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Matthew D Lieberman – Social

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We were not made to be alone, not even for a short while.

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 305
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-88909-6
First Published: 1st January 2013
Date Reviewed: 7th January 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Looking at various regions of the brain, Lieberman tells the reader how each section revolves around sociability and how we evolved to be social creatures.

Social sports an interesting topic that is unfortunately marred by a lack of reasoning and a lot of bizarre and poorly thought out propositions. On the surface the book presents itself as the antithesis of Susan Cain’s Quiet and will therefore likely attract those readers who enjoyed Cain’s work. However where Cain was mostly objective, Lieberman is incredibly biased.

The book is structured so that different brain regions are examined one after the other with statements about evolution, information about relevant experiments, and short resolutions created by Lieberman, scattered throughout each chapter. The book ends with Lieberman’s most ‘pressing’ resolutions for society in general. It’s not a bad set-up, per se, but it does mean that the book is monotonous and that for the reader who is not intimately aware of the brain regions it will likely be all too easy to become confused by what is what, given the inevitable similarity between acronyms and names that seems apparent when you know little.

Whilst the book begins with promise and the author writes with due attention and care, the content soon devolves into the simple explanation that everything is the way it is because of evolution, and the author’s views of anyone who doesn’t fit the box he has constructed drench the book with a bias that by the end of the work displays more than a hint of intolerance.

There are areas of the book in which it’s usual to find issues in texts, for example there are too many references to the author’s particular country. In this case there is too much Americanisation, which means that some examples of pop culture, used to explain concepts, are likely to be lost on many readers and therefore these readers won’t be able to understand the point being made through them. Sometimes the examples Lieberman chooses are those that are known worldwide, but otherwise the choices are so specific that there may even be some American readers not familiar with them, and due to this it is a particular problem.

The book is incredibly repetitive. Experiments are detailed only to be detailed again a few chapters later, referred to in the chapter after that, and detailed once again further on. Regarding these experiments and researches, Lieberman is inconsistent. He always names the scientists involved but doesn’t always afford the reader the information of who the person is – what field they are in, what university they work for and so forth. Having the names is of course necessary for citation but for the reader having the names without any further information is meaningless.

Looking into the experiments, the cautious reader should note that nowhere in the book is it mentioned that experimenting on animals is considered by some to be immoral. This is the case in other similar works, such as Lynne McTaggart’s The Bond, which was more graphic than Social, but in Lieberman’s book the point is particularly worth noting, not just because of the topic (thinking about others as was the likewise ironic topic of McTaggart’s book) but because of the way Lieberman gives information as to why humans are not experimented on in the same way. For example, consider this extract:

For obvious reasons we do not conduct experiments with humans that involve giving people morphine after they have been rejected, excluded, or cheated on.

The irony here is that this statement appears right after a paragraph about puppies being given morphine after being forcibly separated from their parents.

As an aside, if you find yourself distressed by this story, [about rats having emotional neurons being removed, thereby meaning that they start shunning their young] it probably means your own dACC is intact.

When you consider that you are more likely to be distressed by this story simply because the experiment happened, the author’s statement is artless to say the least.

The downside to studying rodents is that we can’t measure their experiences or even verify that they have them. The upside is that more invasive studies can be conducted to examine how individual septal neurons respond or how surgical removal of the septal area alters behaviour.

In the same way as the above extracts, this is said without any thoughts of wrongdoing or an acknowledge that to many people the ‘upside’ is seen as a downside.

The issue with the experimentation is that everyone knows it takes place and that it is of course going to be included in works involving science, but given the subject of this book and the way it is presented as a work on something that is of general interest, some sort of deliberation or debate (given that very idea of being social and caring for others) ought to have been included.

There is a major focus on autism that isn’t apparent from the book cover or summary that bares commenting on because of Lieberman’s approach. Lieberman, as becomes plain the further you read, is fixated on the idea of the social, of us being social creatures and, especially towards the end of the book, he shows how overtaken he is by this idea to the exclusion of all else. It should come as no surprise then that, when it comes to autism, denigration is the mode of the day. As autism is related to a lack of ‘normal’ social skills, it is easy to see where Lieberman’s issues lie.

