The Book — “The Elephant in the Brain” by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

The Author

Kevin Simler is a writer and software engineer. Robin Hanson is an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University.

In 2013, Kevin approached Robin with a suggestion that they talk and work together, informally, as student and advisor. This book is the fruit of their collaboration: a doctoral thesis of sorts. And the readers belong to the thesis committee.

The (very short) Summary

This book is about the way we hide our motives (the Elephant in the Brain)

In the first part, the authors explore the reasons why we hide our motives and how the incentives of social life distort our minds, inducing awkward contortions of self-deception.

In the second part, a wide range of human behaviors are deconstructed and many situations of our everday life go under the magnifying glass. It happens that things are often not what they seem on the surface.

The Big Idea

We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives — we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people. And in order to throw them off the trail, our brains often keep “us”, our conscious minds, in the dark. The less we know of our own ugly motives, the easier it is to hide them from others.

Self-deception is therefore strategic, a ploy our brains use to look good while behaving badly.

To cut a long story short, The Elephant in the Brain are our hidden motives that we try to hide to ourselves and to others.

The Insights

As human species, we’ve developed ways to avoid wasteful competition, by coordinating our actions using norms and norm enforcement. One of them is the common knowledge concept, illustrated by Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. For a piece of information to be “common knowledge” within a group of people, it’s not enough simply for everyone to know it. Everyone must also know that everyone else knows it, and know that they know that they know it, and so on.

Self-deception as manipulation. A classical example is the game of chicken, typically played by two teenagers in their cars. The players race toward each other on a collision course, and the player who swerves first loses the game. Traditionally it’s a game of bravado. But if you really want to win, here is what you should do. When you’re lined up facing your opponent, revving your engine, remove the steering wheel from your car and wave it at your opponent. The reason it’s counterintuitive is because it’s not typically a good idea to limit our own options. Anyway perverse incentives of mixed-motive games lead to option-limiting and other actions that seem irrational, but are actually strategic.

A part of our brain is responsible for explaining our actions, typically to third parties. We call it “Press Secretary” as there is a structural similarity between what the interpreter module does for the brain and what a traditional press secretary does for a president or prime minister. No matter how bad the policy, the secretary will find a way to praise or defend it. It’s the job of our brain’s Press Secretary to avoid acknowledging our darker motives — to tiptoe around the elephant in the brain.

Singer’s paradox highlights the fact that we are much more enclined to give charity to people who are close to us than to people who are dying of starvation in developing countries. Real-world altruism deviates from effective altruism as many factors influence our charitable behaviours (visibility, peer pressure, proximity, relatability, mating motive). Considering this, spontaneous generosity may not be the most effective way to improve human welfare on a global scale, but it’s effective where our ancestors needed it to be: at finding mates and building a strong network of allies.

Why do students go to school ? To learn the material. Sure, this is the basic answer. Anyway, there are many “hidden” goals. Signaling (evaluate the future work productivity of students), domestication (break our forager spirit) and even day care (take care of our children) are some among others.

In politics, voters feel little pressure to be informed. As long as we adopt the “right” beliefs — those of our main coalitions — we get full credit for loyalty. In fact, the truth is not particularly relevant to our expressive agendas. And on the rare occasions when our political beliefs do suggest concrete actions, we’re happy to ignore their suggestions and act as we would even if we believed the opposite. For example, we might think “Everyone deserves access to the same opportunities” and yet fiercely compete to get our kids into the best schools.

My Big Actionable Takeaway

It would be easy to be fooled and consider that this book is about the way people and society try to hide us their motives.

In fact, the essential takeaway is that WE hide OUR own motives to ourselves. Self-awareness is the key. Know thyself.

Both sides are self-deceived.

That being said,even if our motives are fundamentally selfish, there is still a huge and meaningful difference between violent criminal and people whose “selfishness” causes them to provide (too much) medical care or donate to (inefficient) charities.

In the end, our motives are less important than what we manage to achieve by them.