David Brooks on New Humanism

David Brooks’ column in this weeks’ New York Times is a must-read, so much so that I’ve pasted it in into the end of this post in full (and as soon as his talk from last week’s TED conference is posted, you’ll want to watch that too…along with Brooks’ new book which has just jumped to the top of my reading list).

Brooks proposes a “new humanism” that essentially does away with the notion of rational man that has been the dominant Western worldview the day since the French Enlightenment.   My friend Pip Coburn likes to talk about “mental models” – the simplifying assumptions we use to process everything around us.  Pip’s mantra is to remember that our mental models of the world are not the same as the world itself.  Easy to say, but hard to know when it’s time to live within our mental models and when we need to to step back and question the models themselves, lest they corrupt our thinking.

“Rational man” is the uber-mental model, the underlying assumption that defines how we process information about just about everything: kids’ aptitudes; what we teach and test (the SAT); how we hire (where did you go to school?); our belief that bankers won’t ALL act stupidly all at the same time; how we (the US) wage war and “build nations” and expect to be welcomed as liberators and not conquerors or even oppressors.

Even our language trips us up, because we gravitate towards words and concepts of dichotomy: if we are not all fundamentally rational, we must be irrational; if we can’t measure it with a number it must not be as important; “hard skills” matter when looking for great leaders but so do “soft ones”.

Here’s Brooks on some of the aptitudes we’ll need to understand, recognize, and cultivate in ourselves and those around us:

Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.

When I read this, all sorts of things click into focus: not just Dan Pink’s Drive, about why intrinsic motivations are the only way to get the best people working in the most productive ways on the most important problems; or Dan Arley’s Predictably Irrational which shows that “irrationality” is not an aberration but is core to how we process information;  but also Clay Shirkey’s Cognitive Surplus, which paints a picture of a population that wants, in a very fundamental way, to act and create and connect…and which suggests that the last 50 years of TV-induced anesthesia/passivity may in fact be an historical blip.

I begin to understand in a deeper way why cellphones are the only new product in the last 20 years that has succeed on a massive scale with poor communities in the developing world: because our desire for connection, for being part of a tribe, for status and for information (in all its forms) trumps everything.

I begin to think in a different way about the importance of great teachers, about the hugely negative impact our national obsession with testing could have, since it comes at the expense of visual arts, language, music and dance.

And it becomes more clear why, as our social fabrics attenuate, as our sense of culture and connection fade, that we’ll increasingly drown ourselves in cheap, poor quality food that is slowly killing us.

The upside, and my most surprising and powerful revelation for me from last week’s TED conference is that we have an incredible and newfound power to create real, human connection in new ways – even asynchronously and across tens of thousands of miles (e.g. Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir).  If the recent events in the Middle East have shown us anything it is that as information flows more freely, as people are able to connect and to organize, power dynamics as we once knew them will change inexorably.

I see an incredible opportunity before us, but figuring out how to seize this opportunity requires a wholesale shift in how we think about who we are, how we process information, how we make decisions, and how we connect to one another.

Here is Brooks’ column in full.

Op-Ed Columnist

The New Humanism

By DAVID BROOKS
Published: March 7, 2011
Over the course of my career, I’ve covered a number of policy failures. When the Soviet Union fell, we sent in teams of economists, oblivious to the lack of social trust that marred that society. While invading Iraq, the nation’s leaders were unprepared for the cultural complexities of the place and the psychological aftershocks of Saddam’s terror. 

The intellectual, cultural and scientific findings that land on the columnist’s desk nearly every day.

We had a financial regime based on the notion that bankers are rational creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid en masse. For the past 30 years we’ve tried many different ways to restructure our educational system — trying big schools and little schools, charters and vouchers — that, for years, skirted the core issue: the relationship between a teacher and a student.

I’ve come to believe that these failures spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. We have a prevailing view in our society — not only in the policy world, but in many spheres — that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.

This has created a distortion in our culture. We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion.

When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say. Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else.

Yet while we are trapped within this amputated view of human nature, a richer and deeper view is coming back into view. It is being brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on.

This growing, dispersed body of research reminds us of a few key insights. First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason. Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships.

This body of research suggests the French enlightenment view of human nature, which emphasized individualism and reason, was wrong. The British enlightenment, which emphasized social sentiments, was more accurate about who we are. It suggests we are not divided creatures. We don’t only progress as reason dominates the passions. We also thrive as we educate our emotions.

When you synthesize this research, you get different perspectives on everything from business to family to politics. You pay less attention to how people analyze the world but more to how they perceive and organize it in their minds. You pay a bit less attention to individual traits and more to the quality of relationships between people.

You get a different view of, say, human capital. Over the past few decades, we have tended to define human capital in the narrow way, emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills. Those are all important, obviously, but this research illuminates a range of deeper talents, which span reason and emotion and make a hash of both categories:

Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.

When Sigmund Freud came up with his view of the unconscious, it had a huge effect on society and literature. Now hundreds of thousands of researchers are coming up with a more accurate view of who we are. Their work is scientific, but it directs our attention toward a new humanism. It’s beginning to show how the emotional and the rational are intertwined.

I suspect their work will have a giant effect on the culture. It’ll change how we see ourselves. Who knows, it may even someday transform the way our policy makers see the world.

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5 Responses to David Brooks on New Humanism

  1. Anne Dimock says:

    I read Brooks’ column earlier this week. While I’m delighted he’s brought back such exquisite and character-intensive vocabulary (equipose! limerence!), I thought it a bit of a ho-hum. Artists, parents and teachers have been saying the same thing forever. Will your’s and Brooks’ notice create the traction we need to put time and resources back into the hands of those who can most most eloquently lead us through the rational woods? I most empathically hope so.

  2. I think this confirms the idea that if we all make “irrational” choices about how we live our lives, love our families, and care for our communities, we might be able to create a more “rational” world. People are hungry for this connection – with themselves and others – we need to model it, teach it and finally embrace it as a solution. I’m glad it’s a part of the conversation!

  3. Sheila says:

    I’m with Anne. This is the decades-old (if not generations-old) feminist critique of rationalism; the only thing different is David Brooks is saying it, and erasing gender from the equation.

  4. Sasha says:

    Shelia and Anne, I’m more than happy to agree with you, and happier still to see it (increasingly) pervading the mainstream. I suspect it will take a lot for the idea of mostly rational decision-making to be unseated….

  5. Pingback: I disagree | Sasha Dichter's Blog

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