David Brooks TED Talk: The Social Animal

[Video Link] I wasn't expecting David Brooks' talk at TED2011, about the failures of politicians to make good policy decisions, to be as funny and insightful as it was. After all, as one commenter at TED.com's website said of Brooks, "this is the same guy who accused Harry Ried of wearing a tin-foil hat and communing with extra-terrestrials just because Ried accused Bush of fabricating reasons to invade Iraq." Politics aside, Brooks' talk was one of my favorites at TED.

Tapping into the findings of his latest book, NYTimes columnist David Brooks unpacks new insights into human nature from the cognitive sciences -- insights with massive implications for economics and politics as well as our own self-knowledge. In a talk full of humor, he shows how you can't hope to understand humans as separate individuals making choices based on their conscious awareness.

TED2011: David Brooks -- The Social Animal


  1. I very cynically expect, without having watched it, that somewhere in Brooks’ speech is some false equivalence of both parties. Or some rationalization for how tax cuts for the wealthy is good for everyone. Or some similar bunch of crapola.

    That may be unfair, but I’m looking for a transcript and scanning it first.

  2. Let me summarize the forthcoming boingboing groupthink for this thread and save everyone a lot of time:

    His politics are different than ours so:

    * why is this on boingboing?
    * he’s evil and I won’t listen to ANYTHING he has to say.
    * he’s obviously wrong.
    * while the talk is good, it’s simply another reminder that even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.

    Please move along now and have a productive day.

    1. “oh! a white-shouldered ibis, one of the world’s rarest birds! oh sorry, no, it’s just a conservative accusing someone of groupthink.”

  3. Bo-Bo Brooksie’s side of his Straussian bargain with the neoCons depends on his making a certain subset of selfish and greedy NYT-reading Boomers feel good about abandoning the their 1960s progressivism, even as they continue to coast on that cred (mainly by indulging in conspicuously crunchy Bohemian consumerism).

    Bear this in mind as you read or listen to anything by Brooks, no matter how charming he may come across. Since a primary neoCon tenet is that politicians (being part of bad ol’ government) *never* make good decisions on non-military matters, it’s not surprising he’s pushing this particular meme.

    For those interested in the book Brooks is flogging, I’ll refer you to a review by PZ Myers, one of the funniest I’ve read recently:


  4. David Brooks is actually one of my favorite conservatives. I don’t agree with much of what he believes, but I get the feeling he has put some real thought into his position. He’d be on my list of people to sit down and have a great conversation about things we disagree on.

    I’m reading The Social Animal right now. It’s a little shallow, based on the literary style, but if nothing else, it is an awesome example of how knowledge (incomplete though it might be) can color and enrich every day life.

  5. I’m a bit surprised by Brook’s book topic, since we’ve known that people are hypersocial for quite some time. However, I haven’t read it, so I am missing the finer points, but the overall point really isn’t new.

  6. lubertdas,

    I’ll be watching the video, but mainly to see how he incorporates his propaganda brief into the talk. I’ll give the little weasel this: he’s a master at making the noxious sludge of the neoCons palatable to the kind of reader the NYT targets with its smarmy TV spots.

  7. Wait. What!? The unconcious is vast and important? Emotions are the seat of reason? We are all connected? There are irrational, under-articulated forces deep inside the human organism?

    And now SCIENTISTS think so, too?

    Well, blow me down.

  8. I often disagree with Brooks, but in my opinion he is intelligent and respectable and actually has decent arguments for his stances, even if I don’t agree with them. If more conservatives were like him, the USA would be in a MUCH MUCH better situation than we are.

  9. David Brooks is a neocon. Neocons are wrong about many things; but they’re not wrong about everything – and, unlike many other types of conservatives, neocons actually put some reasoned thought into their beliefs. It’s understandable why many of my fellow Happy Mutants would be skeptical of anything that a neocon like Brooks might have to say; but here’s a thought: Why don’t we judge ideas based on the merits of the ideas themselves rather than prejudging them based on our views of the person expressing those ideas? Hmmm?

  10. On some of these same themes (but in greater depth and without the bitter satire), I have been enjoying the new book Practical Wisdom by Swarthmore professors Ken Sharpe and Barry Schwartz.

  11. As a European (who considers Democrats to be far too right of centre) who does not read The NYT and is unfamiliar with Mr Brooks I could find little fault in his talk, in fact I found myself nodding a few times. Others appear to think he’s a dick, this may be so, was anything he said wrong?

  12. Watched.

    Had the exact opposite reaction I expected to have based on Mark’s post.

    The talk was not interesting or funny, but he didn’t manage to say *anything* I disagreed with.

