If you passed outside Garrison Theater on Tuesday night, you might have thought Scripps was hosting a comedy show. Had you walked in, however, you would have found political and social analyst David Brooks standing on stage. His hour-long talk on Feb. 8 included a mix of personal anecdotes and surprising statistics that kept the audience laughing as they also considered some serious political issues.
Brooks’ lecture touched on infant neurology and over-emotional politicians, uprisings in Egypt, and the Tea Party, which he called “people using Abbie Hoffman means to produce Norman Rockwell ends.”
He said he lives by the slogan of “epistemological modesty,” but his multifaceted career has undoubtedly granted him knowledge and insight on a wide array of topics. Brooks is currently one of The New York Times’ most widely read columnists and a regular analyst on NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and NPR’s All Things Considered. Brooks, a founder of The Weekly Standard, was an editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic, and he has written for The New Yorker, Forbes, and the Washington Post, among other publications. His journalism career began in 1983 when he was a police reporter in Chicago. He cites this as the point at which he turned away from his liberal background to his current, more moderately conservative stance.
“It had a conservatising effect on me because I covered what were then terrible housing projects in Chicago, and my conclusion was that some of the well intentioned social policies that were meant to alleviate poverty created these cultures where it was really hard to get out of poverty,” said Brooks. “They concentrated too much on the material subsidies and too little attention to social trust.”
This interest in the social side of things often appears in Brooks’ written work. His new book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, out Mar. 8, is the culmination of years of studying his latest interest, neuroscience. According to Brooks, over the past thirty years, humanity has had amazing advancements in the understanding of the human brain with regard to difficult subjects like emotion and the unconscious which enables us to begin unraveling social behavior. In his book, Brooks attempts to apply some of this new knowledge to how people live and the choices people make. He believes that with insight into our own minds, we will be able to make changes that will improve our families, our business, our politics, and ourselves.
“Emotional attunement is something we’ve ignored,” said Brooks at a discussion before the lecture with a group of Scripps students. “There is a whole other world that is unconscious, creative, that needs to be explored.”
Brooks discussed how this idea operates in politics as well as individual life. He raised questions such as: How do politicians see the world? How are they part of a social network? How do certain contexts unconsciously constrain them to operate in certain ways? Politicians are people too, he said, so it is important to recognize the social and psychological aspects of their daily lives. Brooks said that all the politicians he has met are social beings to the point of extremity. They must be to get elected and to be effective in a system where “98 percent of policy making is personality and relationships.”
Brooks also applied this thinking to more immediate political and economic issues. If we hope to emerge from the recession and address rising debt, Brooks said, politicians must work together on major reform projects. As the old adage goes: two heads are better than one, Brooks said it’s more than that. It all comes down to emotional connection.
“It’s been studied that if you have a group of people who can read each other, know how the group members are feeling and gauge their reactions, they listen to one another and take turns,” he said. “The group that takes turns will crush any group with an average higher IQ or higher GPAs when asked to solve a problem.”
This was only one reason Brooks gave for the need to spend more time understanding and nurturing our emotional sides. If we can appreciate how social institutions and unconscious perceptions play into decision-making, he said, we will be able to manipulate them to improve our institutions. Individually, Brooks said that learning to tap into our emotions will allow us to think in more creative ways. It opens paths for connections through metaphor and analogy, subtle ways of joining two separate thoughts into an innovative new idea. Schools, he said, should make a point of teaching students how to most productively engage with emotions and social problem-solving rather than putting all the emphasis on GPAs.
“It’s really important to have a solid grounding in classics and learning how to discuss and react to different ideas,” said Brooks. He sees this as one strength of a liberal arts education.
“People aren’t looking at numbers on resumes as much anymore. They want to know if you work well in a group, if you’re good in social settings and reading behavior.”
Brooks embodied these ideas in his ability to speak because he is not lacking when it comes to reading a crowd. His creative melding of pop culture and political metaphors were met with appreciative laughter on Tuesday.