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The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
March 7, 2011
LIVE from the New York Public Library
Celeste Bartos Forum
PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: My name is Paul Holdengräber, and I’m the Director of LIVE from the New York Public Library, and as all of you know, my role, my goal, my ambition here is simply to make the lions roar, or, when we had Jay-Z, as I said back then, to make the lions rap.
I’m delighted to be welcoming David Brooks back for the third time to a LIVE from the New York Public Library event. The first event still makes me smile, when he accepted, I don’t know why, to interview the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, known as BHL, about the trip Bernard-Henri Levy took as a latter-day, he said, de Tocqueville around the United States. The sartorial difference alone was quite amusing. (laughter)
Tonight, unlike most nights LIVE from the New York Public Library, David Brooks has elected to lecture and will do so for about thirty-nine minutes, (laughter) followed by a question-and-answer period. He very, very much welcomes questions and, in my view, from the experience I’ve had over the last fourteen years and three months and two days, it takes about fifty-nine seconds to ask a good question. A microphone will be put in the front here and I encourage you to come and ask him many, many, many difficult and always extremely insightful and good questions.
As usual, after his talk we will have a book signing, and as usual I would like to thank 192 Books for being our excellent independent bookseller and wish to acknowledge the Conservators group of the New York Public Library, who came out tonight en masse to hear David Brooks speak about his new book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. In his blog, which he launched yesterday, Brooks claims to be writing because—and here I quote him—“we are in the middle of an intellectual revolution.”
Before introducing David Brooks, let me mention a few of the upcoming events. On March 28th, I will have the pleasure of interviewing A. B. Yehoshua, on April 1st this year’s Booker Prize winner, Howard Jacobson, who’s very, very funny. Also upcoming are conversations with Jennifer Egan, copresented with the Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars, that’s on April 14th, Atul Gawande about dying on April 28th, and the day after death a conversation on the future of libraries with Bruno Racine, the president of the Bibliothèque de France, our equivalent to the Library of Congress in conversation with our President of the New York Public Library, Paul LeClerc, a conversation which I will be moderating and copresented with the Maison Française of Columbia University. And that’s on April 29th.
This brings us to May, when we will host three of the closing events of the PEN World Voices Festival, a conversation with Jonathan Galassi about Leopardi, a conversation with Harold Bloom, our preeminent literary critic, about his life’s work, and it’s quite some life and quite some work. And to conclude the PEN World festival, the annual Arthur Miller Freedom Lecture, this year delivered by Nobel Prize recipient Wole Soyinka. Also in May, some of you may be interested to know, Ralph Nader will be joined by Ted Turner and others to discuss what billionaires should do with their billions. (laughter) I wonder why that makes people laugh. It’s a very serious question. This library would not exist if Carnegie had not made the right choice. That’s on May 4th. Elizabeth Gilbert will talk about Eat, Pray, Love, and much else, I’ll be speaking with her on May 5th.
And we will celebrate—I’m particularly excited about this, not that I’m not excited about Ted Turner and the billionaires, but I’m particularly excited, I get actually quite excited, I actually have quite some difficulty even mentioning what this is, but on May 11th, Chris Blackwell will come and celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Island Records, the fortieth anniversary of The Harder They Come, and the exact thirtieth anniversary of the death of Bob Marley, so I encourage you to come and join us on May 11th, 2011. We are preparing quite some celebration. I won’t tell you the artists joining us, but they are some of the most extraordinary artists of our generation, century, however you want to phrase it.
Then on May 21st, another celebration, the Centennial of the New York Public Library, which LIVE from the New York Public Library will copresent with the Moth, a great storytelling group we have partnered with seven times so far, this time with a program we are devising together with them right now entitled Between the Lions: Stories from the New York Public Library, that’s on May 21st, and there will be more. So stay tuned, join our e-mail list, and please become a member and Friend of the New York Public Library. Just forty dollars a year and you qualify. Give more, and I guarantee you that you will feel better, so help us continue to thrive.
And now to David Brooks. You will be interested maybe to know that as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, David Brooks penned a mock biography of William Buckley Jr. for a campus newspaper. “Buckley spent most of his infancy working on his memoir,” Brooks wrote. “By the time he had learned to talk he had finished three volumes. (laughter) The World Before Buckley, which traces a history of the world prior to his conception, The Seeds of Utopia, which outlined his effect on world events during the nine months of his gestation, and The Glorious Dawn, which described the profound ramifications of his birth on the social order.” Brooks goes on to describe a typical day for Buckley. “In the afternoon, he’s in the habit of going into crowded rooms and making everybody else feel inferior. (laughter) The evenings are reserved for extended bouts of namedropping.” William Buckley read the column and was so impressed that he publicly recruited the young Brooks to work for him at the National Review. While delivering a lecture to a throng of students at the University of Chicago, Buckley famously said, “David Brooks, if you’re in the audience, I’d like to offer you a job.”
