Doing research at NIMH a few years ago as part of a book project, Brooks learned about Williams syndrome, “which is sort of the opposite of autism—there’s this intense social interest…This is every senator I’ve ever covered,” he quipped.
Despite the “intense, psychological innate skills and very sophisticated social antennae” of successful politicians, he said, “all of that cognitive understanding goes away when it comes to policy…They tend to treat every problem as though Homo economicus [utter rationality] were something real.”
Brooks gained clues to culture-wide changes by contrasting Americans’ “intensely modest” reaction to the end of World War II—captured in NPR radio re-broadcasts from that era—with a phenomenon observable on any Sunday afternoon or Monday evening in modern America: the NFL player’s outsized celebration after making a routine play.
“This symbolizes a shift in culture from self-effacement to self-expansion,” he said, with both good and bad consequences.
Brooks gave the opening talk in the 7th season of the NIMH Director’s Innovation Speaker Series. He called NIH “an island of modesty in a sea of celebration.”
Photos: Ernie Branson
Three mid-20th century biographies provided Brooks with exemplars of a mindset gone missing—President Eisenhower, Gen. George Marshall and former Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. All emerged from an ethos in which controlling the weakness in oneself was a prime concern. As Brooks put it, “You’re the underdog in the battle against yourself.”
This personal code, which could also be summed up “Don’t get too big for your britches,” was based on an awareness of sin, both in the world and in one’s self, Brooks said. “It’s sort of Augustinian, if you want to get high-brow about it.”
Brooks identified several factors that have eroded the national character, including popularization in the 1950s of the views of psychologist Carl Rogers, whose thesis was that “patients don’t feel good enough about themselves…The idea was ‘We’re pretty good inside—it just has to be
Also contributing, perhaps not deliberately, toward a general trend of me-first were the civil rights movement and feminism, which “encouraged people to think better of themselves,” Brooks said, a movement toward individualism and away from conformity and the embrace of YouTube and Facebook culture in which “broadcasting oneself is the primary urge.”
These changes are measureable, he argued. A poll of high school seniors in 1950 found only 12 percent responding affirmatively to the statement “I am an important person.” In recent years, 80 percent of high school seniors agree. Tests measuring degrees of narcissism show a 30 percent increase in recent years, Brooks said.
He continued: even though American students rank 36th in the world in math, they rank #1 in thinking they are the best. The nation ranking highest, South Korea, also ranks lowest in self-estimation. Ninety-six percent of American college professors rate themselves as above-average teachers. Astonishingly, 19 percent of Americans think they belong to the top 1 percent in wealth.
Americans used to be hesitant to spend money on themselves, but personal debt has skyrocketed in recent decades. “There used to be a moral horror about pushing costs onto succeeding generations,” Brooks noted, “but that has gone away now.”
As conceptions of the self and its entitlements have expanded, personal behavior has become more egocentric and extreme, he observed.
Recent studies have shown that youth today
lack a moral vocabulary or sense of moral systems,
relying on “whatever feels right” rather
than a set of principles.
There is a cost to being morally inarticulate and
morally vague, said Brooks—society pays
Perhaps it is the ubiquity of such ills that has
spawned what Brooks labels a counter-trend.
Best-selling management gurus such as Jim
Collins, who co-wrote Great by Choice, are finding
that our greatest leaders are able to combine
“extreme humility and extreme willpower,”
as exemplified by Warren Buffett. A book that
touts the need to prepare for one’s own weakness
and embrace discipline is a welcome return
to solid values, Brooks suggested.
He also hinted that NIH, with its emphasis on
evidence and data, is immune to widespread
distortions in self-regard. “It is an island of
modesty in a sea of celebration,” he said. “A
place where people are actually persuaded by
the evidence? That never happens in my world.”
He concluded with insights and principles from
the latest behavioral science, including respect
for the power of unconscious processes (especially
as a source of bias), the power of emotion
and the power of contagion, or “mirroring”
behavior among large masses.
He also touted traits not taught in school, yet
still essential: the ability to read accurately and
empathize with the thoughts of others and
the “intuitive understanding of the contours
of reality around you” that enables a soldier in
Afghanistan to sense a street where IEDs have
“There is much about ourselves that is unknowable,
and we should be humble about it,” he
said. There exists in us a “depth of emotional
commonality” not yet sufficiently explored.
During a Q&A session that concluded his talk,
Brooks underscored the enduring values of the
classics: “It really helps to read the Bible, St.
Augustine and Dante,” he said. “It opens you up
to a vocabulary so that you can at least think
about moral questions, even if you don’t end up
surrendering to the love of God.”
The warmth and duration of the succeeding
ovation testified strongly to the existence
of the emotional commonality he had just