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The Social Animal

April 30, 2013 3 comments
The Social Animal (David Brooks book)

The Social Animal (David Brooks book) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, I read David Brooks‘s The Social Animal, an interesting survey of the best current research on psychology, sociology and culture. Though a best-seller, this book received some mixed critical reviews when it came out in 2011. Knowing Brooks to be a strong writer from his New York Times column, I wanted to see which nits the lit-crit world would have to pick with this book.

The Social Animal was written in an interesting way. Instead of writing the standard non-fiction treatise, Brooks creates some fictitious central characters and follows them through their lives. He then uses these characters to illustrate interesting research conclusions. As one character makes a choice or acts in a certain way, Brooks provides a behind-the-scenes look at what’s going on in the mind of that person. He uses this technique to cover an epic scope of material, from unconscious mental processes to cultural impacts to criminology to American politics and the psychological triggers of parties and campaigns.

When I read the reviews for this book, the critical ones came down on Brooks for not being much of a fiction writer – which in this case is an asinine critique. The Social Animal is not a work of fiction. It’s a non-fiction sociological survey written with the use of personae to make the information more accessible and interesting to read. And the technique works. Brooks channels volumes upon volumes of research material and presents it in an enjoyable and thought-provoking way. It seems the literati get thrown off their thing by anything with which they’re not immediately familiar. This book would be a good central text for undergrad sociology survey, or perhaps even advanced secondary ed.

One of Brooks’s more interesting points comes when he discusses political affiliation (one of his favorite topics). He points out that the two most impactful 20th-century political movements – the liberal movement of the 60’s and the conservative movement of the 80’s – were not the direct polar opposites of one another, like some tug-of-war. On the contrary, they were simply two different flavors of increasing individualism.

English: David Brooks

English: David Brooks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The heart of the liberal 60’s movement centered on moral individualism. You don’t get to tell me how to live my life. Neither does the church. Neither does any social institution for that matter, and certainly not the government. I will live with whomever I want, divorce whenever I want, conduct myself however I want, and do whatever I want with my body. I will do all this without institutionalized restrictions or social policies designed to nudge my behavior in a certain direction. Non-traditional lifestyles are every bit as valid and welcome and traditional ones, and issues of character are personal matters and not to be discussed in the public sphere.

The eighties conservative movement, by contrast, centered on economic and physical individualism. You don’t get to tell me what to do with my money, and you certainly don’t get to take it away. You can’t tell me what I can and can’t sell, or trade. You certainly can’t force me to assist those who never worked for it. And God help you if you take one step towards my guns!

What was traditionally perceived as a back-and-forth wrangling between two sides is more accurately interpreted as two parallel advancements toward an increasingly individualizing culture. Brooks calls it an “atomized” culture, one in which we have very little vocabulary for emotionally-based aspects of our being like character, morality and transcendence. These concepts are not taught. Literature and art that deals with these concepts is given less and less weight in our society. We increasingly emphasize quantifiable, unemotional concepts like improvement, achievement, demographic placement, and status.

The Social Animal suggests that this atomization has the capacity to rot our culture, and that whatever the answer to it may be, it is not held within the dogmas of either political affiliation. Concepts like character, right action, respect, and value for others, prominent in schools and discourse prior to the 60’s, is treated now as if it was sex education: “Everything will be okay as long as you abstain from any action requiring this kind of knowledge.”

This is only one example of many interesting points made in The Social Animal. It is a great synthesis of the current best ideas in social fields.

The Anti-motivational Speech – A Top 10 List

December 10, 2012 5 comments

When I was 11 years old, I saw a speech by 80’s-era motivational speaker Joe Charbonneau. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and from that day forward wanted to be a public speaker of some kind.

That star faded a little bit as I got older, and I could peek behind the curtain of the tropes and platitudes that seemed so brilliant at the time (no disrespect to the late Mr. Charbonneau). This kind of speaking is now (rightly) considered more self-parody than serious boost to personal development. I wish I could say that the genre is no longer taken seriously, but speakers like Tony Robbins are now giving mega-concerts to thousands of their faithful. There is, when you think about it, no substantive difference between Tony Robbins and Joel Osteen or Rick Warren. They deal in the trade of temporary ecstasy.

