Book Club: The Elephant In The Brain (February 2018)

This month we read The Elephant In The Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson.

About the book: Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains, therefore, are designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to help us get ahead socially, often via deception and self-deception. But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise.

In fact, the less we know about our own ugly motives, the better – and thus we don’t like to talk or even think about the extent of our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain.”

Such an introspective taboo makes it hard for us to think clearly about our nature and the explanations for our behavior. The aim of this book, then, is to confront our hidden motives directly – to track down the darker, unexamined corners of our psyches and blast them with floodlights. Then, once everything is clearly visible, we can work to better understand ourselves: Why do we laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do we brag about travel? Why do we prefer to speak rather than listen?

This month, I sat down with one of the co-authors of the book, Robin Hanson, to discuss the main ideas of the book.

If you would like to stream audio on your browser, click here listen on Soundcloud.

Broadly, one the takeaways from this book is that politics isn’t about policy, healthcare isn’t about wellness, and education isn’t about learning. One of the first ideas that Robin explains is that:

Most areas in life aren’t central to you and your identity. So in these areas outside of your center, you are much more willing to believe that what goes on there is less than it seems and perhaps even a little fake. But if we get to some that is really close to the center of your identity, something that’s really precious, you’ll find it that much hard to believe. So if you’re an atheist, you’ll find it easy to believe that religion isn’t about God.

When I asked Robin what he thought about how to find the balance between accepting the tension between his own beliefs and what works for getting along well in society, he had this to say:

In all of these areas, the reason that people behave the way they do is because the social incentives push them that way–even if you don’t believe that medicine is very effective for health, you still have to buy it for your family. Similarly, even if you don’t think you’ll have much influence on politics and the outcomes, you still need to act as if you care and act as if you thought you had an influence otherwise people around you might think you are uncaring about your society and the consequences for it. For the most part if you want to get along, you should probably do what everybody does. If you want to be different, you need to pick your battles. I still send my kids to school even if education is not about learning because it is a route to success in our society.

I ask Robin to delineate between the tension of higher, more sincere motives that might be undercut by lesser, faker motives and the idea that there really are selfish motives recast in an altruistic life.

The most high-minded altruistic best motives do exist to some percentage. At the conscious level of our mind we are sincerely trying to help and trying to do good, and trying to learn and trying to get healthy etc. and it’s these underlying motives that systematically shift our behavior to something more effective at other goals and we often don’t even notice the conflicts and if we do we are puzzled and confused and we struggle to overcome it and if we fail we wonder why we fail so much to do this thing we thought we wanted to do when something inside us keeps pushing us the other way.

What is the main takeaway?

I think the mistake we’re making is that we’re taking people at their word for the main goal. We’re designing reforms that help them better achieve that thing they say they want but at some level, we all know it’s not what they want… we need to come up with ways to reorganize systems.

Special thanks to Robin Hanson for being my guest this month. Feel free to join in on our Facebook Group Discussion I’d love to discuss this book with you there. For March, we’ll be reading Dao De Jing by Laozi.