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The Social Animal

The Hidden Sources of Love Character and Achievement

David Brookes

We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness. Core finding that we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness. Estimate that brain is taking in several million pieces of data every minute; at the most people are consciously aware of 40 of those bits. Mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness organize our thinking, shape our judgements and form our character.

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If the conscious mind is like a general, standing on a viewing platform analyzing things, the unconscious mind is like a million little scouts, sending back a constant flow of signals. And all the signals are coated with emotion. They come across an old friend and send back a surge of emotion. They go into dark cave and send back a surge of fear. A beautiful landscape produces feeling of sublime elevation. A great idea produces delight, contact with unfairness produces righteous anger. The signals don't directly control our lives, but they shape our interpretation of the world.

(Probably) apocryphal story of middle-aged men being hooked up to brain scanning device, shown a horror movie and then asked to describe their wives. The scan pics in each case were identical.

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Unaware of what is going on deep inside, the conscious mind thinks it's in control. It gives itself credit for performing all sorts of tasks it doesn't really control. It creates views of the world that highlights the elements it can understand and ignores the rest.

5 yo boy goes "I'm a tiger!" which all kids do, and which doesn't seem a big deal. But no machine cd blend two complicated constructs such as "I" a little boy, and "a tiger" a fierce animal, into a single entity. Human brain can do that because it can generalize - it can overlay the gist of one thing with the gist of another. We are smart because we are capable of fuzzy thinking.

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School administrators think the school exists to fulfill some socially productive purpose such as the transmission of information and (hopefully), values. This is wrong. In fact, high school is a mechanism for social sorting. The purpose of high school is show young people where they fit into the social structure.

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School life is dominated by a universal struggle for admiration. Gossip is used to spread info on how people are behaving, downgrading those who fail to follow the 'rules' and teaching the others how to behave. The students would burn out if they had to spend all their time in high social intensity zones of cafeteria and hallways. Fortunately the authorities schedule rest periods, called classes, during which students can take a break from the pressures of social categorization.

The troika is the natural unit of high school girl relationships. Girl 1 is the hot one, Girl 2 is her sidekick, and Girl 3 is the less attractive one who gets the other two's kind condescension. For a while 1 and 2 help 3 with her makeup and clothes and set her up with their boyfriends less attractive mates. But eventually they ostracize her and replace her with another 3.

Praise a child for working hard and you reinforce their self belief as a hard worker, so willing to take on harder tasks and see mistakes as part of learning process. But if praise him for being smart he wants to keep on looking smart so avoid challenging things that may expose you to risk of mistakes and looking stupid.

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Annette Lauren of U of Pennsylvania, studied how different (American) social classes teach their kids. Educated-class parents and lower-class parents have completely different ideas about how kids should be raised. Ed-class kids raised in 'concerned cultivation': parents deeply involved, make concerted effort to provide constant stream of learning experiences. Kids raised like this know how to navigate the world of organized groups, talk casually to adults, how to look people in the eye and make a good impression.

But in lower-class families the parents don't see it as their job to teach the kids stuff. Leave kids to organize their own recreation. This has advantages, but does not prepare kids as well for modern life. Particularly doesn't help cultivate advanced verbal abilities.

Smart animals like apes are good at coming up with innovative solutions, but not so good at passing them down to next generation. You can teach a chimp sign language but the chimp won't teach sign language to his fellows or his children so that they could communicate better.

10% working age Americans report suffering back pain, but 60% of Germans do. Some Asian cultures have very low rates, but many suffer from koro where men think their penis is retracting into their body. The cure involves getting a trusted family member to hold the penis 24 hours a day until the anxiety goes away.

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Flynn Effect - IQ test scores have been rising steadily since WW2. No better at vocab and reading parts, but much better at problem solving. Flynn explains it as different needs of society at different times. Concrete-thinking skills valued before, now abstract reasoning needed. But once you have an IQ >130, what counts is how hard you work. American Nobel Prize winners don't go to Harvard or MIT; they go to the good (enough) schools.

People who score well on IQ tests are good at logical tasks. But success in real world requires lots of other abilities. A soldier may be very strong, but unless he also has courage, discipline and technique, he will be useless on today's battlefields.