After, in his own words, spending some years hitting every right-wing spot on earth, David Brooks landed his current day job as an op-ed writer for the New York Times. Sometimes described as “liberals’ favorite conservative,” a title he does not like, (laughter) Brooks has written on a wide range of topics beyond politics and policy. A quick glance at his columns so far this year displayed the breadth of his interests, from a critique of The Tiger Mother titled “Amy Chua is a Wimp” to a reflection on Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations from proposals to cut down the deficit to an imagined conversation between Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton about Obama’s State of the Union address. Brooks is also notable for having introduced in the American and the French lexicons the term—and I’ll say it with a French accent—Bobo, which he coined in his bestseller Bobos in Paradise or Bobos au Paradis. His other books include On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense and just published and hereby launched tonight at the New York Public Library, The Social Animal, which aims to illustrate, he says, how unconscious abilities really work and how under the right circumstances they lead to human flourishing. Stylistically inspired by Rousseau’s Émile, The Social Animal is told through the fictional life of a composite American couple.
It was composed, according to a recent profile in New York magazine while Brooks, yes, Brooks, listened to soundtracks to the films Sense and Sensibility and Braveheart. (music from Braveheart plays) Recently when we have invited Malcolm Gladwell to interview Wendy Kopp, we asked Gladwell to define himself in ten words or less. This is what he came up with: “Malcolm Gladwell sleeps, reads, writes, visits libraries, and drinks coffee.” Not satisfied to have given me nine words, he gave me seven: “Father said, ‘anything but journalism.’ I rebelled.” I asked David Brooks to do the same and he wrote, “half right, half moderate, half reporter, half academic. Make up your mind.” To enlighten us and perhaps demystify the hidden sources of love, character, and achievement, to help us make up our minds about the social animal we all are and to the soundtrack of Braveheart, of course, please warmly welcome New York Times op-ed writer David Brooks.
DAVID BROOKS: That was unusual. Thank you. I have this strange urge to kill an Englishman. (laughter) Are there any in the audience? It’s an amazing coincidence. Mel Gibson and I went to the same charm school. (laughter) That was not my usual introduction. (laughter) I vividly remember that Bernard-Henri Levy conversation we had. His shirt was wide open. I actually wrote one of my better headlines about BHL when I worked at the Wall Street Journal. It was “God is dead, but my hair is perfect.” (laughter) And I appreciate the mention of my book Le Bobo in French. Like David Hasselhoff, I’m bigger in France than I am here. I did a French book tour, which was fabulous. I got there and a French magazine asked me to pose naked in a bathtub full of milk. (laughter) Then I did a TV show where I was so boring, I was on with a rock band, and while I’m talking on the station, somebody snuck under the table, started taking off my shoes, and somebody reached around behind me and started unbuttoning my shirt as I’m babbling on, and I was thinking, “This is a long way from the News Hour with Jim Lehrer.” (laughter)
The climax—I shouldn’t use that word (laughter)—I’m out to lunch with a French reporter, she was a beautiful young woman. She asks me all sorts of questions about this social class I was describing in the book and then she asked how they pleasured themselves while they were alone, and I said, “I studied many aspects of their lives, but I didn’t really get into that particular act,” and then she described her own techniques. (laughter) And I remember thinking, “This is why Hemingway came to Paris. (laughter) This is fabulous.”
Anyway, it’s a great pleasure to be here. I am a New Yorker, I grew up in Stuyvesant Town not too far south from here, I—my parents were somewhat more left in those days, and in 1965 they took me to a be-in, where hippies would go just to be in Central Park, and one of the things they did was they set a garbage can on fire and threw their wallets into it to demonstrate their liberation from money and material things. And I was five, and I saw a five-dollar bill on fire in the garbage can, so I reached up and grabbed it and ran away. That was my first step over to the right in my life. (laughter) But I spend a lot of time here in this building, so it’s a great pleasure to be here, and since I do know the building and I know New Yorkers, I’ll try to be brief. I know you didn’t come here to hear me speak—you came here to hear yourselves speak (laughter/applause), so I will talk for a little over half an hour and then invite questions.
