The Social Animal (Brooks): Notes & Review

the social animal brooks

In The Social Animal author David Brooks explains fundamental psychological concepts via the story of a man and a woman, seen developing throughout their lives, from birth to death.

Bullet Summary

  • 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 bears little resemblance to what others think. Always ask for feedback
  • What makes our brain so special is the ability to handle abstract, “fuzzy” representations of reality and compare them

Full Summary

About the Author: David Brooks is a journalist and a political and cultural commentator.

Humans Are Too Complex for Schemes

Humans are too complex for neat progression and boxes of meaning.
Maslow does the same, but the latest research casts doubts on the idea of simple progressions the way Maslow describes.

My Note: I’m so grateful for this!
The Maslow hierarchy was always a pet peeve of mine.
Introduced and presented all over the place, with so few people who ever questioned how good of a model it was to actually understand people and human behavior.

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 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 higher his sexual market value, and the younger the spouse
  • A woman’s attractiveness is a great predictor of the husband’s income
  • Men can compensate for their qualities
    • Shorter men can be more successful than taller ones 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
    • Also read: sexual market value hacks
  • 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. The body takes precedence because it’s more important for reproduction.

And while men look at cleavage, women look for signs of trustworthiness.
My Note: albeit it’s not wrong, this is also a gross oversimplification.

Also, read:


  • 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 on their status
  • Relationships are the biggest determinant of people’s happiness
  • Extroverts are happier than introverts cause they have more relationships

About Sex

  • Men have higher sex drive which stays more constant but dips because of an unclear, invisible understanding of their partner’s menstrual cycle
  • Women’s 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 influenced by education than men’s (educated women are more likely to perform oral sex and experiment)
  • People with one recurrent sexual partner are happier than people with multiple sexual partners

Human VS Machine Thinking

David Brooks says that the human mind works 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 them.
We can connect dogs with wolves, we draw parallels 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 them to a third thing -a description of something- that also doesn’t exist is something a computer cannot do.

Attachment Styles

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.

Avoidant attachment children tend to have a parent who are emotionally withdrawn and psychologically unavailable. They don’t communicate well with children and don’t establish rapport.

The attachment styles of children also predict how good their relationships will be.
Also, read:

Flight or Fight Natural Tendencies

Some people tend to flee stressful situations. Some others have a bigger tendency 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

On learning the world VS adjusting to the world:

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

On human intelligence VS machine learning:

We are smart because we are capable of fuzzy thinking

On school VS “passion” (I disagree with this):

School asks students to be good at a range of subjects, but life asks people to find one passion that they will follow forever

On failure:

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

the social animal brooks

Real-Life Applications

  • Don’t Trust Neat Theories of Categories

Humans are very complex.
Neat theories that put things in order and inboxes 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 says, 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 having higher status than they actually are.

Some people punch below their weight instead, for example applying to jobs they’re overqualified for 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 have 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 pieces of research but rarely tells us anything about those research.
For example, The Social Animal talks about the Marshmallow Test, a very important study, but also a study that has been effectively 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.
The same goes for Grit and Emotional Intelligence.

  • Sometimes Sensationalist

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 saw in “The Social Animal” several issues of correlation for causation.

For example, the author says that people with one recurrent sexual partner in a year are happier than people with multiple sexual partners.
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).


  • Great Concept

The idea of narrating the lives of two people and explaining 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.

  • Sometimes Funny

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 the usual vertical one.

However, I’m not sure how the final product works well. 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 that “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.

Check the best psychology books or get the book on Amazon

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