IDEAS FROM THE BOOK The Social Animal BY DAVID BROOKS

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.

About Paul Luvera

Plaintiff trial lawyer for 50 years. Past President of the Inner Circle of Advocates & Washington State Trial Lawyers Association. Member American Board of Trial Advocates, American College of Trial Lawyers, International Academy, International Society of Barristers, member of the National Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame & speaker at Spence Trial College
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