The Elephant in the Brain

The Elephant in the Brain (2017) is at times an uncomfortable read, but well-worth it for anyone willing to undertake its introspective incursion. Programmer Kevin Simler (of the fascinating Melting Asphalt blog) and economist Robin Hanson explore why we are prone to self-deception about our motives, and how this deception can shed light on otherwise inexplicable individual behaviours, as well as institutional inefficiencies. The titular elephant comes from the fact that nobody wants to discuss hidden motives, because they tend not to show humans in the most flattering light.

The argument in the first half of the book may be familiar if you’ve followed writing either on neuroscience or meditation, both of which refer frequently to the Sperry/Gazzaniga “split-brain experiments” started in the 1950’s. Basically, they show evidence that much of what we think and say represents post-hoc justification for actions that we had already unconsciously decided to do. This could mean that human self-conception, possibly even consciousness itself, came originally from our need to represent ourselves socially, to make us look good even when we’re not acting particularly well.

In that sense, what we typically think of as “self” is less like a president or CEO deciding our actions, and more like a press secretary explaining them. A good press secretary will come up with plausible, though not necessarily honest, reasons to explain actions already taken. The best type of press secretary is not the one that knows the full truth, then has to distort it persuasively, but the one that never knew the whole story to begin with. For this reason, our conscious mind does not have easy or natural access to our innermost motivations, and self-deception may actually be evolutionarily adaptive. We tend therefore not only to misrepresent our motivations to others, but to ourselves as well. If you’re not familiar with these arguments, they’re presented in a well-written and easy-to-understand way in this book.

The second half of the book is where the fun starts. The two authors look at how these deceptions manifest in everyday life, and more importantly, in institutions. For example, why do we laugh? If you think it’s because things are funny, this is not borne out by the evidence, which suggests that laughter is prompted directly from humour in only a small minority of cases. It seems more often to be a way of signalling our intentions. Why do we talk so much? If you think it’s to convey information, this too has obvious problems — for example, why do we normally prefer speaking to listening? Why don’t we keep track of information debts? And most obviously, why do we spend so much time on small talk, or on subjects in which we already agree, which seem to convey no information at all? Once again, only a small part of conversation is covered by the intuitive excuse (conveying information) and the true motives for speaking are normally relatively opaque to both parties. The point is not that these behaviours are always deceptive, but that they have elements of deception and self-deception in them. In this way they sometimes fulfil multiple goals, even without our overt knowledge of what these goals are.

On an institutional level, what is the point of education? If it were solely an economic exchange for the purpose of learning, then universities would not go out of their way to make lectures freely available online, and employers would give 75% of the additional salary paid to graduates for finishing three out of four years of college (as you might guess, it’s much lower). The prestige of association with exclusive universities is at least part of what’s for sale. Healthcare? If it were about prolonging or improving life, then we wouldn’t spend such a huge amount on end-of-life care that is often not proven to prolong life, but can even make the end of life worse. Instead, it looks like medical spending is often partially motivated to show care for relatives conspicuously. Many of our motivations involve status or signalling, to make us look good regardless of whether we actually learn anything at school or make people healthier.

The arguments are extended to many other topics, including body language, consumption, art, charity, religion, and politics. On these topics it is not only provocative but entertaining. The book has faced some criticism, which I think is undeserved, for focusing so intently on the negative sides of human nature, rather than the many cooperative aspects that indisputably improve our lives. But the point is that positive motivations are often loudly advertised. The book is not at all arguing that we have purely selfish motives, just that our motivations are often mixed — and that we could improve ourselves by reflecting on this fact. Neither does the book claim to be a smoking gun on any of these topics, but rather drops the gauntlet for open discussion about the many covert aspects of human behaviour. Read with an open mind, it can not only raise questions about why humans act in certain ways, but also act as a call for institutions to be more honest about their motives, which could allow for better outcomes in a variety of fields.

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