And so let me first tell you about how I got into this odd subject for me. When I got my current job at the Times I was given a good piece of advice, which was to interview three politicians every day, and I don’t always meet that quota, but I try as best I can, and spending that much time around politicians, I can tell you they’re all emotional freaks of one sort or another, they have what I call logorrhea dementia, which is they talk so much they drive themselves insane, and so when you go up to meet them, they are guaranteed to invade your personal space. And so they’ll get too close, they’ll rub the back of your head, caress your cheek. I had dinner with a Republican senator a couple of years ago, he had his hand on my thigh throughout dinner, (laughter) squeezing it for emphasis. I once—related to that I once saw Dan Quayle and Ted Kennedy meet in the well of the Senate, I was up in the press gallery, and they were—they hugged each other, they were friends, their faces were about this far apart, and they were laughing and joking and their arms rubbing up and down each other’s backs, and sort of grinding away there, and I said, “Get a room, I don’t want to see this.” (laughter)
But so this is the sort of intense social skills that most politicians tend to have. The famous one is Bill Clinton, who has the most incredible social skills. The one story—which is a bit of name-dropping, but I’ll tell it anyway—I was in a hotel in Boston walking through the lobby, he comes out of the elevator, and he sees me, and he starts praising me for a column I’d written praising him, which he thought was particularly astute, (laughter) and so he’s talking to me, and then as he’s talking, people in the lobby see Bill Clinton there, so they start gathering around, and so he starts backing up so everybody can hear what he’s saying to me, and so within a couple of minutes he’s like eighty feet away (laughter), but he’s just sort of embracing everybody, jus tan incredible presence.
And if they don’t have it, they sort of manufacture it, so last election cycle I was following Mitt Romney around as he was campaigning in New Hampshire, and he was with his five perfect sons, Bip, Chip, Rip, Dip, and Lip, (laughter) and he’s in a diner, and he goes to each table around the diner and he introduces himself to each family and he asks, “what village in New Hampshire are you from?” and then he would describe the home he owned in their village (laughter) and then he would go around the whole diner, and on the way out, though, he’s met like thirty, forty people, he first-names everybody he’s just met. And I was like, “Wow, that’s a profession I won’t be going into.”
So they have—they’re politicians because they need love and they have social skills, and yet when they go into the world of policy making, they enter an entirely different mind-set, and so I’ve covered a series of policy failures, a lot of which derive from this bizarre mind-set, so I covered the decline of the Soviet Union and the fall of Russia, and when that happened we sent in economists with hard-currency plans and privatization plans, but what the former Soviet Union really lacked was social trust, and we were totally oblivious to that. Then I covered Iraq. We sent in the military, we were completely—at least our leaders were oblivious to the social and psychological damage that had been wreaked on really the culture of Iraq. Then the financial bubble—we had a financial regulatory regime which was based on the assumption that traders are really rational individuals who will not do anything stupid en masse, and that turned out to be wrong.
And mostly I’ve covered education since 1983, and we’ve tried every sort of bureaucratic reform of education, big schools, small schools, charters, vouchers, most of which have skirted the core issue, which is the individual relationship between a teacher and a student. People learn from people they love, and yet if you mention the word “love” at a Congressional hearing they look at you like you’re Oprah, it’s just not part of the mentality people use to talk about politics.
So this leads to the question—why are the most socially attuned people on earth completely dehumanized when they think about policy, and why is our policy so amputated from human nature? And so I came to the conclusion it’s not only politics that’s like this. It’s a distortion in the wider culture. That for centuries we’ve inherited a view that we’re divided selves—reason is divided from emotion. And society progresses to the extent that reason can conquer emotion. So this has led to a view of human nature that we’re rational individuals who respond in straightforward ways to incentives. And it’s led to a way of seeing the world—people study human behavior using the laws of physics, emphasizing things that can be quantified and more or less amputating everything that can’t be.
And so it’s led to this amputation, this shallow view of human nature, so we’re really good at talking about material things, but we’re pretty bad at talking about emotion. We’re good at talking about skills and safety when raising our young, but when it comes to character, which is the most important thing, we often have nothing to say, and so the result is what the great philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre said that we have words for a lot of the things that are most important. We have words like virtue, soul, honor. But those words are unconnected, we don’t have a structure by which to understand them by. And so he said, imagine you had words like neutron, gravity, words of physics, but you didn’t have a concept of physics that would link them all. That is sort of the universe we’re in, a sort of moral universe in which we are inarticulate about the things that matter most, and about the things that are down below.
