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Vol. LXIV, No. 21
October 12, 2012

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NIH An ‘Island of Modesty’
Columnist Brooks Prescribes Humility, Great Books for Cultural Improvement

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Columnist David Brooks speaks at NIH, Sept. 11.

Columnist David Brooks speaks at NIH, Sept. 11.

Nations, like patients, need diagnosticians, and one of the most able and popular of them—New York Times columnist David Brooks—visited NIH on Sept. 11 to offer insights, informed by his interest in cognitive science, on American cultural strengths and failings.

Brooks argues that, since the end of World War II, virtues such as modesty, humility and the idea of the self as needing serious constraint have—abetted by psychologists intent on raising self-esteem—given way to feel-good impulses that have robbed Americans of a moral vocabulary. “If there’s going to be a moral void,” he warned, “the self will expand.”

He readily admitted that his profession—political reporting—exposes him to an abnormal study population. Hewing to the advice that he should interview at least 3 politicians a day, he has discovered “they are all emotional freaks of one sort or another. I call it logorrheal dementia—they talk so much they drive themselves insane.”


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.

Photo 1 of Columnist David Brooks gave the opening talk in the 7th season of the NIMH Director’s Innovation Speaker Series Photo 2 of Columnist David Brooks gave the opening talk in the 7th season of the NIMH Director’s Innovation Speaker Series Photo 3 of Columnist David Brooks gave the opening talk in the 7th season of the NIMH Director’s Innovation Speaker Series

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 let out.’”

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 a price.

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 been laid.

“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 explained.

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