The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson is a book primarily about how the human brain engages in self-deception to serve our own (sometimes ugly) motives. We’ll get deeper into The Elephant in the Brain key takeaways below but in summary, our brains have evolved to hide our own motives from ourselves. This may seem odd at first – isn’t introspection considered a good thing? The answer is clearly that it has been an evolutionary advantage to not fully understand our own motives. The purpose of this book is to shine light on the true motives behind many of our behaviors and social institutions – like school, medicine, government, non-profits, and more.
For those who prefer to listen to The Elephant in the Brain Key Takeaways, you can listen to our Made You Think podcast episode on this book below.
The Elephant in the Brain Key Takeaways
Key Takeaway #1: Human Self-Deception Serves Strategic Purposes
We all deceive ourselves. Whether it’s about how hard we think we’re working, how nice we are to other people, or how good we think our own cooking is (guilty), self-deception is human.
As Simler and Hanson state in the introduction of their book:
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.
In other words, our minds deceive “us” so that we don’t give off any tells to others as we try to deceive them. In the context of human evolution, it makes sense that humans (who are social apes), will engage in Machiavellian behavior. But as the authors note:
When asked to describe our own behavior – why we bought that new car, say, or why we broke off a relationship – we mostly portray our motives as cooperative and prosocial. We don’t admit to nearly as much showing off and political jockeying as we’d expect from a competitive social animal. Something just doesn’t add up.
This is all done for social advantage:
Knowledge suppression is useful only when two conditions are met: (1) when others have partial visibility into your mind; and (2) when they’re judging you, and meting out rewards or punishments, based on what they “see” in your mind.
To optimize our social standing in an environment where others can “sort of” see into your mind to understand your conscious motives, it is absolutely an advantage to hide those motives from yourself.
Key Takeaway #2: “I” is a Difficult Concept to Talk About
In everyday language, we use the word “I” regularly. It’s difficult to have a conversation without the words I, you, me, they, etc etc. But in fact, these pronouns are vast simplifications – our minds are incredibly complicated. A simple example: “when we say our mind deceives us”, who is “our mind” and who is “us”?
There’s no real resolution to this when trying to communicate with others but it’s interesting to note.
Key Takeaway #3: Discretion is a Method to Get Away With Breaking Rules
It goes without saying that there are laws and social rules in everyday life. It also goes without saying that those rules are constantly broken. Discretion is an ideal strategy to get away with breaking rules. Discretion has many forms:
Pretexts – these function as ready-made excuses or alibis
Discreet Communication – Keeping things on the down-low
Skirting norm – Instead of violating it outright
Subtlety – In honor cultures, an open insult is considered ample provocation for violence. In contrast, an insult that’s subtle enough not to land “on the record” will often get a pass.
There are tons of examples in the book (as always, read it!) but my favorite one about pretext is the following:
When a hotel invites its guests to “consider the environment” before leaving their used towels out to be washed, its primary concern isn’t the environment but its bottom line. But to impose on guests merely to save money violates norms of hospitality – hence the pretext.
Key Takeaway #4: We Invent Counterfeit Reasons and Rationalizations for the Things We Do
We don’t always know the “whys” behind our own behavior. But as we’ll see, we certainly pretend to know.
The best demonstration for this phenomenon is the split-brain patient experiments, conducted by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga. These patients had a split-brain where each hemisphere was separate, in effect like having two separate people within a single skull. Here is an example of the experimental setup and the major implications:
Sperry and Gazzaniga asked a patient – by way of his right hemisphere (left ear) – to stand up and walk toward the door. Once the patient was out of his chair, they then asked him, out loud, what he was doing, which required a response from his left hemisphere. Again this put the left hemisphere in an awkward position.
Now, we know why the patient got out of his chair – because the researchers asked him to, via his right hemisphere. The patient’s left hemisphere, however, had no way of knowing this. But instead of saying, “I don’t know why I stood up,” which would have been the only honest answer, it made up a reason and fobbed it off as the truth:
“I wanted to go get a Coke”
This is incredible and shows how little we know of our own reasons. But it goes further than that. We actively make up reasons for our actions. And we don’t even know why. Indeed:
Even we don’t have particularly privileged access to the information and decision-making that goes on inside our minds. We think we’re pretty good at introspection, but that’s largely an illusion. In a way we’re almost like outsiders within our own minds.
Key Takeaway #5: Consumption is Virtue Signaling
This one may seem obvious. When we purchase a product, the reasons quite often go beyond the functionality of that product. For example:
Conventional wisdom holds that consumers buy green goods – rather than non-green substitutes that are cheaper, more functional, or more luxurious – in order to “help the environment.” But of course we should be skeptical that such purely altruistic motives are the whole story.
Whether out on the road or parked in a driveway, a Prius is unmistakeable. If the Prius looked just like a Camry, fewer people would notice it. Instead what Prius owners are signaling is their prosocial attitude, that is, their good-neighborliness and responsible citizenship.
In other words, virtue signaling. This isn’t just limited to environmental causes – it’s equally relevant for wealth/status (big house, car, etc), education (Ivy League), or even beer.
Key Takeaway #6: Personal Decisions Can Become Political
As a society, we consider certain decisions to be personal – family planning, education, but above all – medical care. Although we pay a lot of lip service to medical decisions being personal, there is major societal stigma to making non-mainstream treatment choices. For example:
Consider what happened to Steve Jobs. When he died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, the world mourned the loss of a tech-industry titan. At the same time, many were harsh in condemning Jobs for refusing to follow the American Medical Association’s best practices for treating his cancer. “Jobs’s faith in alternative medicine likely cost him his life,” said Barrie Cassileth, a department chief at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “He essentially committed suicide.” Now, imagine that, hypothetically Jobs’s son had come down with pancreatic cancer. If the Jobs family had pursued the same line of alternative treatment, the public outrage would have been considerably more severe. Cassileth’s remark that Jobs “essentially committed suicide,” for example, would turn into the accusation that Jobs “essentially committed murder.” We see a similar accusation leveled at Christian Scientists when they refuse mainstream medical treatment for their children. The point here is that whenever we fail to uphold the (perceived) highest standards for medical treatment, we risk becoming the subject of unwanted gossip and even open condemnation. Our seemingly “personal” medical decisions are, in fact, quite public and even political.
The Elephant in the Brain key takeaways only scratch the surface of the many insights shared in this book. If you enjoy learning more about how the human mind works, you’ll love this book.
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