The elephant in the brain = An important but unacknowledged feature of how our minds works
Elephant = selfishness, competition for power, seeking status & sex, deception, etc.
Our real motives are often unconscious, but large enough (like elephants) to set footprints in economical data.
The book in a nutshell
The world has finite resources that we compete for, and those who are selfish often wins
We have norms against selfish behaviour, so we need to hide our selfish motives
It’s easier to hide your selfish motives when you also hide them from yourself!
Our mind works like a press secretary that rationalizes our behaviour so we can look good!
Hidden motives can be found in body language, laughter, conversion, consumption, art, charity, education, healthcare, religion & politics!
We are selfish individuals in a competitive world!
We compete for
Prestige (Advances in science, art & technology comes from individuals competing for prestige)
We grew bigger brains to outcompete each other
Competition requires 2 skills
Evaluate potential partners
Attract good partners
We use signals to evaluate and attract partners.
Norms try to keep down selfish motives
They are enforced with punishment & reward!
Foragers were egalitarian, so this is where egalitarian norms came from (no one should position themselves above others)
Why we hide our selfish motives
We have social norms against selfish behaviour
People judge as all the time & we need to look good
We want to:
change people’s beliefs, in ways that will benefit us
intimidating others, by not showing our weaknesses
We lie to ourselves about our motives, so it’s easier to lie for others
We hide our motives with rationalizations
The ego isn’t making our decisions, but only defending them like a press secretary.
We are a stranger to our own minds
Split brain patients were told in their left ear to leave their chair (processed only by their right hemisphere) and were asked why. Their language center (which sits in the left hemisphere) said “I wanted to get a coke” as a justification.
Patients with right hemisphere stroke keep coming up with excuses about why their left arm isn’t moving, while actually it’s paralyzed.
Our motives are easy to rationalize because other people have a hard time fact checking them
Why it can be good to know your hidden motives
You can better understand the hidden motives in yourself & others
You can try to work around them
Design institutions that work well with people’s hidden motives
Enlightened self-interest: Do what’s good for you AND for others!
Admitting hidden motives can show honesty & courage
Examples of hidden motives
Body language is discrete & often unconscious
Communicating social status
Calling attention to yourself = Not afraid
The higher the ratio of eye contact while talking compared to listening, the higher status
Flirting, even if you have a mate
Holding hands = Mate guarding
Used as a play signal!
Especially in situations that would otherwise seem serious or dangerous
Playing with the boundaries of norms
Talking about taboo’s
Especially in situations that would otherwise seem serious or dangerous! (playing with the boundaries of norms, talking about taboo’s)
When someone is hurt we can laugh if it’s insignificant or someone we don’t care about
Laughter is honest, yet deniable
The only animals that laugh are the great apes: Orangotans, gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees and humans
All do it less when alone, and do it in similar settings
Costs of sharing information
Not monopolizing it
Despite the costs of sharing information, we aren’t greedy listerners
We don’t keep track of who is returning favors in terms of information
We want to speak more than listen
Image people’s knowledge as tools in their backpack
A hidden motive while speaking is showing off our backpack (to attract mates & allies)
Talking is about sharing information and showing off our backpack of tools
Listening is about receiving information and evaluating the backpack of the speaker
We try to show we are good potential mates/allies by being able to show new useful tools on demand
One reason for topics having to stay on topic, is that it is much more impressive to give tools for a relevant situation
The authors of the book admit that they wrote the book to earn prestige
We can earn social status & sex by spending money for signaling
But when the whole population gets wealthier, no one advances in the rat race, because it’s a zero sum game.
Hidden motives for buying
“Keeping up with the joneses”
Our home & yard
Seeming prosocial: Buying environmentally friendly things
Being trendy/in the know
Showing intelligence: Having a rubiks cube probably means you can solve it
Being part of a subculture: Having an AC/DC t-shirt
Others: Showing athleticism, ambition, health-consciousness, youth, sexual openness
Art is used as a fitness display (excess wealth, energy, health, time, resources, etc.)