I was looking through YouTube for examples of good modern motivational speakers, just to see if there was anyone out there with some substance. The exercise was depressing. The field has not changed much from the 80’s; the most successful speakers are still blow-dried white guys talking about getting you to change your state of mind. Many are hired by their fellow blow-dried, white corporate managers who believe that their workforce is unmotivated because of some attitudinal flaw that only affects the middle class.

What’s worse, the content is mostly schlock. Many famous systems are based on Neuro-linguistic Programming, a controversial, unproven form of hypnosis. Recently, on an international flight, I saw a BBC documentary called  “Money” about the proliferation of wealth creation seminars in England. It was about how poor and middle-income people would pay thousands of pounds for materials about attitude transformation. They would be instructed to meditate in strange ways several times a day, visualizing themselves with tons of cash. It was sickening, like an Amway seminar had slept with a Baptist revival.

I still want to be a speaker, and after having listened to a lot of modern motivational speeches, I think I have a useful trial theme. I call it, “The Anti-motivational Speech: How To Motivate Yourself and Those Around You By No Longer Being a Fucking Idiot.” I think it’s really going to save the world. It turns out, even smart people get themselves into really stupid habits, and transform into idiots slowly over time. You might be behaving like a total idiot and not even know it! I have ten points so far that I’m thinking about including, and I invite you to submit suggestions if I’ve missed anything important. Read more…

To Fake It, or Not To Fake It

October 31, 2012 3 comments

Dr. Amy Cuddy is a social scientist at Harvard Business School and an expert on prejudice. Her most recent article (Co-authored with Dana R. Carney) focuses on the relationship between physical postures and hormone levels in the body. It’s attracted enough attention to earn her a TED talk, which is how I first found her.

Since ancient times, we have taken for granted that body posturing reflects a person’s mood at that moment. The West, and in particular the U.S., makes body language observance practically into a fetish. One needs look no further than the recent presidential debates to see pundits over-analyze and misconstrue every twitch and tick of the candidates.

Dr. Cuddy (She must get a lot of grief from fans of the show House) further points out that body language also predicts behavioral outcomes. She cites research in which experiment subjects who viewed 30-second (silent) videos of doctors speaking to their patients could accurately predict which doctors were more likely to be sued based on their non-verbal manner (demonstrating that doctors’ behavior correlates more strongly with lawsuits than does their competence).

Now to the central question: we know that non-verbals can govern how we feel about, and behave toward, other people; do they also determine how we think and feel about ourselves? In other words, do our physicality and posture influence our mood as much as our mood influences our physicality and posture?

Dr. Cuddy designed an experiment in which subjects held a certain body pose for two minutes. They were not told about the nature of the poses, but half of the subjects posed in attitudes of “high power” (e.g. hands on hips, leaned back, arms extended upwards and wide, etc.) and the other half posed in attitudes of “low power” (e.g. contracted core, legs crossed at the knee, hands touching neck, etc.). They than ran a number of tests on these subjects including questionnaires, gambling tests, and saliva tests for endocrine levels.

She found that those who held the high-power poses for two minutes showed more poise and confidence immediately afterword, were more optimistic, and willing to take risks. Most striking, the two groups showed vastly different levels of certain hormones in the saliva tests. Those who held the high-power posers showed a 20% testosterone increase from baseline (low-power posers showed a 10% decrease). This explains the increased feelings of optimism and confidence. Also, high-power posers showed a 25% decrease in cortisol (low-power posers showed a 15% increase). Cortisol governs stress-reactivity – lower levels of the hormone tend to indicate better coping. It seems, amazingly enough, that physicality actually changes body chemistry. Read more…

Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last? Notre Dame Study Says…

August 22, 2011 6 comments

University of Notre DameIn 2011, 480 business management undergrads at Notre Dame participated in a study in which they were to play the role of HR managers. They were assigned randomly to examine either eight male or eight female entry level candidate descriptions, and determine which of the eight should be placed on the fast track to management.

Here is an example of a candidate description excerpted from the study:

Carl Q: Was well organized. Nonverbal behaviors were appropriate. Demonstrated great intelligence via college transcripts. Has good insights on topics. Observation: He seems to be candid and trusting.

For all eight sample candidate profiles, the employee descriptions were kept relatively consistent. Each candidate was “described, in some way, as conscientious, smart and insightful.”