And so this amputation, this inability to talk about the things that are deepest within us, affects the policy world, but I think it really starts far away in the way we raise our kids and in the way we react to each other. So if you look at the way kids are raised today, we emphasize certain things that we think—or we feel comfortable saying will lead to achievement. And a lot of it has to do with homework and studying, so if you go to an elementary school in sort of a middle-class American suburb, you’ll see the kids coming out of third grade with these eighty-pound backpacks on their backs, and like if the wind blows them over they’re like beetles sort of stuck there on the ground. (laughter) And so they get picked up by the luxury cars will come up to pick them up from school in certain sorts of neighborhoods near where I live. They’re usually Saabs, Audis, and Volvos, because it’s socially acceptable to have a luxury car so long as it comes from a country hostile to U.S. foreign policy, that’s okay (laughter).
And they get picked up by a creature I’ve described in an earlier book called uber moms, who are highly successful career women who have taken time off to make sure all their kids can get into Harvard, and you can usually tell the uber moms because they actually weigh less than their own children, (laughter) in the delivery, they’re doing little butt exercises during the conception to stay fit and trim, in the delivery room cutting the umbilical cord themselves, adjusting the video lighting, flashing the little Mandarin flash cards and little things, and then they drive them home, and they want the kid to be ready to do community service, so they take them off to Ben & Jerry’s to get some socially enlightened ice cream. I once joked that Ben & Jerry’s should make a pacifist toothpaste, that doesn’t kill germs, just asks them to leave, (laughter) it would be a big sellers, and then they take them to Whole Foods to get some progressive socially enlightened baby food. Whole Foods is where all the cashiers look like they’re on loan from Amnesty International. (laughter) What we get in my household from there is the seaweed-based snacks, called Veggie Booty with Kale, which is for kids who come home and say, “mamma, I want a snack that will prevent colorectal cancer.” (laughter)
And so they raise their kids in sort of a way that’s sort of tough and meritocratic and sort of vaguely moral. They take them to SAT prep, oboe practice, soccer practice, lots of adult-structured skill-enhancing activities. They get into competitive colleges, often they get good jobs, they become the junior workaholics of America, they become really good at describing things that can be captured in PowerPoint presentations, and they go off to lead sort of affluent and successful lives, at least in a superficial sense. And you see them in Aspen or Jackson Hole, the sort of gathering places of the rich, and they look incredibly impressive, they’re so tall and elegant and slender. They don’t have thighs, they have like one calf on top of the other, (laughter) and then they marry other beautiful people, and you see their kids, they sort of achieve the genetic miracle, so their grandmothers all look like Gertrude Stein, but their granddaughters all look like Halle Berry, I don’t know how they’ve done that. (laughter)
And then they fly out to Aspen carrying tote bags, because when you have your own plane you don’t need luggage that actually closes, and they get there and they realize that in there it’s fashionable to have a dog that’s about a third as tall as your ceiling height, so they have these 160-pound giant furry velociraptors usually named after Jane Austen characters, and they progress and get old, and they may not have developed life philosophies, but they’ve done okay and they’re happy with themselves, and they say, “You know, I’ve succeeded at everything else in life, I’m just going to not die,” so they’re in their eighties, they’ve got their personal trainers, they’re popping Cialis like breath mints, they’ve dropped down to about five foot, they’re like ninety pounds now, they’re hiking covering in spandex, and they hike with these grim expressions that make Dick Cheney look like Jerry Lewis (laughter) and then they zoom by you as you’re hiking up the hill, it’s like being passed by a little iron Raisinette going up the hill, (laughter), and so this is a sort of a sort of a successful life, but sort of a shallow life, sort of a dim awareness of what’s deep but not really a real awareness.
And so I’ve been sort of frustrated with a lot of this temper of the times, and while this is happening both in the policy world and in the way child-rearing is done, over in a different part of the world, there have been people and researchers and scientists giving us I think a more accurate view of who we are inside, and oddly it’s not theology and philosophy, the people who are really the most traditional dominant sphere of who we are, but it’s in other sectors and in dispersed disciplines from neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, sociology, many other spheres, and I think they’re really creating a revolution in the way we understand ourselves and when you synthesize this research which has arose independently in many other spheres you see that a lot of the work is really done in the language and the methods of science. They’re not creating a cold and dehumanized version of human nature. They’re reminding us of the elemental humanity of who we are—an emotional, an enchanted version of human nature.
