Robin Hanson and The Elephant in the Brain

Every once in a while I come across a book that I know will have a large impact in the way I think about things. Currently it’s The Elephant In The Brain. The book uncovers many mental blindspots that we have. A large portion of the book relates to selfishness and how it’s natural and very apparent in many aspects of our lives. Although, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right (naturalistic fallacy) as the authors mention in their conclusion. The majority of the book picks a topic and elaborates on what hidden motives we have in relation to that topic. A few that I enjoyed were conversation, body language, politics, education, and consumption.

For example, with conversations we typically enjoy conversations with people who can equally reciprocate the amount of novel information that we exchange. If one person is the only one giving off useful information, there is an unbalance and one is less satisfied as a result. Another interesting thing we tend to do is to signal to the recipient how important we are. We give subtle hints and show off. This may be something we don’t consciously know we are doing, but we do it.

I enjoyed the chapter on body language mostly because I don’t know too much on the subject. The authors explain how body language can signal more truth than what we verbally say, and how overall it is more representative of how a person feels about something.

Politics talked about how strong our loyalty is to our political party, and they claim we tend vote because we care more about signaling our political loyalty rather than the policy outcome. They talk about instrumental voting vs expressive voting, and how the majority of the population are expressive voters. Instrumentals being voters that use their votes to influence an outcome and expressive voters meaning voters that vote mostly because it feels good. Being a part of a group and showing complete loyalty feels good. An expressive voter also doesn’t have to be as informed as a instrumental voter, which may be another reason most of us are expressive. It’s easier.

Consumption was another eye opener for me. To prove a point, they give a thought experiment of an alien coming to earth and casting a spell on us which limits our capabilities of being able to see all of the material possessions we hold. How would everyone change? Would we still wear gold watches and drive insanely expensive cars? This thought experiment alone made me reflect on hidden motives that I have for current possessions that I hold. Unfortunately, it seems a large part of the things I wear and own are because I wan’t people to think I’m trendy, wealthy, and smart.

Education was probably my favorite chapter. It seemed to mostly be a subset of Bryan Caplan’s book on education and how most of our education is for signaling, which I don’t believe is necessarily a bad thing. It actually made me a stronger proponent of hiring based off GPA, since that can be a strong signal of how hard an employee works or how fast they learn. The funny thing is that after having read the chapter, I actually felt more motivated to pursue a masters than before. Probably the biggest reason was the individual statistic on increasing your income by 11–13% for each extra year you go to school. Another benefit being you are around people with similar signal goals. There may be better and cheaper alternatives to gaining an education than going to school, but until companies decide to quit hiring (on average) based off this particular signal, I’ll gladly move forward.

Overall the biggest benefit from reading this book was finding out who Robin Hanson was. I had never heard of him and am surprised given the influence he has on many of my favorite authors. He has an excellent blog that I’m excited to read as well.