We don’t only enjoy art for its intrinsic properties (Beauty, expressiveness)
We also enjoy art for its extrinsic properties (time investment, technique used, things that serve as fitness display)
We would rather see original paintings than identical replica
Paintings & sculptures used to be appreciated for their realism and the perfect technique required to create them
Then photography made this easy, and the focus shifted to impressionism, cubism, expressionism, surrealism, abstraction.
It has to be wasteful/impractical to show excess
Fashionable clothing in materials like silk, lace and wool is hard to clean
Being able to tell apart good art from bad art gives the ability to tell apart good genetic fitness from others
Used to choose mates & allies
So we need to consume a lot of art to develop this skill!
If something wasteful has been around universally for a long enough time for evolution to have had the chance to weed it out, it probably serves some purpose
Sexual selection favors art
Bowerbird males build and decorates impressive bowers to attract females
Sating bowerbirds use blue ornaments because it’s difficult, which shows they are fit
Who are we trying to impress by giving?
Potential employers (we write volunteer work on our resumes)
People who will vote for us (if we are politicians)
How are we trying to be perceived when donating?
Having excess wealth, energy, time, etc. (fitness display)
We don’t care about the effectiveness of our donations
More than 1 billion was donated to princess of wales charity before the charity knew what the money was going to be used for and what the administrative overheads would be
Participants in a study was told that some nets could save 2.000, 20.000 or 200.000 birds, but the donations didn’t scale at all
People diversify their donations, which would mostly make sense for an investor who wants to diversify to decrease his risk, but the donations of society is already diversified
For most wealthy people donating their time to charity work doesn’t make any sense, because if they used the same amount of hours in their own career, they would make much more which they could pay as donations
Warm glow theory: We give because it feels good.
What influences us to give to charity?
People give more when they are being watches
They give more when 2 people ask for a donation rather than 1
They give more when someone makes eye contact
They give more when the money is visible compared to being in an envelope
Only 1% of donations are anonymous
95% of donations are given after being asked to donate
We would help a boy who is almost drowning in front of us, but not dying children in Africa
We would rather help someone we can identify with a face, name & story
“One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is statistics”
GiveWell is a part of the effective altruism movement and researches how to get the biggest ROI on donations.
Education is for showing off your value to a potential employer
And showing you can afford the education (fitness display)
Both students & employers care more about the degree than the knowledge acquired
Each year of high school/college gives 4% higher life earnings, except the last year which gives 30%, even though there isn’t that much more learned!
The most important thing about the degree is that it shows you can work hard
What’s wrongs about education?
Much of what we learn aren’t practical
We forget what we learn
We are not good at transferring our knowledge to the real world
Schools often don’t use the best learning methods
There are propaganda in some schools
We are trained to be obedient workers
What’s right about education?
Primary school is a good substitute for baby sitting
Healthcare is like a mother kissing her child’s scraped knee
The child gets comfort and the mother gets loyalty
Just like charity, you can use healthcare to show you are a good ally
Evolution: The need came from foragers who needed to know people cared for them if they got sick
Throughout history we can see the need to feel cared for, even if the treatment doesn’t work
Releasing evil spirits by boring holes into the skull
Killing invincible tooth worms by burning a candle inside the mouth
Some medicine improves our health, but beyond a certain point it’s more about showing care
RAND experiment: Those who got free health care spend more on healthcare, but didn’t get noticeably healthier
Religions is about building community:
Sacrificing shows we care about others
Celibacy is just an extreme sacrifice
Synchronized dances & singing binds people together
Badges show who is a part of the group
Special clothing (turbans)
Buddhist monks shaving their head
Other ways of building communities
Sports, cross fit, brands like apple, political ideologies, music subcultures, etc.
It’s good if people believe that you believe in a punishing god, because then they expect you to have good moral behaviour
So you deceive yourself, so you can better deceive others
Religious rituals is often a waste of time, energy & ressources
Sacrificing your life
Politics isn’t just about influencing outcomes, but also about appearing loyal to your group