And a lot of their work coheres around three key insights. The first insight is that while the conscious mind writes the autobiography of our species, most of our thinking is actually unconscious. And so one way to think about this is that the human mind can take in about twelve million pieces of information, of which it can be conscious of forty in any minute, and so most of the things are being processed below the level of awareness. And some of this processing is sort of trivial and odd and interesting. One of the studies that fascinated me was done by a guy at Buffalo, and he points out that people named Dennis are disproportionately likely to become dentists, and people named Lawrence are disproportionately likely to become lawyers, because unconsciously we gravitate toward the familiar, even in these major life choices, which is why I’ve named my daughter “President of the United States Brooks.” (laughter)
And one of the findings—but other things are profound, other ways we’re influenced unconsciously—your character, the way you perceive the world, where you perceive risk, where you perceive safety, these things are generally processed below the level of awareness, and the other finding about what’s happening unconsciously is when Freud taught us about the unconscious it was sort of a sexual tangle, which was mostly a place to be afraid of, but a lot of this research reminded us that things happening below our awareness are often quite smart. And so one way if you want to make a smart decision, if you can’t decide about two things, tell yourself you’ll flip a coin and settle it by a coin flip, but don’t go by how the coin actually flips, go by your emotional reaction when you see what side comes up. So if it comes up tails and you’re happy, then unconsciously that’s what you were rooting for.
And so another—one of the most cognitively difficult things we do in life is buy furniture. Going to a furniture store and picking out a sofa and imagining how that’s going to look at home is phenomenally difficult, and a researcher in Holland figured out how you want to do that, make that decision. And it’s not through a conscious list of pros and cons. Study the sofa, let it marinate in your mind, distract yourself, take a nap, take a shower, and the next day go with your instinct, because unconsciously you’ve been processing that decision. So the first insight is the power of things happening below the level of awareness.
The second insight is that emotions are at the center of our thinking. People with strokes and lesions in the parts of the brain that process emotion are not supersmart and logical like Mr. Spock. They’re actually quite dumb. They’re unable to render decisions. Emotions are not separate from reason, they’re the foundation of reason, because emotions tell us what to value, what to remember. They help us organize our mind. And so reading and educating the emotions is one of the central activities of wisdom. Now, I’m a middle-aged guy. I’m not exactly comfortable with emotion, as my wife will tell you. She thinks me writing a book about emotion is like Gandhi writing a book about gluttony. (laughter) And there’s a famous, though apocryphal, brain scan story which they had a bunch of middle-aged guys wired up in an fMRI machine in a little tube there, and they had brain scans, and they had them watch a horror movie and then they had them describe their feelings toward their wives, and so the brain scans are the same in both circumstances, just sheer terror during both activities, and I sort of know how that feels, but emotion is actually what wires us not only in ways we think but even in the most fundamental ways.
There was a famous Romanian orphanage decades ago, and some of the kids in the orphanage were adopted into—by—out of the orphanage. They did a study four years later and those kids has IQs fifty points higher than the ones that were still there, and it wasn’t because they were tutored by their moms, because those mothers were mentally disabled and also living in a different institution. It was the sheer love between a mother and a child that wired their brains differently. In 1955, a scientist René Spitz went to an American orphanage, and this was an antiseptic place, they thought the most important thing in childcare was to keep the kids free from germs, so they were not handled. And they were isolated to protect them, and the mortality rate by age two was 37 percent. They stopped naming the kids because they were dying at such high rates, and that’s another reminder that it is actually the love that makes the health and the mind actually wire.
And then the third insight is that we’re not primarily self-contained individuals. We’re social animals, we emerge out of relationships, we do not form relationships. And so when we look at each other we profoundly look into each other. A controversial concept in the field is mirror neurons, and the idea is when I look at you or when you look at me, we not only theorize about what we’re thinking, we reenact in our own minds the things the we see in front of us. And we don’t not only reenact the action, we reenact the intention. So if you put up a glass to drink it, it will look differently in our brains than if I see you pick up a glass to put it in the dishwater. And so we’re judging and perceiving all at the same time.
And so these are three key concepts, and when you take these three concepts and really the field that has grown around them, you get the sense that we’re not—we’re right now in our culture children of the French Enlightenment, which put reason as the highest of the faculties, but the truth is closer to the British or Scottish Enlightenment, which said that reason is weak and our sentiments are strong, our sentiments are our most important faculty, and so I think this work will help correct this bias in our culture, this bias, this tendency to see only the superficial things which can be quantified and which are logical and linear, and it gives us a way, through science, to remind ourselves really of things that are much deeper and more emotional, more intuitive, not that they’re separate, but they are linked.
So science doesn’t give us new philosophies, but it sort of reminds us of which of the old philosophies is more accurate about who we are, and I think it also gives us a different sense of human capital, of how we grow and develop, and so we’re used to when we think about these things, and when you’re the Tiger Mom, you’re used to thinking about SATs and grades and professional skills, as a way of preparing young or preparing people to thrive in life and those things are all important, but I think this whole field of research gives us different faculties, faculties which are both rational and emotional at the same time and in fact make a hash of those categories, and so if you wanted to run down a list of the things that really contribute to leading a full life, you would mention IQ, that’s important, you would mention going to school and getting degrees, but I think you’d also mention things like mindsight, which is the ability to enter other people’s minds and learn what they have to offer.
And so Alan Meltzoff, who’s a scientist in 1979 or ’80, leaned over a baby who was forty-three minutes old, and he wagged his tongue at the baby, and the baby wagged her tongue back, and this has been replicated many times, but even when we’re born, minutes after birth, we are wired to connect with one another and replicate what we see in other people’s minds, because that’s how we download information. And in America 55 percent of babies establish a secure, two-way communication system with Mom and Dad, and those babies who have this communication system absorb and really download models of how to perceive the world from Mom and Dad and those kids have a huge head start in life. They’re what we call securely attached.
A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota observed the attachment patterns to see who was securely attached at eighteen months, and from those observations at the age of eighteen months they could predict with 77 percent accuracy who was going to graduate from high school, because if you go to high school with the ability to learn from a teacher or relate to a teacher, you just have a huge head start. Twenty percent of the kids send signals but they get nothing back, and they are what they call “avoidantly attached,” and they have incomplete models of reality in their head and there’s a great description in one of the books I read of a kid who’s avoidantly attached entering, I think, a kindergarten classroom, and the kid is like tacking like a sailboat in the wind, wants to get close to Teacher but doesn’t know how to do it and finally stands with his back to Teacher hoping somehow there can be a relationship. And those kids who are avoidantly attached, later on, they have less activity in the reward areas of their brain during social interactions. At age seventy those kids will have as much as two thirds fewer friends than kids who are securely attached.
Now something that happens at eighteen months does not determine a life course, but it opens up a pathway by establishing models in the mind. And occasionally—and so babies come with this phenomenal ability to invade your mind—that’s why parenthood is so hard, because the kid is in there invading all the time, but occasionally you run into people who have this ability. I recently did an event with Michael Milken, who I’d never met before, and he’s one of these people when he’s with you he lasers into you and he just absorbs everything you’ve got. I actually just now did the Charlie Rose show, and I think one of the reasons he’s so good at interviewing people is that he is totally engaged with you when you’re talking and they have this ability, which again is both rational and nonrational.
A second ability you might mention is equipoise. Do you have the serenity and maturity to monitor the shortcomings of your own mind, what the scientists call metacognition? So for example, we’re overconfidence machines. Ninety-five percent of professors report that they are above-average teachers. Ninety-six percent of college students have above-average leadership skills. Time magazine asked Americans are you in the top 1 percent of earners. Nineteen percent of Americans are in the top 1 percent of earners. (laughter) Two researchers, Paul Schoemaker and Edward Russo, gave tests to executives about their own industries and then they asked them how confident are they of the answers. People in advertising gave answers they felt were 90 percent correct. In fact they got 60 percent wrong. People in the computer industry thought they were 95 percent right. In fact they got 80 percent wrong. This overconfidence, by the way, is a gender-linked trait. Men drown twice as often as women because men think they can swim across the lake. They’re wrong.
But some people have a feel for that inner weakness. They are what you might call epistemologically modest. They know their biases; they have an intuitive sense of when not to trust themselves. And, by the way if you’re ever taking a test and you have a nagging sensation that one of the answers you gave is wrong. You should correct that answer, odds are it’s right, and people who correct those answers do better than they don’t. But some people have the ability to be open-minded in the face of ambiguity. They can adjust the strength of their conclusion to the strength of the evidence. They’re modest in the face of partial evidence. And they build these devices for themselves which enforce a sense of modesty. Peter Drucker was one of the people who really thought in these terms, he had a great device, which he said, “when you make a decision, write the decision down and your reasoning on a piece of paper and seal it in an envelope. And then open the envelope in nine months. You’ll find that a third of your decisions were right, a third are wrong, and a third were sort of in between, but in each case the reasoning behind your decision turns out to be completely irrelevant.” And if you do that you’ll be reminded of how little you know, but this is an ability to sense that in yourself and it’s an ability, by the way, which is somewhat related to IQ but not entirely, which is why people with high IQs sometimes behave foolishly.
The third trait is what you might call mitis, which is a Greek word, which our closest translation would be street smarts, the ability to be sensitive to a physical landscape, and to know, to pick out patterns in a landscape. The ability to derive a gist from a complicated situation. So my newspaper did a great story about soldiers in Iraq, some of which could look down the street and get a sense there were IEDs there—improvised explosive devices, and they asked them how do you know, and they said, “Well, I really couldn’t tell you but I have a sense of coldness in my stomach,” and that’s an intuitive awareness of patterns and when patterns are ajar. At chicken farms, there are what they call chicken sexers, who pick up chicks at birth and tell whether they are women or men, female or male, and often the chicken sexers couldn’t tell you how they know, they just know somehow.
I’m reading a great book called The Wayfinders, which is about how people sail from Indonesia to Hawaii across thousands of miles of open ocean without compasses, and they would have a guy sitting all alone on the deck, a guide, and he would look, observe the shape of the wind, the shape of the waves, the color of the water, the reflection of the clouds, the fish he saw, the sea life, and through this incredibly close awareness of the landscape, he could conduct his ship across open ocean through just this power of observation.
The fourth trait you might call sympathy, which is sensitivity to a social environment, the ability to fall into rhythms and read people. And this comes in phenomenally handy among other places at work. Most of us work in groups, and there’s a good reason for that. Groups are much smarter than individuals. If you give a group a test, a complicated math problem, and an individual, the groups will crush individuals every time, in fact, and face-to-face groups are much smarter than groups that communicate electronically, so at the University of Michigan, they gave groups that were face-to-face ten minutes to solve a math problem, and they generally could do it, then they gave a group that was spread out and communicating by e-mail math problems and those groups feel apart, and that’s because so much of our communication is nonverbal. But the effectiveness of a group is not determined by the IQ of the smartest person in it, and it’s not determined by the average IQ. It’s determined by their ability to take turns while talking, and their ability to be emotionally sensitive to each other, and that’s an ability that again is part rational, part not.
The fifth trait is what you might call propriety, which is the ability to see the world to maximize self-restraint. My favorite social science experiment of all time is a very famous one, it was done by a guy named Walter Mischel, who now lives here, on the Upper West Side and teaches at Columbia, and most of you probably know it, but it’s called the marshmallow experiment, and just very quickly for those who don’t. Mischel, when he was starting at Stanford, he took marshmallows, put them on a table, took a four-year-old, put him in the room, and told the four-year-old, “you can eat this marshmallow now, but I’m going to come back in ten, fifteen minutes and if you haven’t eaten the marshmallow, I’ll give you two marshmallows.”
And Mischel once showed me videos of the kids trying not to eat the marshmallows, so there’s like a little girl banging her head on the table trying not to eat the marshmallow. (laughter) One day Mischel was using an Oreo cookie, and a little guy picks up the Oreo, carefully eats out the middle, and carefully puts it back on the table. (laughter) That kid is now a U.S. senator, (laughter) but the important thing of the experiment is twenty years later, the kids who could wait eight, ten, twelve minutes, they had much higher college completion rates, and, thirty years later, much higher incomes. The kids who could only wait one minute, two minutes, had much higher drug and alcohol addiction problems twenty years later and much higher incarceration rates, and that’s because some kids grow up in homes where actions lead to consequences and they learn models of how to control their impulses, and if you can do that school will be relatively easy, and if you can’t do that school will be phenomenally difficult. And so they did it because they developed ways of seeing the marshmallow that allowed them to resist the impulse to eat, it and it’s through these sorts of habits we develop ways of seeing. It’s through etiquette, it’s through politeness, it’s through habits, that we develop methods that subtly contribute to self-control.
And then a couple other traits that sort of mix the conscious and the unconscious. One of them is blending, which is an unappreciated trait, which is really a way of what you might call imagination. A child can say “I’m a tiger,” and we think, “Oh, that’s simple, anybody can say ‘I’m a tiger.’” But there’s no computer on earth that can say “I’m a tiger,” that can take the complicated concept “I” and the complicated concept “tiger” and blend those things together. But that’s really what creativity is. What Picasso did was he took Western art and African masks and blended them together, and not only the geometry of these things but the moral systems undergirding them, and that lent him tremendous power. It’s a very difficult skill to take deep systems, idea spaces, and merge them together like two galaxies clashing to create something new.
