Cognitive science and what we teach at Psychodrama Australia

Emotion, not rationality, rules our world – something policymakers should learn. So says David Brooks, who uses fiction to illustrate cognitive science

Where did the idea for your book The Social Animal come from?
It came from covering policy failures as a journalist. For example, one factor in the financial crisis were regulations that assumed bankers made decisions rationally. Also, in education, we in the US have spent 30 years just reorganising the bureaucratic boxes of our education system.

These failures were based on a false view of human nature, which is that we are rational individuals who respond in straightforward ways to incentives.

In the cognitive sciences, however, they have come up with a different and more accurate view of human nature. My book is an attempt to put this together and capture the implications it has for the rest of us: how to do education, business and policy.

Is there one insight from the cognitive sciences that really stands out for you?
I guess there are three. The first is that most of our thinking is below the level of awareness and that these processes are very different from the linear and logical processes of consciousness.

The second is that we are not primarily rational creatures. Emotion is the foundation of reason and you have to pay close attention to instant emotional responses: that is what tells us what we value.

And the third is that we are not really self-contained individual creatures. Instead, we are deeply linked and respond very quickly to others in ways that we don't even think about.

Do you think these insights will be applied to policy questions any time soon?
In the policy and business worlds, if you talk about emotion in relationships, they look at you like you are Oprah. They still think of these things as peripheral and squishy. We have a very big cultural bias to overcome.

On an individual level, a lot of people believe they are making rational choices. Are they?
The voice in our head is the one we hear. What's interesting about the research I discuss in the book is that it can peer down below and see the processes that are actually influencing us. Some are trivial. For example, if you eat by yourself, you eat a certain amount. But if you eat with two people, you eat 35 per cent more, and with four people, you eat 75 per cent more. Some are profound, however. In my book I mention soldiers in Iraq who can sense if there is a land mine on a street. They have a sensation of coldness but they can't tell you why. That is one example of the way the mind is much more impressive than we are aware of.

You chose an unusual approach for this book, interweaving scientific results into the life stories of the fictional characters, Harold and Erica. Why did you structure the book in this way?
The book is about emotion and other subconscious or unconscious processes. I felt that to best reflect the subject matter the book should be a story. It should be a narrative that hits people not only on the rational level but also on the emotional level.

Are there any big questions that remain to be solved?
There are a million. The problem of consciousness is a big one. Another is the word "emotion". It's misleading. We assign it to love, but love is not really an emotion because it involves a lot of different kinds of states from ecstasy to agony. I think the field of cognitive sciences is going to shake up a lot of categories like this.