Choice Architecture - behind every choice is there is choice architecture, an unconscious set of structures that helps frame the decision.

1. Priming: one perception cues a string of downstream thoughts. Get subject to rearrange sentences containing 'elderly' words and they'll walk away slower. Tell them story about high achievement and they'll do better on a test.

2. Anchoring: ask them to write down last 2 numbers of phone number, then guess price of something. The higher the number the higher the bid.

3. Framing: tell them you have 85% chance of good outcome they'll go for it; tell them 15% chance of (expensive/deadly) loss, they won't try.

4. Expectations: give someone a $2.50 pill it will cure headache more often/faster than a .25c one.

5. Arousal: hot/cold decision making

Writer Andrea Donderi suggested that world divided into Askers and Guessers. Askers feel no shame asking for anything they want and take no offence when refused. Guessers hate asking for favours, feel guilty saying no to others, and avoid voicing a direct request unless they're sure answer will be yes.

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There used to be 4 life phases - childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Now there are at least 6 - childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age.

Adulthood defined by 4 accomplishments: leave home, get married, start a family and become financially independent. In 1960, 70% of American 30yo's had achieved these. By 2000, less than 40% had. In Western Europe, numbers even lower.

Social networks are surprisingly contagious. If your friends are obese, you are more likely to be fat as well. If they smoke, so do you.

Winning the lottery produces a short-term jolt of happiness, but the long-term effects are negligible. The happiness gain you get from moving from lower to middle class is much greater than the gain from middle to upper. People aren't happiest when middle aged and making most financial and career gains. They are happiest in twenties before family pressures, and in their sixties when careers winding down. The more emphasis you put on material well-being the less happy you are.

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People are bad at judging what will make them happy. People vastly overvalue money, career and real estate. They vastly undervalue intimacy and the importance of challenges. The daily activities most associated with happiness are all social interactions - sex, drinks after work, dinner with friends. Commuting - which is usually solitary - is the daily activity most injurious to happiness.

If you have a successful/happy marriage, it doesn't matter how many professional setbacks, you will still be reasonably happy. If you have an unsuccessful marriage, it doesn't matter how many career triumphs you record, you will remain significantly unfulfilled.

Experiment with monkeys and rewards. Squirt apple juice into mouths with pavlovian bell tone and watch surge of dopamine neurons. After few squirts the neurons fire off at the sound, before the juice arrived.

Turns out that our brains are basically prediction machines. More geared towards predicting and anticipating rewards than in the rewards themselves. The mind creates prediction models all day long. The main business of the brain is modelling. We are constantly constructing little anticipatory patterns in our brain help us know what to do next. That's all fine when anticipation matches reality. When it doesn't, tension is generated. the brain then casts around for an explanation. Then when the inner and outer patterns match, tension is released.

Bruce Wexler argues in Brain and Culture that we spend the first half of our lives trying to build an internal model that matches the world, and the second half trying to adjust the world so that it matches our internal model. Late night barroom arguments are about getting other people to accept your point of view. Israel and Palestine clash because each wants the other to accept their historical narrative.

Most people are deeply moved when return to childhood home. Not because there's anything intrinsically special about it, but because these are the patterns we know.

Desire for harmony or limerence. But, we spend big chunks of our life trying to get others to accept our patterns, and trying to resist others impose that on us. We try to surpass each other in earning one another's approval.

The human mind is an over-confidence machine. The conscious level gives itself credit it didn't really do and confabulates tales to create the illusion that it controls things it doesn't really. Everybody wildly overestimates their driving ability, their leadership skills, the chances their business or marriage will succeed. They buy clothes that are just a bit tight on the grounds that they'll lose some weight real soon now.

The more ignorant, and the more incompetent a person is, the more extreme the overestimate of their own ability.

Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Epistemological modesty is the knowledge of how little we know (or can know). EM is the realization that we don't know ourselves. Most of what we think and believe is unavailable to conscious review. And so we also have trouble fully understanding others. So becomes a matter of designing procedures to manage those limitations.