The only part of the candidate description that changed significantly was the sentence after the word “observation.” In four of the eight cases, the candidate was described using adjectives that would make the candidate seem agreeable (e.g. trusting, straightforward, modest, compliant, etc.). In the other four cases, the candidates were described as disagreeable, using adjectives that were antonymous.

So which candidates got put on the fast track to management? Read more…

The “Shaken Self”: Self-Confidence and Product Choice

June 30, 2011 2 comments

I’m always excited when science finally catches up with marketing.

M&MsA man walks into a sociologist’s office, and is asked to write a short essay highlighting his healthy life habits. He does so. Afterwards, he’s offered a choice of two small rewards for his work: an apple, or a pack of M&M’s. He makes his choice and leaves.

After that, another man walks into the sociologist’s office, and is asked to write a short essay highlighting his healthy life habits. As he’s about to begin, the sociologist asks him to write it with his non-dominant hand. After he does so, he is offered a choice between an apple or a pack of M&M’s.

This second man, who wrote with his non-dominant hand, is significantly more likely than the first to choose the apple. Why would that be?

A lot of excellent research is starting to emerge dealing with the relationship between “state” self-confidence (short term mental states) and purchasing habits. The study I’ve just referenced came out of Stanford last year. It was published in Advances in Consumer Research by Leilei Gao, S. Christian Wheeler, and Baba Shiv, and talks about the concept of the “shaken self.” Read more…

Demanding High Status at the Top of a Presentation

October 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Corporate PresentationsI hear a common complaint about internal company presentations. Internal presentations are apt to be less formal, and therefore audience members commonly to interrupt with questions, tangents, challenges and typing out emails on their Blackberries. Most times its the higher-ranked employees who do this, even though you’d think more senior people would want to set a respectful example.

The reason why is obvious if you understand the Status Transaction: more senior employees carry more status, and therefore feel entitled to distract from your show.

It’s the same reason that people heckle comedians. You’ve gone to all the trouble of creating a “spotlight” of attention in the room, and someone in your audience wants to grab it and put it on them for a while. It’s more than an annoyance; in terms of what’s going on in the room it actually diminishes you and makes you seem smaller than you are.

In fairness, the reason most employees – and high level employees in particular – feel so disposed is that ninety-nine out of every hundred presenters they see waste their time in some way. They plod through slide after tedious slide, dragging their audience through their minutiae without succinct points, message flow, or word efficiency. Therefore most corporate audiences feel no duty to presentation etiquette, and instead prefer to assert themselves over you or tune out.

Next time you have to give an internal presentation to an audience you fear might not stay with you, do this:

Read more…

Making Difficult Things Look Effortless

August 27, 2010 4 comments

Historians have finally identified the inventor of “cool.” Back, way back before the Fonz, before James Dean or Brando, before Clark Gable, almost before Columbus even landed, there was the originator of cool: Baldassare Castiglione.

How can you not be cool with a name that rolls off the tongue like that?

Back in the days of the Italian courts of the early Renaissance, writers and artists were rediscovering the Aristotelian notion of the ideal form. When you set about creating something, you aspired to make it as close to the theoretical ideal form as you possibly could. In this way, you could approach perfection.

Baldassare Castiglione, The Originator of Cool – Can’t you tell just by looking at him?

Right about the same time Machiavelli published his work on the ideal form of a ruler, our friend Baldassare published The Book of the Courtier. In it, he laid out the ideal for the new Renaissance Man – the man who could master many diverse talents and areas of expertise. We get the modern idea of the Renaissance Man from Castiglione’s work, just as much as we do from examples of the famous polymaths of the day: Leonardo da Vinci, Leone Battista Alberti, Matteo Ricci and others.

Castiglione thought that it was improper for gentlemen to refine all these talents only to show off at court, and become immodest scene-stealers. In the time of Machiavelli and palace intrigue, influence itself became the coin of the realm. If you were a gentleman of the court, and you wanted to do the most good, you had to influence the royalty to act in virtuous ways. Talent and refinement were useless if they kept you from holding sway over the actions of the court.

So Castiglione coined the term sprezzatura. There is no direct translation, but now we would call it “coolness,” “smoothness,” “intrigue,” or “nonchalance.” The idea behind sprezzatura is that when you exercise your talent in any way – in their case things like poetry, recitation, classical mastery, sports, intellectual gaming, etc. – you do it without any affectation or pretense. You don’t call attention to the effort you put into it and don’t come across as showing off. Read more…

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