Stampede of the Social Animals – more BE

David Brooks is the latest author to bring the reality of what goes on in the human mind into the public realm and the popular consciousness, with The Social Animal. Here he is talking about it (thanks RSA!) David Brooks video.

Good timing as I’m reading Richard Layard‘s Happiness at the moment (in short, his review of the statistics internationally revealed that what matters are:

  • family relationships
  • financial situation
  • work
  • community and friends
  • health

Two other factors he calls personal freedom and personal values can be added. Factors that make not so much difference to happiness: physical energy, mental energy, IQ, looks, age, gender, educational achievement. Worth a read on why “the current pursuit of self-realisation will not work”. I think he’s especially good on what he calls “the hedonic treadmill” – where we get used to what we acquire and get decreasing happiness returns:

“If we do not foresee that we get used to our material possessions, we shall over-invest in acquiring them, at the expense of our leisure. People do underestimate this process of habituation. As a result, our life can get distorted towards working and making money, and away from other pursuits.”

I am yet to read the Brooks book but am interested to see how someone from, broadly, the American right processes the same kind of insights into human behaviour, habits and motivations. His emphasis on the need to recognise humans as essentially social animals is interesting and could take the political right in the US in the kind of direction Philip Blond and others have started to do with the British right. But this return to civic engagement and community needs more than people believing in it; it needs people to have the opportunity to do it, fairly easily. Cue Thaler & Sunstein’s Nudge.

In much of the West, this means we have to wean ourselves off a long hours working culture. At some stage, we need to stop thinking about all this and just start doing it: go to the PTA meeting, come home on time, ignore the iPhone at the weekend. Easier said than done.

I do think the rise of behavioural science is a huge vindication for the approaches understanding people that we have been taking in qualitative research for a long time now. The recent AQR course on behavioural economics confirmed that. Those present were fired with the need to focus ever more strongly on observing actual behaviour and get away from reported behaviour and research participants’ post-rationalised self-explanations. But I was also struck in Layard’s book, as well as in Daniel Nettle’s Personality, how much leading academics are finding that self-reports on things like happiness levels and personality traits are remarkably accurate. So asking ‘why’ still has plenty of uses in qual. As Wendy Gordon pointed out, we don’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but we do need to look harder at how behaviour changes happen and not fall back on a ‘why’ in a discussion group in quite as reflex a way as we sometimes have.



Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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