The elephant in the brain


  • 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!

Full summary

We are selfish individuals in a competitive world!

  • We compete for
    1. Social status
      • Dominance
      • Prestige (Advances in science, art & technology comes from individuals competing for prestige)
    2. Sex
    3. Politics
  • We grew bigger brains to outcompete each other
  • Competition requires 2 skills
    1. Evaluate potential partners
    2. 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

  • 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
    1. Acquiring it
    2. 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
    1. Social status:
      • “Keeping up with the joneses”
      • Expensive restaurants
      • Our home & yard
      • Vacations
    2. Seeming prosocial: Buying environmentally friendly things
    3. Being trendy/in the know
    4. Showing intelligence: Having a rubiks cube probably means you can solve it
    5. Being part of a subculture: Having an AC/DC t-shirt
    6. 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 mates
    • Potential allies
    • 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)
    • Prosocial
    • Compassionate
  • 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
    • Peer pressure
      • 95% of donations are given after being asked to donate
    • Proximity
      • We would help a boy who is almost drowning in front of us, but not dying children in Africa
    • Relatability
      • 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
    • Domestication
      • We are trained to be obedient workers
  • What’s right about education?
    • Primary school is a good substitute for baby sitting
    • College: Networking


  • 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
    • Shamans
    • Bad treatments
      • 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
    • Chastisty
    • Sacrificing your life


  • Politics isn’t just about influencing outcomes, but also about appearing loyal to your group

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