The author says that if empathy is the peak of the social mind, autism is sadly one of its low points, showing no positivity whatsoever. Lieberman wonders if when he took drugs he ‘didn’t seem a bit autistic that day’ – does he also say, upon finding his fridge devoid of chocolate, that he knows what it must be like to be a child starving in Africa?

It’s important to note that, strictly speaking, this description is far more accurate than the normally developing child’s… Although the description from the child with autism is more accurate [reviewer’s note: it is completely accurate] it is far less useful. It doesn’t give us the kind of insight we all crave into the psychological drama that unfolded.

This comes after an image of shapes on a page, which is what the autistic child described. There is no drama to unfold, there is no usefulness in the normal child’s description of the shapes bullying each other because that would give you a false idea of what the image shows. What the children questioned do intimate is the possible difference in imagination and storytelling between ‘normal’ children and autistic children.

The denigration of autism is very odd, especially when you consider that a person with autism is as likely as anyone else to be interested in reading this book. And whilst Lieberman may make some good statements that are unfortunate but true, his attitude mars them. It is also interesting to consider that the fact autistic people have ‘problems’ with social skills implies that Lieberman’s theory of the social mind could actually be wrong, for who is to say what is truly normal?

Further denigration is conferred on introverts (whose qualities also beg the question of whether Lieberman’s theory holds any water):

Being smart and motivated, without being able to connect with others in the lab just won’t cut it. I’ve had a couple of students in the lab over the years who never really integrated socially with the rest of the team, and they often struggled. They could leverage their own intelligence and hard work, but they were less able to access the intelligence and expertise sitting in the next office over. From this perspective, social connection is a resource in the same way that intelligence and the Internet are resources. They facilitate getting done what needs doing.

It would not be wrong to say that Lieberman does not understand introverts. It is also apparent why, at least in part, the students referred to in the extract struggled – a lack of support and understanding of your students is going to affect their progress because they are likely to pick up on it.

The assumption that productivity is about smart people working hard on their own has been masking the fact that individual intelligence may only be optimised when it is enhanced through social connections in the group.

This is where we see Social as the antithesis of Quiet. In the latter work, Cain says introverts need their own time and space. But whereas Cain is respectful of extroverts, Lieberman is not respectful of introverts. Furthering this difference, Lieberman states that only those with good social skills should be leaders in the workplace, neglecting to consider the negative impact that this would have if the leaders were not also of good intelligence. He also states that ‘the greatest ideas almost always require teamwork to bring them to fruition’, saving himself by saying ‘almost’ but still showing his lack of research and overall knowledge of the present day that suggests that people can be just as successful working by themselves.

Lieberman suggests a vastly different education system which betrays his age. He says that history classes should teach the whys and the social effects – they do. Perhaps they did not when Lieberman was a boy, but as they do now this section is irrelevant. The author suggests that English lessons should be scrapped in favour of ‘communication classes’. This would be problematic given that such classes are not viable alternatives – language (if we assume he is referring to language rather than literature) is not quite the same as communication – both are indeed about society and communication but there are differences. There is also the fact that the world remains in accordance with, for better or worse, the idea that those who can read and write have power and more opportunities to get ahead in the world.

Lieberman says:

Why would bullying, which typically takes place outside the classroom, affect performance in the classroom?

This is one of the first times where the author’s lack of knowledge really starts to become an issue. To suggest that victims of bullying should just leave their issues at the door displays a complete misunderstanding of what bullying is and how it affects a person. Lieberman somehow does not know that bullying can affect someone’s overall well-being and, furthering that, he should know that bullying isn’t restricted to school corridors and is more often than not just as bad in the classrooms where bullies torment children behind the backs of clueless teachers.

Lieberman suggests cutting back on school lessons that are forgotten so that more time can be spent on the important ones. This is a good idea in theory, but the way Lieberman speaks of it he is in favour of removing the sorts of classes that inspire lifelong interests and passions. Algebra may be boring for many people, but without it would the mathematicians our world needs have been inspired to become mathematicians?

