" - as essential as our faith traditions.

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and the co-editor, with Jonathan Rutherford, Marc Stears and Stuart White, of an ebook, "The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox: the Oxford London Seminars (2010-2011)"

Maurice Glasman is a Labour peer and director of the Common Good Foundation.

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit