Political and social commentator David Brooks has written a new book called "The Social Animal" in which he tries to elevate the role of human emotion and the unconscious mind into the political debate. He appears to agree with Dennis Overbye who writes,
A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control. [Our] conscious brain [is] only playing catch-up to what the unconscious brain [is] already doing.
Our preferences, says Brooks, have deep innate underpinnings, of which we are not consciously aware. Most human decision-making emanates from the unconscious mind, where emotion provides a largely hidden ability to assign value to our decision-making options. A man without emotion is not rational, but rather indecisive and lost.
Brooks asserts, however, that you can learn strategies to control your impulses through repetition, and thus gain self-control. Brooks claims that "character" can be trained through rigorous "discipline" and 10,000 "small repetitions" to develop "habits and strategies" that can overcome your perceptions. You can "learn to see" things differently through absorption of new "norms".
Is it true? Can we "learn strategies to control impulses" through practice? Certainly you can teach yourself anything if you're interested and motivated. But if you're not interested, you'll stop practicing.
The philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, said that we can do as we will, but we cannot will as we will. In other words, you can't change your (innate) preferences (consider this case for example). What people don't understand is, if you don't want to do something, it's the same as not being able to do it. Some people don't want to practice, because of who they genetically are. Freedom to follow your innate preferences is not really "free will".
Genes place a leash on our capacities, because they determine what things interest us enough to practice them. Practice leads to habit, and gradually to expertise. Since we all differ genetically, we all have different interests, desires, cravings, and passions. Different interests lead to different practice regimens, which lead (deterministically) to inequality in talent. Psychologist William James "believed in free will on 'ethical grounds,' [but] he did not believe that there was evidence for it on scientific grounds."
In Mischel's famous marshmallow test, for example, "the ability of 4-year-olds to postpone gratification by leaving a marshmallow uneaten for a time as a condition of receiving a second marshmallow was a very good predictor of success in life." Brooks writes: "The kids who could wait a full 15 minutes had, 13 years later, SAT scores that were 210 points higher than the kids who could wait only 30 seconds”. He doesn't mention that differences among children in the ability to delay gratification are genetically linked.
The truly novel implication that Brooks doesn't fully explore is human diversity; that we're not all the same, genetically speaking. While Brooks hints at these issues (the "meritocratic class re-inforces itself through genes" and "kids are born with a certain temperament"), he describes the mind as an "emergent system," a product of murky nature/nurture "interactionism".
Brooks can't have it both ways. He cites "parental sensitivity" as the "causal arrow" of a child's success (a little lie to boost book sales among the Oprah crowd), even as he admits that 30% of abused children turn out just fine, since they possess an innately resilient temperament. In other words, genes trump environment, but only if you're a member of the genetic meritocracy, as Brooks is. Born leaders have traits like high energy, passion, ability to motivate others, fascination with power hierarchies, and extreme self-confidence. These are rare traits, which is why leaders are so highly compensated for their rare gene variants. In other words, they're paid just to be themselves, i.e. who they genetically are.
Obviously both political parties would shun Brooks if he followed this argument to its logical conclusion, which is why he cloaks his message in muddy sentiment. Yet even as Republicans promote individual responsibility, they secretly believe in a natural God-given hierarchy in society. Democrats, on the other hand, endlessly exploit the human hardwired belief in "free will" (despite evidence to the contrary), and thus gain political power by cynically promising that anyone can do anything with the right government programs.
Yet the Democratic myth remains, for now, the more politically compelling one, until such time we can rectify the unfairness of natural inequalities in society.