The Social Animal

Technology has changed the meaning of relationships. For better or for worse remains to be seen — we do know that our relationships are now different. 

Given our new technology-based forms of communication, are we any better at measuring our most precious resource, human capital?

David Brooks recently published his book The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Put broadly, it examines the human mind and how we can better measure success.

Brooks uses politicians as an extreme example to highlight the two sides of the human mind: On one hand politicians are capable of immense emotional intelligence, able to connect with thousands if not millions of people in person or through media; on the other hand, when it comes to policy, their actions seem almost wholly devoid of this same emotional intelligence, replaced and justified by an indifferent and exacting form of logic and reasoning.

Research of the past fifty years has drawn light upon the reason vs emotion debate, in the context of what it means to be human. Synthesizing the research of economists, sociologists, psychologists, and scientists we come to appreciate a deeper view of humanism.

Brooks gleans three key insights. First, while the conscious mind writes our day to day autobiography, it is the unconscious that does most of the work. We are bombarded with a million data points per day. We can actively only recall a small percentage of those data points, however the unconscious mind creates an image of the world that we can call upon to make what feels like “gut calls”.

Second, studies of patients with brain damage has shown that emotions are not separate from reason and wisdom but in fact emotion is a foundation of reason. Emotions tell us what to value. Interpreting and educating your emotions is one of the most important things we do and we can improve.

Third, we are not self-contained individuals. More than anything we are social, not rational, animals. Our sense of self emerges out of relationships and deep interconnections with others. In our minds, we re-enact what others see in their minds.

These findings impact our appreciation, understanding, and management of human capital. When we think about how we measure human capital we think about the number of hours spent behind a desk, number of tasks completed, grades, SAT scores, degrees, and so on. Human capital may be our most previous resource and we need to look deeper than superficial numbers to measure and determine success.

The aforementioned research points at six aspects that are not measured but are more indicative of success and a far richer life.

1. Mindsight. The ability to enter people’s mind and understand what they have to offer or empathize with their circumstances.

2. Equipose. The ability to read the biases and failures in your own mind. Men in particular lean towards overconfidence. Those with high equipose are self-aware, open-minded, curious, comfortable in unknowns, and are able to adjust the strength of their conclusions with the strength of the evidence.

3. Metis. Derived from Greek mythology, metis is the embodiment of prudence, wisdom, or “street smarts”. It describes a sensitivity to your environment and the ability to pick out patterns in your environment.

4. Sympathy. The ability to work within groups. Groups are smarter than individuals, and groups that work face to face are smarter than groups that communicate electronically because 90% of communication is non-verbal. The effectiveness of a group is rarely linked to the group’s IQ, but rather is linked to softer attributes such as the capacity to work together and taking turns in speaking.

5. Blending. The ability to mix concepts. This is very difficult to measure but is an important source of innovation. Picasso blended western art and African masks, not only the geometry of the art, but the underlying moral systems as well.

6. Limerence. This does not describe an ability but rather a drive or motivation. The conscious mind hungers for success and prestige while the unconscious mind seeks out moments of transcendence. When we are lost in a challenging problem, when a craftsman is lost in his task, when a naturalist is one with nature he or she experiences this transcendence. Our skull line disappears.

The new research of the latter part of last century, and this century to come, in Brooks’ view, will have a profound impact on our culture and on how we interpret what it means to be human.