And the final trait which I’ll mention, which I call limerence, is not so much a trait or an ability, it’s more of a drive and a motivation. Because what the conscious mind hungers for is money and success and prestige, but what the unconscious mind hungers for is moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we’re lost in love for another, the challenge of a task, oneness with nature, feeling of being subsumed by God’s love. These are moments of transcendence and oneness. They’re internal models in our mind, there’s external models in the world, and these are the moments that we really long for when the models mesh and we sort of lose a sense of self-consciousness and the unconscious can be free and really feel satisfied.
And the most powerful form of this, of course ,is the form of falling in love. We think of love as an emotion but of course like everything it’s a mixture of highly rational abilities with what we think of as—what we now think of as emotional. So even when we fall in love, there’s a measure of rationality to it. We tend to marry people with complementary immune systems, which we deduce from smell and other things. We tend to marry people who are very much like us, who have similar nose width, whose eyes are similarly apart. We tend to look when we fall in love for status symbols, and for some reason this scientific result sticks in my mind that a guy who’s five foot six can get as many online date offers from these online dating sites as a guy who’s six foot so long as he makes $172,000 a year more than the guy (laughter)—and so there’s like this sort of rationality to it but there’s also a deeper thing that takes over when two people do fall in love, it’s not like an emotion, it’s like a state of physical need toward each other. The reward system of the mind is deeply engaged, changing the way you perceive.
Stendhal had a great image, he described a salt mine in Austria where the miners would take tree branches, through it into a certain section of the mine, and then come back weeks later and the tree branch would have been covered by crystals and when they would hold it up to light, it would shimmer and he said this is what falling in love is, your attitude toward your beloved is shimmering, it’s your perception changes and it changes everything about the way you see these people, and it is this process of falling in love and reaching union with another is primarily what leads to happiness.
I tell college kids, though they don’t listen to me, that every course they take should prepare them for the marriage decision because that’s the most important decision they’ll make and they should take courses that will somehow prepare them for that, that if you have a good career and a bad marriage, you’ll be unhappy, if you have a good marriage and a bad career you’ll be happy, and you should organize your coursework about that. (laughter) They don’t really pay attention to that.
But there’s a beautiful example of the power of love and the power of the fusion between individuals in a book which I quote in my book, it’s by a guy named Douglas Hofstadter, and Hofstadter is a professor right now at Indiana University, and he was married to a woman named Carol and Carol was a, you know his wife and soul mate, and they had kids. And then when the kids were five and two, Carol had a stroke and died very suddenly, and Hofstadter had a picture of her on his bureau in his bedroom, and a couple months later he was just walking through and he happened to glance over at the picture of her, and here’s what he wrote in his book I Am a Strange Loop about that moment:
“I looked at her face and I looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes, and all at once I found myself saying as tears flowed, that’s me, that’s me, and those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes and dreams were not separate or distinct hopes, but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that welded us into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but it had lived on very determinedly in my brain.”
And so the Greeks used to say we suffer our way to wisdom and what Hofstadter suffered his way to the wisdom that the loops in our brains are shared loops and underneath the process of our normal, day-to-day life, there are these deep, pure sources of communication, knowledge, exchange, that bind one person to another. And I think in a much less profound way, the policy failures we’ve suffered over the past decades remind us that the most important region if we’re talking about human behavior is down below the realm of intuition, character, perception, unconscious biases, and if we want to develop a fuller view of human nature, design policies, lead lives more in congruence with who we are, we’ll have to remind ourselves of the important of that region and what goes on there.
Now, when Freud gave us his view of the unconscious, it had a huge effect on culture, and I think the incredibly wonderful research that is happening across these many spheres which I just tried to report on in the book gives us—will have a similar impact on our culture. It gives us a different way of seeing who we are, it emphasizes the importance of educating the emotions, it emphasizes the importance of paying attention to the quality of relationships and not just individual traits. It eliminates and really refutes what you might call the faux pragmatism, where you think you’re being hyperpractical by reducing things to things you can count and quantify, and it erases the difference between reason and emotion and shows you how they are in their fullness, and so I think we’re, you know, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of the world, there are many reasons to be pessimistic, but the fact that this field is growing up around us and really only in its early stages, and it’s just been thrilling to report on these people, to talk to them, to read their work and it’s given me a totally different perspective on how I see policy, how I see myself, how I see the world around us, and I think it’s going to have an amazing affect on society and culture for decades to come. So thank you very much.
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