Book Reviews

The Return of the Unconscious, Part II

Part II of our survey of recent popular psychology literature.

  1. Thinking Fast And Slow — Daniel Kahneman
  2. The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore — Benjamin Hale
  3. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement — David Brooks
  4. Willpower — Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney
  5. Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain — David Eagleman
  6. Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape our Lives — Dean Buonomano

As noted in PartI of the “The Return of the Unconcscious,” 2011 was frustrating for bulls and bears alike. MarketMinder all year alluded to as much, yet throughout, pros and amateurs got too hot and too cold. Why? It’s impossible to truly say, but the answer likely lies at least partially in investor psychology. So to close out 2011 and begin 2012, a two-part rundown of some contemporary psychology books.

Along with frustrations, 2011 also brought an “unconscious” revival. Mind you, it took psych’s “scientific” arm to realize what Freud and Jung (and William James, for that matter) said well over a hundred years ago: The unconscious mind is far more powerful and relevant to our motivations, choices and general volitions than our conscious minds. (See my book, 20/20 Money for more on money and your unconscious).

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement— David Brooks

For the life of me, I cannot understand why the New York Times has David Brooks writing about politics. His strength, quite clearly in my view, lies in anthropology and sociology—evidenced in his very good The Social Animal. I’ve read a smattering of other critics who’ve pannedSocial Animal. While it’s true Brooks falls off kilter occasionally (he’s not a psychologist by trade), it remains that the bulk of this book ranks among the most accessible compilations of contemporary psychological thinking around.

Brooks creates a handful of fictional characters and traces their lives from birth to death, illuminating cutting-edge findings in psychology as he goes. This approach creates some pitfalls (the intersection of real life and clinical psych findings is tenuous, and the prose often plods along) but is the right approach for a largely non-psychologist audience, and if not totally engaging, it allows for better comprehension.

The result is a paradoxically powerful yet ambivalent discourse on how we can better understand ourselves and our approach to the world. For instance, Brooks explores both sides of heuristic and reductionist thought, explaining why the mind needs those modes, but also the pitfalls they bring. He calls behavioral economics a “sword fight” of data (like all other sciences)—just as much a war of interpretation as anything, with few real definitives. Brooks, unlike Kahneman, extols unconscious decision-making in many life situations. Which is an important view: We may wish to become more “rational” as economists, but in the territory of human relationships, Dr. Spock is an outcast. “Rational” and “ideal” are not necessarily synonymous in life. Brooks describes economists like Keynes, Hayek and Smith as more “complete” economists than today’s souped-up statisticians—they realized reason and empiricism alone weren’t enough.

The book’s weakest part, ironically, is the political section. Backed with scant evidence compared to the rest of the work, it’s filled with the sort of political aphorism that isn’t particularly revelatory, interesting or even correct. Proclamations like, “The WalMarts of the world crowded out mom-and-pop stores which decreased communities and friendships,” prevail. What this is really supposed to mean is difficult to know.

Brooks, too, falls prey to today’s pervading vague and specious notion about how “divided we are as a nation” and how partisan politicians are. Today’s politics are no more or less contentious than ever. What era are we supposed to want to go back to? What golden age of politics do we desire? The 60s and 70s? No thanks. The 50s? Why? And then the 20s, 30s and 40s? I don’t think so. Now we’re nearing the 19th century, which held WJ Bryan’s eliminationist “Cross of Gold” speech and the occasional duel between representatives!

A grand implication of The Social Animal is it echoes thinkers like Victor Frankl and Joseph Campbell’s messages: A meaningful life doesn’t come from looking for purpose in the world outside oneself; instead, ask what your life’s meaning is—you get to decide. Modernism’s great boon (and also its burden) was granting each of us the agency to decide our own meaning. No findings in psychology will change that.

Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain — David Eagleman and Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape our Lives — Dean Buonomano

Incognito functions well enough as a basic, skeletal explanation of the unconscious’s role in our lives. It’s also quite balanced in considering claims about reductive materialism (the idea that the brain “is” the mind) and the more qualitative aspects of life (that there are aspects of neurobiology that probably never will explain how the mind works). But unless you’re a true neophyte to psychology, or just want an airplane read, Incognito is a bit too basic to be satisfying.

Brain Bugs does the thing these books shouldn’t do: Argues the premise our brains are “flawed.” This is a wrong perspective. Relative to civilization, the brain no doubt has shortcomings, but to describe our brains as “flawed” is nonsense on several levels and it’s neither helpful in everyday life nor in understanding your own self.

And so 2011 closes and a new year begins. Happy Holidays, and thank you so much to all our readers.

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.