The Elephant In The Brain, by K. Simler and R. Hanson (2017)

Very good. I put off reading this book for a while because I felt had a cynical enough outlook on the world and I worried this might drive me into being a complete fucking recluse. I’m glad I read it.

The core idea of the book is that our brain is unreliable in its assessment of our own motivations, and that literally everything that everyone does is to send some sort of signal to others about our social status. Our conscious mind is perfectly willing to invent rationalisations for our behaviour that seem true to us, but may just exist to mask our selfish behaviour. Hiding our motives from our conscious mind could be a tactic the brain uses to make us stand up well to interrogation; you can’t give away that you’re a selfish cunt if you’re not even consciously aware of it.

The book looks at different aspects of our lives and examines how our rationales and explanations for our behaviour hold up under scrutiny. The examination often takes something that we are content to say arises out of agreeable motives, such as giving to charity to help people, or sending kids to school to give them an education, and then takes a look at the selfish benefits we derive from taking part in them; increased social status, free childcare, etc. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Laughter, Consumption, Charity, and Education.

The Education chapter was phenomenal. Through the lens of signalling, it becomes clear that the reason why meaningful reform of institutions like schools is so difficult is that we are rarely honest about what purpose such institutions serve in the first place. I would like to learn more about this and better understand how school systems are useful even if they are not fit for purpose in providing an education. If I have children in future, I would like to be able to give them an honest answer on why school is a necessary evil.

One of the highlights of the book comes while drawing on the neuroscience research conducted by Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga. An experiment with a split-brain patient reveals the fickle nature of the explanations our brains conjure up to explain our own behavior. Split-brain patients, the likes of which I was first introduced to in The Origins Of Consciousness In The Break Down of The Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, are missing the part of the brain that links up the left and right hemispheres. The sounds heard by the left ear are processed in the right hemisphere, and the part of our brain which forms speech is (usually) in the left hemisphere. Because of this, the researchers could whisper into the left ear of a patient and command them to leave the room, then, upon asking the patient why they’ve left the room, the part of the patient’s brain which is tasked with explaining his behaviour does not have any information regarding the command from the researchers, so it invents a reason on the spot: ‘I wanted to go get a coke’.

This is probably the most concrete example the book provides of our inability to trust our own motives. They paint the conscious part of the brain as a ‘press secretary’ for the unconscious mind—there to spin whatever selfish desires we have into reasonable motives that do not alienate us from our peers. Not having all the information (the true motives) makes the press secretary’s job much easier, because they can never reveal a lie that they aren’t aware of.

I had worried what this book might do to my already very cynical outlook on people in general. Learning that we’re all wired to be selfish cunts and that there’s not really much we can do about it except for behave in a way that endears you to the people you want as ‘allies’ is surprisingly helpful.

For a book which reveals such ugly truths about us, it concludes with a much less pessimistic message than you might expect. A better understanding of our brain’s willingness to bend reality to its benefit can help us resolve conflicts more peacefully, and an awareness of our own signalling and the signalling of others can help us create environments that use our selfish nature to our collective advantage; a philosophy known as ‘enlightened self-interest’.



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.


“We should often blush at our noblest deeds,” wrote François de La Rochefoucauld in the 17th century, “if the world were to see all their underlying motives.”


[Thorstein] Velben famously coined the term “conspicious consumption” to explain the demand for luxury goods. When consumers are asked why they bought an expensive watch or high-end handbag, they often cite material factors like comfort, aesthetics, and functionality. But Veblen argued that, in fact, the demand for luxury goods is driven largely by a social motive: flaunting one’s wealth.


As [Robert] Trivers puts it: “At every single stage [of processing information]—from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others—the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is”.


Under the feel-good veneer of win-win cooperation—teaching kids, healing the sick, celebrating creativity—our institutions harbor giant, silent furnaces of intra-group competitive signaling, where trillions of dollars of wealth, resources, and human effort are being shoveled in and burned to ash every year, largely for the purpose of showing off.


This may sound like pessimism, but it’s actually great news.


Why can’t we be honest with ourselves? The answer is that our thoughts aren’t as private as we imagine. In many ways, conscious thought is a rehearsal of what we’re ready to say to others. As [Robert] Trivers puts it, “We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others”.


If we’re being honest with ourselves—and true to the book’s thesis—then we must admit there is a risk to confronting our hidden motives. Human beings are self-deceived because self-deception is useful. It allows us to reap the benefits of selfish behavior while posing as unselfish in front of others; it helps us look better than we really are. Confronting our delusions must therefore (at least in part) undermine their very reason for existing. There’s a very real sense in which we might be better off not knowing what we’re up to.


But many signs suggest that the keys to our intelligence lie in the harsh, unflattering light of social challenges, the arena of zero-sum games in which one person’s gain is another’s loss. It’s not that we’re completely unaware of these competitive, zero-sum instincts—we just tend to give them less prominence when explaining our behaviour.