    If you want a bunch of contemporary social clichés, a mention of Douglas Hofstadter, and valid but borderline superstitious observations about non-verbal communication and IED ESP (which I think Hofstadter might agree sounds a lot like how a dog knows where to pee or where another dog probably peed) then you should watch.

  13. If I hear him say how hard it is to pick out a couch one more time I will have to pierce my eardrums with knitting needles.

    We feel and think at the same time, and the frontal lobe is not the biggest part of the brain,,,Did you know we only use 10% of our brains….

    fucking profound…

    David brooks is a fine conservative, whyhe decided to get into pop psychology at this point in his life is beyond reason.

    Must have gone with his gut.

  14. I’m surprised he didn’t invite everyone to a post-talk meal at the Applebee’s salad bar.


    The simple fact is that Brooks isn’t wrong because he’s a neoconservative.

    Brooks is wrong because he’s been spectacularly wrong about pretty much everything throughout his entire career. The reason he’s gone into pop psychology is because in that field, one can be wrong over and over again, yet few will ever realize it — in fact, one can be “promoted” or rise above the rest and held as some sort of expert, no matter his or her repeated failings

    In other words, it’s just like being a political pundit, but without even appearing to need things like pesky facts and reality.

  15. Whatever he may be in the rest of life, this per se is pretty sane. A suit talking about loving humanity without a bunch of hooey about God is refreshing. All the more so if his motives are primarily venal, if it means this kind of thinking has a big enough fan base to be worth money.

  16. Lubertdas, I agree with every single thing about your post except this part:

    “His politics are different than ours so:”

    It’s not because Brooks’ politics are different. It’s that the logic shown in his articles is so absolutely *terrible*, and he has been so consistently factually wrong in his political predictions that it’s hard to consider listening to him in any field.

    Thomas Friedman is considered moderate-left, and he’s just about as terrible if not more so. In Friedman’s defense, however, he is at least less smarmy.

  17. In stereotypical faction, I have not watched this. But I am familiar with Brooks and his work, very recently listened to an interview with him about his new book, and of course read that hilarious review of said book.
    That said, David Brooks may be “smart”, he might say interesting or funny things, but he is still a total fucking toolbag who deserves nothing but contempt.

  18. I like his emphasis on parent/child attachment. Any parenting philosophy worth a dime needs to have that at its core. In other talks, he’s mentioned the importance of the student/teacher relationship, which has a similar dynamic. There have been eight trillion columns on education reform of late, but David Brooks gets at the crux of the issue better than most. You can cull the colleges of their best and brightest, pay them six figures a year (both of which are very good ideas) but it is social skills (and let’s be frank, crowd control skills) that determine, to a very large extent, a teacher’s effectiveness.

    Of course, student/teacher relationships are moot when the school shuts down for lack of funding. But we had to pay for the extension of the Bush tax cuts somehow! And the wars! Maybe a greater understanding of psychology and sociology could help stem some of these terribly destructive policies. Let’s hope.

  19. Tsk, tsk, TSK!

    The Bush Administration didn’t fabricate reasons to invade Iraq.

    They farmed the work out to a sub-contractor, resulting in better results at reduced cost to the taxpayer.

    * * *

    I agree with ultranaut. Brook is far less obnoxious than a lot of conservative pundits, but marches to the beat of the neocon band.

  20. The American narrative has become so fanatically right wing that even Brooks seems refreshing and charming. I didn’t watch this, but I listened to a speech of his to the Commonwealth Club, and indeed he comes across as pretty amiable.

  21. Oh, I see. So Mr. Brooks isn’t the drooling idiot I’ve always accused him of being. He’s just politically biased to the point of incompetence.

  22. I watched it. Most if not all of his jokes are cliches at the expense of Yuppies or just about anyone with ambition. In his book, Harold and Erica are a cut above such trash, as they are the intendant class. I’ve only read some reviews, but I’m not clear what it is that Harold actually does. Erica carries the can for the superrich at Davos. The rest of us can pound sand.

    It’s great to preach humble acceptance for us all (meaning you and me not born to be Harolds and Ericas), at a time when we should be out hanging bankers, neocons and radical politicians trying to take us back to the age of Jubilee Jim Fisk, Credit Mobilier, the Whisky Ring and the postwar career of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

    Even TED has its turds.

  23. He is not preaching humble acceptance. He does represent the yuppie class because he is from it, but I agree with his insistence on the unconscious as the greatest teacher, and on our need for social groups and sympathy. Watch again. Only someone from within might defeat the Coulters, Limbaughs and Cheneys, etc,
    of our time.

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