The Social Animal by David Brooks tells the story of a man and a woman throughout their lives, from birth to death. And it looks at them with a scientific documentary-style approach, peppering the novel with scientific research and some philosophy as well.
- We overestimate the importance of money for happiness and underestimate relationships. Research shows that relationships are the most important determinant of happiness (deep relationships and good marriages on top)
- What we think of ourselves often bares little resemblance with what others think. Always ask for feedback
- What makes our brain so special is the ability of handling abstract, “fuzzy” representations of reality and comparing them
In this Social Animal’s summary I will completely skip the story and focus only on the tidbits of science that I found worthy of remembering.
Humans Are Too Complex for Schemes
Humans are too complex for neat progression and boxes of meaning.
Maslow does the same, but latest research casts doubts on the idea of simple progessions the way Maslow describes.
Science of Love
People tend to end up with people who live nearby and tend to choose spouses with similar intelligence.
And an important way of measuring someone’s intelligence, says David Brooks, is through the vocabulary. The author says that we have so many words to impress mates.
A few more interesting tidbits:
- People seek the highest possible return in the dating marketplace
- The richer he is, the younger the spouse
- A woman’s attractiveness is a great predictor of the husband’s income
- Men can compensate their qualities
- Shorter men can be more successful than taller one if they earn more (Dan Ariely calculated by how much)
- A black man should earn more than a white one to do well
- Asian men need to earn more than white ones to have the same level of attractiveness
- Women resist dating outside their ethnic group much more than men do
- Men are more romantic
- Women have a better sense of smell
Bodies More Important Than Faces
Men rate women with attractive bodies and unattractive faces consistently more highly than attractive faces but unattractive bodies. Body takes precedence because it’s more important for reproduction.
And while men look at cleavage, women look for sign of trustworthiness.
My Note: albeit it’s not wrong, this is also a gross oversimplification.
- Marital satisfaction is U-shaped: happiest in the beginning, unhappiest when children are adolescents, then climbs again
- Social skills are not connected to IQ (only 5% of IQ explains emotional intelligence)
- Women react more strongly to relationship stress and men to assault to their statuses
- Relationships are the biggest determinant of people’s happiness
- Extroverts are happier than introverts cause they have more relationships
- Men have higher sex drive which stays more constant but dips because of an unclear, invisible understanding of partner’s menstrual cycle
- Women sex drive is influenced by many variables
- Religious women experiment less but their desires are the same.
- Women are attracted by female and male bodies, her body lubricates even while watching animal sex
- Women’s sexual tastes are more influences by education than men’s (educated women more likely to perform oral sex and experiment)
- People with one recurrent sexual partner are happier than people with multiple sexual partner
Human VS Machine Thinking
David Brooks says that the human mind work differently than a computer because it’s capable of “fuzzy thinking”. Such as we make up “gists” of what things are and we can make patterns.
Once we make up gists, we can make lots of things with it.
We can connect dogs with wolves, we draw parallel between cats and dogs because we can think that “this is sort of like that”. We use our neuro-imagination to draw parallels.
It seems easy but it’s very complex.
Taking two things that do not exist -our gists- and comparing to a third thing -a description of something- that also doesn’t exist is something a computer cannot do.
David Brooks says that there is no one best parenting style.
As long as the parenting is coherent and predictable, then the attachment will probably develop a secure attachment style.
Attachment styles of children also predict how good their relationships will be.
Flight or Fight Natural Tendencies
Some people tend to flee stressful situations. Some others have a bigger tendencies to fight.
The author repeats a few studies on performance saying that top performers train to learn and improve while mediocre ones train to have fun (also read: The Talent Code).
The high achievers also do one thing they are good at and do it over and over again (Good to Great).
The Social Animal Quotes
We spend much of the first halves of our lives trying to build internal models that fit the world and much of the last halves trying to adjust the world so it fits the inner models
We are smart because we are capable of fuzzy thinking
School asks students to be good at a range of subjects, but life asks people to find one passion that they will follow forever
Much of life is about failure, whether we acknowledge it or not, and your destiny is profoundly shaped by how effectively you learn from and adapt to failure
Real Life Applications
Don’t Trust Neat Theories of Categories
Humans are very complex. Neat theories that put things in order and in boxes are often too big simplifications of reality to even help us understand ourselves. For example the Maslow hierarchy looks neat with its order of needs. But, as David Brooks say, research shows it’s more complex than that.
Watch Out for Status Inflaters
Status is not objective. Some people are status inflaters, they trick people into perceiving them as higher status than they actually are.
Some people punch below their weight instead, for example applying to jobs they’re overqualified because they’re afraid of competition (or because they find comfort in “winning”).
Ask People for Feedback
There is little overlap between what people think of themselves and what others think of them. Thus, always ask people for feedback!
“The Social Animal” Book Title
Honestly I was a bit put off the use of the title “The Social Animal” since there is already a book with that name by Elliot Aronson. The two books are also somewhat similar, providing an overview of many different studies on people and psychology. I wonder what Aronson thought of that.
Introduces Research Without Digging Deeper
The author introduces several researches, but rarely tells us anything about those researches. For example The Social Animal talks about the Marshmallow Test, a very important study, but also a study which has been quite severely criticized recently, which other studies failing to replicate part of the initial findings.
Hence, you must take this book with a grain of salt sometimes.
Same goes for Grit and Emotional Intelligence.
In the description of the neurons we get the usual spiel of “possible” connections among neurons which is higher than the particle of the universe. That really tells you nothing.
Sometimes Correlation Mistaken for Causation
I feel that sometimes The Social Animals mistakes correlation for causation. For example it says that people with one recurrent sexual partner in a year are happier than people with multiple sexual partner.
However, it fails to take into account that people with multiple sexual might be driven by an internal “dark push” that makes it harder for them to stop (also read: psychology analysis of womanizers).
The idea of narrating the lives of two people and explain it through studies and psychology is a very good one. I believe it added value and made David Brook’s work stand out from all the insignificant, journalist-penned pop psychology books that add very little value.
A few jokes here and there will make you smile. It’s always good to laugh, even when you are busy deepening your knowledge 🙂
I’m ambivalent about The Social Animal.
There were a lot of golden nuggets and many interesting tidbits that I had never heard before, and I love that.
There were also a few pop psychology “myths” that the author didn’t go to the bottom of.
The structure of The Social Animal is its biggest peculiarity.
The idea of going through two people’s lives to investigate the human animal in different periods of its life is fascinating.
Basically, a linear approach instead of a the usual vertical one.
However I’m not sure how the final product would work. Not because Brooks did it or didn’t do it well. But I wonder on a more general level if such a broad undertaking might not just be too much to chew for a single book.
I felt tat The Social Animal touched upon extremely interesting topics but it could not stop long enough to go deep enough.
Obviously the author needed to move on with the story.
Overall though, I am glad I read The Social Animal and took away quite some novel wisdom.