In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks writes about how human beings function and discusses decision making.  Here are a few of his observations worth thinking about the next time you are preparing for a court hearing or a trial. The signficant fact is the essential role of emotion in our decisions and that decisions are largely controlled by an unconscious mind function.

1.   one  of the breakthroughs that help us understand the interplay between emotion and decision-making began with a man named Elliott, whose story has become one of the most famous in the world of brain research. Elliott had suffered damage to the frontal lobes of his brain as a result of a tumor. The injury damaged the emotional functioning of his brain.  He was intelligent, well-informed and diplomatic. But he had trouble managing his day. Whenever he tried to accomplish something, he ignored the most important parts of this task and get sidetracked by trivial distractions. He spent hours deciding where to have lunch and still couldn’t settle on a place. He was incapable of making sensible choices. A battery of tests showed that Elliott had a superior I Q, an excellent memory for numbers and geometric designs but he never showed emotion. He could recount a tragedy without the slightest tinge of sadness. The researchers would show him traumatic images of fires and accidents but he didn’t feel anything. Testing showed he could prepare himself to make a choice between a complex range of possibilities but could not actually make the choice. The loss of emotional functions resulted in his inability to make decisions. People who lack emotion don’t leave logical lives in the manner of Mr. Spock. They are incapable of decision making because they lack emotion as it relates to reason.

2.    Research into decision making leads us to essential truths. Reason and emotion are not separate. Reason is dependent upon emotion. Emotion assigns values to things and reason can only make choices on the basis of those evaluations.

3.  A summary of research indicates that we are largely pawns in a game whose forces we’ve largely failed to comprehend. We think of ourselves as sitting in the driver seat, with all of the controls over the decisions we make in the direction our life takes. This perception is how we want to view ourselves but it is far from reality. Behind every choice is an unconscious set up of structures that help us frame the choices we make.

As an aside to the this part of the book I am reminded of the lines from a poem quoted by Clarence in his own defense in his Los Angeles bribry trial:

“Life is a game of whist. From unknown sources The cards are shuffled and the hands are dealt. Blind are our efforts to control the forces that though unseen are no less strongly felt.  I do not like the way the cards are shuffled, but still I like the game and want to play and through the long, long night, I play unruffled the cards I get until the break of day.”

4.  Human decision-making has three basic steps. First, we perceive a situation. Second, we use the power of reasons to calculate whether taking this or that action is in our long term interests. Third, we use the power of will to execute our decision. The 19th  and 20th century philosophers saw step one as a relatively simple matter. They thought the real problem involved the calculation and will work to do it. They were big on reason and will power.  In fact the first step is actually the most important one. Perceiving isn’t just a way of taking in information. It involves a thinking and skill process. Perception involves the unconscious mind.  Seeing and evaluating is not a separate processes but ones that are linked and basically simultaneous.

5.  In his book Strangers to Ourselves Timothy Wilson writes that the human mind can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. The most generous estimate is that people can be consciously aware of only four pieces of information. The unconscious mind does virtually all the work. Mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness organize our thinking, make our judgments, form our characters to provide us with the skills we need.

6.   Science writer Jonah Lehrer reminds his readers of Karl Popper’s distinctions between clocks and clouds. Clocks are structured, orderly systems that can be defined and evaluated. You can take them apart and examine the pieces and see how they fit together. Clouds however, are irregular, dynamic and changing. Lehrer has noted that modern research tries to pretend that every phenomenon is a clock which can be evaluated as if it were made up of defined parts and structured when it cannot be done.

2 thoughts on “IDEAS FROM THE BOOK The Social Animal BY DAVID BROOKS

  1. Thanks Paul for your comments on David Brooks’ new book. What jumped out at me was your comment that “decisions are largely controlled by an unconscious mind function.” I took a class recently at Stanford Med School, Psychiatry Dept, on “Your Secret Mind: Getting to Know and Living With Your Unconscious.” The professor said that research shows that we humans are aware of roughly 5% of what is going on in our minds (the “conscious mind”) and we are unaware of the other 95% (the “unconscious mind”). One metaphor used to describe the mind is the iceberg – the smaller, visible, above-water portion is our “conscious mind,” and the much larger, non-visible, below water (and therefore potentially dangerous) portion is our “unconscious.” Which means that when a trial attorney stands in front of a jury, s/he is attempting to communicate with twelve icebergs. Only the small visible portions of those icebergs communicate by speaking a language (and answering questions); the much larger invisible portions do not communicate in spoken language but instead in images, symbols, metaphors, implications, body movements, dreams, slips, forgetting, defenses and more – a much different language. Thus the verbal responses from jurors during voir dire are giving us insight into 5% (at best) of the jurors’ minds. (Note also that not just the jurors are “icebergs” – the judge, opposing counsel, co-counsel and we ourselves are as well). Quite a challenge.

    To stretch the metaphor, the picture becomes even more interesting when we think about “driving the Titanic” (our case) into the environment of all those icebergs. (Same for our opponents, of course).

    The metaphor for the mind that I use the most (so far) is the cantaloupe. The outer rind (5%) is the “conscious mind, the inner material (95%) is the “unconscious,” and the navel on the outer surface is my ego, my identity. The seeds deep inside are the archetypes, which Clotaire Rapaille has written about in “The Culture Code,” a book addressing the contents of “the unconscious.” And now the “Reptile” of David Ball and Don Keenan has added to the work of Rapaille and others on the workings of the unconscious. Looks like this is gradually being recognized as a valuable topic.

    Interestingly, Eric Oliver has been talking about the unconscious for years, and telling us how to work with it in the practice of trial law. Unfortunately a number people have a hard time grasping Eric’s material, and “the unconscious” in general. Plus Eric insists on calling the “unconscious” by his own term: the “other-than-conscious.” In any event, the challenge remains – how to access and communicate with the unknown.

    Warm regards, Ed Semansky

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