In an influential 1990 article on language evolution, [Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom] write: “Interacting with an organism of approximately equal mental abilities whose motives are at times outright malevolent makes formidable and ever-escalating demands on cognition”.


Just as the redwoods are competing for light from the sun, we’re competing for the “light” of attention and affection from potential mates, friends, and allies. And in each game, the way to win is to stand out over one’s rivals.


The essence of a norm, then, lies not in the words we use to describe it, but in which behaviors get punished and what form the punishment takes.


For this reason, it pays to dwell on a few [norms], to remind ourselves that there’s a lot of social pressure to conform to these norms, but that we would benefit from violating these norms freely, if only we could get away with it.


The point is, our minds aren’t as private as we like to imagine. Other people have partial visibility into what we’re thinking. Faced with the translucency of our own minds, then, self-deception is often the most robust way to mislead others.


When we deceive ourselves about personal health, whether by avoiding information entirely or by distrorting information we’ve already received, it feels like we’re trying to protect ourselves from distressing information. But the reason our egos need to be shielded—the reason we evolved to feel pain when our egos are threatened—is to help us maintain a positive social impression.


As psychologists Douglas Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius put it, “Although we’re aware of some of the surface motives for our actions, the deep-seated evolutionary motives often remain inaccessible, buried behind the scenes in the subconscious workings of our brains’ ancient mechanisms”.


“A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason”. — J.P. Morgan


But the conclusion from the past 40 years of social psychology is that the self acts less like an autocrat and more like a press secretary. In many ways, its job—our job—isn’t to make decisions, but simply to defend them. “You are not the king of your brain”, says Steven Kaas. “You are the creepy guy standing next to the king going, ‘A most judicious choice, sire’.


“Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really ‘motiveless’. It was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our secret manouevrings were exposed”. — Keith Johnstone


Both uses of laughter function as reassurances: “In spite of what might seem serious or dangerous, I’m still feeling playful”. And the “in spite of” clause is important. We don’t laugh continuously throughout a play session, only when there’s something potentially unpleasant to react to.


“Tragedy”, said Mel Brooks, “is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die”.


Laughter, then, shows us the boundaries that language is too shy to make explicit. In this way, humor can be extremely useful for exploring the boundaries of the social world. The sparks of laughter illuminate what is otherwise murky and hard to pin down with precision: the threshold between safety and danger, between what’s appropriate and what’s transgressive, between who does and doesn’t deserve our empathy.


When someone accuses us of laughing inappropriately, it’s easy to brush off. “Of, I didn’t really understand what she meant”, we might demur. Or, “Come on, lighten up! It was only a joke!” And we can deliver these denials with great conviction because we really don’t have a clear understanding of what our laughter means or why we find things funny. Our brains just figure it out, without burdening “us” with too many damning details.


Language evolved among our foraging ancestors at least 50,000 years ago (if not far earlier), long before we became the undisputed masters of the planet.


Whatever they were doing with language had to help them achieve biologically relevant goals in their world, and to do so more effectively than their peers.


If speaking were an act of giving, we would consider it polite for people to “selflessly” monopolize conversations. But in fact, it’s just the opposite.


The takeaway from all these observations is that our species seems, somehow, to derive more benefit from speaking than from listening.


One of the big answers [to why we continue to work so hard despite our excellent quality of life], as most people realize, is that we’re stuck in a rat race. Or to put in the terms we’ve been using throughout the book, we’re locked in a game of competitive signaling. No matter how fast the economy grows, there remains a limited supply of sex and social status—and earning and spending money is still a good way to compete for it.


When Corona runs its “Find Your Beach” ad campaign, it’s not necessarily targeting you directly—because you, naturally, are too savvy to manipulated by this kind of ad. But it might be targeting you indirectly, by way of your peers. If you think the ad will change other people’s perceptions of Corona, then it make sense for you to buy it, even if you know that a beer is just a beer, not a lifestyle.


We enjoy art not in spite of the constraints that artists hold themselves to, but because those constraints allow their talents to shine.


“Up until sometime in the 1800s”, writes [David Foster] Wallace, “lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized. Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats. One reason for their low status was how plentiful lobsters were in old New England. ‘Unbelievable abundance’ is how source describes the situation”.


By distilling time and effort into something non-functional, an artist effectively says, “I’m so confident in my survival that I can afford to waste time and energy”.


This is the perverse conclusion we must accept. The forms of charity that are most effective at helping others aren’t the most effective at helping donors signal their good traits. And when push comes to shove, donors will often choose to help themselves.


School advocates often argue that school teaches students “how to learn” or “how to think critically”. But these claims, while comforting, don’t stand up to scrutiny. “Educational psychologists”, writes Caplan, “have measured the hidden intellectual benefits of education for over a century. Their chief discovery is that education is narrow. As a rule, students only learn the material you specifically teach them”.