We hate uncertainty and so rush to judgement. But take the attitude of 'the wanderer' - someone trying to understand another culture by just getting used to it. The wanderer endures uncertainty. The more complicated the landscape, the more patient he becomes. The more confusing the scene the more tolerant his outlook. Recognition that need to try multiple tactics to explore possibilities.

The brain registers mistakes as it makes them. Typing mistakes are made with slightly less pressure on the keys than correct strokes, as if the mind is trying to hold back at last second. Hence lot of research which says you should go back and change test answers you feel dubious about.

(Presidential candidate explaining to new staff The Real World): "The first thing to say is that nobody who is in this business has any right to complain. We choose it and it has its pleasures and rewards. But between us, there is no arena in which the character challenges are so large. You don't get to serve unless you win. To win you have to turn yourself into a product. You have to do things you never thought you would do. You have to put your sense of reserve on the back burner and beg for money and favors. You have to talk endlessly...I call it logorrhea dementia - talking so much you drive yourself insane....You have to talk endlessly about yourself ..."

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"At the same time this is a team sport. You can't do anything alone, which means you sometimes have to suppress your individual ideas and say and believe the things that are good for the party and the team. You have to be brothers in arms with people you probably wouldn't like if you gave yourself a minute to think about it. You can't get too far out in front of your party or the people you serve. You can't be right too early or interesting too often. You have to support measures you really oppose and sometimes object to things you think are for the good. You have to pretend that when you're elected you'll be able to control everything...."

"You will be asked to pay furious attention to minute-by-minute breaking news stories of no consequence, which you will completely forget by the next day."

"All of these things threaten your ability to be honest with yourself, to see the world clearly, to have some basic integrity as a person. And yet we endure this theatre of the absurd because there is no life so filled with consequence."

Rationalist model holds that we choose our political party affiliations by comparing their policies and deciding what is best for the country. In fact, it is more like joining a church or a social group. You gravitate toward the party made up of people like yourself. You would think that people who valued equal opportunity would become Democrats and people who valued limited government would become Republicans. But what actually happens is that people become Democrats first and then put greater value on equal opportunity, or they become Republicans first and then place increasing value on limited government.

Partisan views filter reality. More than 50% of Democrats (in 1988 survey) believed inflation rose during Reagan presidency, when in fact it fell from 13% to 4%. Similar misunderstandings applied to Republican partisans at end of Clinton presidency. You might think that better education would reduce this bias, but although educated people were right a bit more often, when they were wrong they they were far less willing to change their mind because they were convinced they were correct.

"When highly ambitious men make a lot of money and then retire to high-end vacation communities, they enter a phase of life in which they have the money, the time and the mentality to make a profession out of all the puerile stuff they enjoyed at 18. They don't actually have the energy levels they used to, but for brief bursts they are raging libidos with platinum Amex cards. They unsuccessfully flirt with young waitresses, and then they go home to the event planners they married as trophy wives a few decades ago and who have now in their fifties turned into modern American centaurs. Because cosmetic surgeons are apparently more proficient the lower down the body you get, these women have legs like Serena Williams but overstretched g-force cheeks and stuffed-pillow lips."

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"... it is a law of human nature that the more men you concentrate in one happy pack, the more each of them will come to resemble Donald Trump. They possess a sort of masculine photosynthesis - the ability to turn sunlight into self-admiration... they create this self-reinforcing vortex of smugness ... they become immature versions of themselves. Their decibels rise. Their laughs explode. They become temporary geriatric gangstas, and brag and swagger ... they get a form of millionaire Alzheimers: they forget everything but their erections."

More books on Men

1979 experiment psychologist Ellen Langer equipped an old monastery in New Hampshire with props from the 1950's. She invited men in their 70's and 80's to stay. They watched old Ed Sullivan shows and movies and baseball games from 1950's. At the end of the week the men tested better on hearing and memory, their joints were more flexible and 2/3 of them improved IQ score.

More books on Old Age

At some stage you free yourself from 'the burden of the future'. "How pleasant is the day," said William James, "when we give up striving to be young - or slender."

Viktor Frankl in book Man's Search For Meaning quoted Nietzsche "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. But Frankl extended that to say that meaning comes not in abstract talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct.

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