The author is in favour of letting older children learn lessons to then teach them to younger children. A fantastic idea, but how long would it be until the novelty wore off, and would children pay attention to a lesson essentially learned twice when they already find a lesson taught once boring?

It is this lack of knowledge and understanding of children, of people, ironically, that ends the book. Lieberman turns to preaching. The subtext is evident – Lieberman’s way of life, the way his residential area revolves, is superior and ought to be introduced worldwide. He suggests that apartment blocks have socialising areas and appointed people to curate social lives – “Throughout our childhoods and young adulthoods, our social lives are curated by others. Couldn’t we find a way to replicate that in our adult communities as well? Why don’t we have someone on each apartment floor designated to create social activities?” The author does not seem to think that maybe having had their lives curated as children, most people would prefer to control their adult social lives themselves. He does not account for those who just want to live their lives, who don’t want to be social all the time – which, it could be argued, accounts for most people. He suggests closing streets at the weekends for social events without thinking about how this would disrupt traffic, how it would result in noise, how many people prefer to just relax at home.

The author even takes on the individuals who run companies, complaining at the way they focus their efforts ‘incorrectly’. He suggests that most employees would take recognition over more money, which doesn’t sound so bad – until he ruins the sentiment entirely by saying that the profits from the savings the company would make would therefore be able to enter the company coffers and so the company would benefit. Recognition is a ‘free’ and ‘infinite’ resource – which, when used in place of pay rises, would ultimately make a boss a measly employer.

Lieberman does have some interesting things to say, for example that botox disabling a person’s ability to mimic expressions means that the person will be worse at recognising emotions in others. He says that “society values our self-control more than it values our quality of life”, a very sobering thought, and he in no way suggests that the book is all his own work, always attributing research to those responsible. But at the end of the day it is hard to believe that Lieberman didn’t decide to live away from society for several years to write this book, losing touch with everyone in the process.

Ill-informed, rose-tinted, repetitive, and lacking in tact, Social may have a few ideas and statements to astound, but by and large it does not come anywhere near the convincing argument, of humanity being social, that it declares.

I received this book for review from Random House.

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Literary Feline

January 17, 2014, 7:11 pm

Wow. I don’t know what to say. Excellent review, Charlie. I think this book would just make me angry if I read it.


January 18, 2014, 1:07 am

The book sounds like a rather subjective view of the “right way” to be in the world. Vivisection should just be banned. :/ I think that “curated social lives” sounds like absolute hell! Good on you for reading the entire book. I probably would have hurled it at the wall before too long. :)

Shannon @ River City Reading

January 19, 2014, 1:49 am

It’s frustrating that this couldn’t have been more even-handed. Though I loved Quiet, I would like to read a book from the other side of the fence…though it doesn’t sound like this is quite what I’m looking for. Thanks for taking such a great look at it.


January 20, 2014, 11:01 am

Really interesting review Charlie. Not a book I would pick up myself.

Rebecca @ Love at First Book

January 21, 2014, 7:39 pm

It does sound like there is a lot of valuable information in this book. But repetition can definitely ruin a fabulous read, and so can dismissing alternate points of view, like the author seems to have done.


February 28, 2014, 10:33 am

Literary Feline: Yes, it’s pretty prejudiced and not particularly well written. I wouldn’t say I had expectations, but I would have thought the arguements were backed up and so forth.

Violet: It is, very much so. I asked around and the concensus was even the most extroverted wouldn’t want curation. It’s a pity, because it could have been the well-argued opposite of Quiet, and certainly if it wasn’t so subjective and dismissive it would have been.

Shannon: Those were my thoughts, too. Yes, if you’re looking for the opposition of Quiet, this isn’t it, no matter how much it seems to be on the face of it.

Jessica: A good decision, I’d say.

Rebecca: Oh there is – it’s the way it’s handled, and the way the focus is put on the wrong part. If it had been inclusive (and also less ‘this is what it is and that’s it’) it might have been a longer book but it would likely have been excellent.



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