The signaling model says that education raises a student’s value via certification—by taking an unknown specimen, subjecting it to tests and measurements, and then issuing a grade that makes its value clear to buyers.


Compulsory state-sponsored education traces its heritage to a relatively recent, and not particularly “scholarly” development: the expansion of the Prussian military state in the 18th and 19th centuries. Prussian schools were designed to create patriotic citizens for war, and they apparently worked as intended.


This suggests that public K-12 schools were originally designed as part of nation-building projects, with an eye toward indoctrinating citizens and cultivating patriotic fervor.


The modern workplace is an unnatural environment for a human creature. Factory workers stand in a fixed spot performing repetitive tasks for hours upon hours, day after day. Knowledge workers sit at their desks under harsh flourescent lights, paying sustained, focused attention to intricate (and often mind-numbing) details. Everyone has to wake up early, show up on time, do what they’re told and submit to a system of rewards and punishments.


Recall from Chapter 3 that our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors were fiercely egalitarian and fought hard to prevent even the appearance of taking or giving orders. And while many women throughout history have been bossed around within their families, prior to the Industrial Revolution, most men were free; outside of childhood and war, few had to regularly take direct orders from other men.


In light of this, consider how an industrial-era school system prepares us for the modern workplace. Children are expected to sit still for hours upon hours; to control their impulses; to focus on boring, repetitive tasks; to move from place to place when a bell rings; and even to ask permission before going to the bathroom (think about that for a second). Teachers systematically reward children for being docile and punish them for “acting out”, that is, for acting as their own masters. In fact, teachers reward discipline independent of its influence on learning, and in ways that tamp down on student creativity. Children are also trained to accept being measured, graded, and ranked, often in front of others. This enterprise, which typically lasts well over a decade, serves as a systematic exercise in human domestication.


The main symptom is that unschooled workers don’t do as they’re told.


Moser, an American visitor to India in the 1920s, is even more adamant about the refusal of Indian workers to tend as many machines as they could “… it was apparent that they could easily have taken care of more, but they won’t … They cannot be persuaded by any exhortation, ambition, or the opportunity to increase their earnings.” In 1928 attempts by management to increase the number of machines per worker led to the great Bombay mill strike. Similar stories crop up in Europe and Latin America.


Schools help prepare us for the modern workplace and perhaps for society at large. But in order to do that, they have to break our forager spirits and train us to submit to our place in a modern hierarchy. And while there are many social and economic benefits to this enterprise, one of the first casualties is learning.


But human brains aren’t powerful enough to pull off such perfect hypocrisy, especially when others are constantly probing our beliefs. So the next best thing is often to internalize the belief, while remaining inconsistent enough to occassionally give in to temptation.


By this this logic, Do-Rights should happily abstain from a vote if they judge themselves significantly less informed than the average voter. On such issues, they might even consider it their patriotic duty to stay out of the country’s political business and to encourage other uninformed voters to do likewise.


All of this strongly suggests that we hold political beliefs for reasons other than accurately informing our decisions.


“Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise” — François de La Rochefoucauld, 1678


Self-deception allows us to act selfishly without having to appear quite so selfish in front of others.


When other people’s body language makes us uneasy, in some sense, it may be intended to do so, even if they don’t realize or acknowledge it.


We shouldn’t let other people make us feel inferior—at least, not without our consent.


The next time you butt heads with a coworker or fight with your spouse, keep in mind that both sides are self-deceived, at least a little bit. What feels, to each of you, overwhelmingly “right” and undeniably “true” is often suspiciously self-serving, and if nothing else, it can be useful to take a step back and reflect on your brain’s willingness to distort things for your benefit.


At the same time, however, it would be a mistake to conlude that virtue requries us to somehow “rise above” our biological impulses. Humans are living creates through and through: we can’t transcend our biology any more than we can transcend the laws of physics.


Enter here the philosophy of “enlightened self-interest”. This is the notion that we can do well for ourselves by doing good for others.


Take education, for example. We may wish for schools that focus more on teaching than on testing. And yet, some amount of the testing is vital to the economy, since employers need to know which workers to hire. So if we tried to cut too much from school’s testing function, we could be blindsided by resistance we don’t understand—because those who resist may not tell us the real reasons for their opposition. It’s only by understanding where the resistance is coming from that we have any hope of overcoming it.


“The curious task of economics”, wrote Friedrich Hayek, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design”.


One promising approach to institutional reform is to try to acknowledge people’s need to show off, but to divert their efforts away from wasteful activities and towards those with bigger benefits and positive externalities.


As if our oversized brains and hairless skin didn’t make us an uncanny enough species, our genes long ago decided that, in the relentless competition to survive and reproduce, their best strategy was to build ethical brains.