The Elephant in The Brain – Robin Hanson & Kevin Simler

CONTENTS

This book is a fascinating exploration of the human mind.

The main thesis of the authors is that humans’ real motives are inherently selfish, but our brains have set up a clever mechanism by which we find positive, pro-social reasons for each of our behaviors. The crazy thing is that our brain hides the true motive of our actions even from ourselves.

The analysis of our true motives brings to light the answers to a lot of interesting questions, such as:

  • Why humans evolved making art if creating it provides no evolutionary value?
  • Do you really donate because you care about helping strangers far away?
  • How does your posture signal your social status?

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Summary Notes


Humans hide the real motives behind their actions (even to themselves)

When we study primate groups, we notice a lot of Machiavellian behavior—sexual displays, dominance and submission, fitness displays (showing off), and political maneuvering. But 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.

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.

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

Examples in society

Education isn’t just about learning; it’s largely about getting graded, ranked, and credentialed, stamped for the approval of employers. Religion isn’t just about private belief in God or the afterlife, but about conspicuous public professions of belief that help bind groups together. In each of these areas, our hidden agendas explain a surprising amount of our behavior—often a majority. When push comes to shove, we often make choices that prioritize our hidden agendas over the official ones.

Our brain is split in different, conflicting modules

Instead of a single monolithic process or small committee, modern psychologists see the brain as a patchwork of hundreds or thousands of different parts or “modules,” each responsible for a slightly different information-processing task

And crucially, as Haidt stressed, the different parts don’t always agree. A fact might be known to one system and yet be completely concealed or cut off from other systems. Or different systems might contain mutually inconsistent models of the world.

No matter how fervently a person believes in Heaven, for example, she’s still going to be afraid of death. This is because the deepest, oldest parts of her brain—those charged with self-preservation—haven’t the slightest idea about the afterlife. Nor should they. Self-preservation systems have no business dealing with abstract concept

The interpreter module (a.k.a the Press Secretary of the brain)

All human brains contain a system he calls the “interpreter module.” The job of this module is to interpret or make sense of our experiences by constructing explanations: stories that integrate information about the past and present, and about oneself and the outside world.

it’s the job of our brain’s Press Secretary to avoid acknowledging our darker motives—to tiptoe around the elephant in the brain. Just as a president’s press secretary should never acknowledge that the president is pursuing a policy in order to get reelected or to appease his financial backers, our brain’s Press Secretary will be reluctant to admit that we’re doing things for purely personal gain, especially when that gain may come at the expense of others. To the extent that we have such motives, the Press Secretary would be wise to remain strategically ignorant of them.

We’re less in charge than we think

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.’ “

This, then, is the key sleight-of-hand at the heart of our psychosocial problems: We pretend we’re in charge, both to others and even to ourselves, but we’re less in charge than we think. We pose as privileged insiders, when in fact we’re often making the same kind of educated guesses that any informed outsider could make. We claim to know our own minds, when, as Wilson says, we’re more like “strangers to ourselves

Humans are status-seeking courtship machines

Our minds evolved not just as survival machines, but as courtship machines, and many of our most distinctive behaviors serve reproductive rather than survival ends. There are good reasons to believe, for example, that our capacities for visual art, music, storytelling, and humor function in large part as elaborate mating displays, not unlike the peacock’s tail.

Now, our competitions for prestige often produce positive side effects such as art, science, and technological innovation. But the prestige-seeking itself is more nearly a zero-sum game, which helps explain why we sometimes feel pangs of envy at even a close friend’s success.

Gossip has evolutionary importance

Among laypeople, gossip gets a pretty bad rap. But anthropologists see it differently. Gossip—talking about people behind their backs, often focusing on their flaws or misdeeds—is a feature of every society ever studied.11 And while it can often be mean-spirited and hurtful, gossip is also an important process for curtailing bad behavior, especially among powerful people

Reputation is also important for incentivizing people to help enforce norms. Standing up to norm violators can be risky, especially when they’re powerful. It’s rarely in people’s best interests to stick out their necks to punish transgressors. But throw some reputation into the mix and it can suddenly become profitable. Someone who helps evict a cheater will be celebrated for her leadership.

Body Language

Most of our social behaviors are unconscious

When we study how people interact with each other on the small scale—in real time and face to face—we quickly learn to appreciate the depth and complexity of our social behaviors and how little we’re consciously aware of what’s going on. These behaviors include laughter, blushing, tears, eye contact, and body language. In fact, we have such little introspective access into these behaviors, or voluntary control over them, that it’s fair to say “we” aren’t really in charge. Our brains choreograph these interactions on our behalves, and with surprising skill.

Eye contact (signal attraction and/or dominance)

To begin with, eye contact. Few behaviors convey the message “I’m attracted to you” as convincingly as a lingering come-hither stare. The more intense and prolonged the eye contact, the more it signals that both partners are interested in each other—and comfortable enough to advertise their interest, at least to each other

Social status influences how we make eye contact, not just while we listen, but also when we speak. In fact, one of the best predictors of dominance is the ratio of “eye contact while speaking” to “eye contact while listening.” Psychologists call this the visual dominance ratio.

It would be appallingly crass to announce, “I’m the most important person in the room”—but we can convey the same message, discreetly, simply by splaying out on a couch or staring at people while talking to them. Similarly, “I’m attracted to you,” is too direct to state out loud to someone you just met—but a smile, a lingering glance, or a friendly touch on the wrist can accomplish the same thing

Confidence and status signaling

When we feel threatened, for example, we naturally adopt an alert and defensive posture. We hunch our shoulders or cross our arms. We sit forward with feet planted firmly on the floor, the better to stand up quickly if tensions escalate. Conversely, when we’re in the presence of trusted friends, we let our guards down—by maintaining an open, vulnerable posture, by showing our palms, or by relaxing our shoulders an

Because of their privileged position, high-status individuals have less to worry about in social situations. They’re less likely to be attacked, for example, and if they are attacked, others are likely to come to their aid. This allows them to maintain more relaxed body language. They speak clearly, move smoothly, and are willing to adopt a more open posture. Lower-status individuals, however, must constantly monitor the environment for threats and be prepared to defer to higher-status individuals. As a result, they glance around, speak hesitantly, move warily, and maintain a more defensive posture.

Wearing prominent collars, headdresses, and elaborate up-dos and swaggering down the street with a blaring boom box all imply the same thing: “I’m not afraid of calling attention to myself, because I’m powerful.”

Laughter (and its dark aspect)

Laughter is an involuntary behavior. It’s not something we actively decide to do; our brains simply do it, naturally and spontaneously.

We start laughing almost as soon as we’re out of the womb, months before we learn to talk or sing. Even infants born blind and deaf, who can’t copy behaviors from their parents or siblings, instinctively know how to laugh. And while each culture develops its own distinct language and singing style, laughter sounds pretty much the same in every remote village and bursting metropolis on the planet.

there may be a hidden dark side to laughter. Consider how we often use humor as an excuse to trot out our most taboo subjects: race, sex, politics, and religion. Or how we laugh at people who are different from us or people who aren’t in the room. We can say things in the comedic register that we’d never dream of saying in a straight-faced discussion. The paradox of laughter is that it puts us at ease in social situations, and yet its meaning and purpose seem to reside squarely in our introspective blind spot.

Speaking and listening

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. To speak too much or “hog the mic” is considered rude, while the opposite behavior—inviting someone else to take the floor, or asking a dinner guest about one of her hobbies—is considered the epitome of good manners.

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

Participants evaluate each other not just as trading partners, but also as potential allies. Speakers are eager to impress listeners by saying new and useful things, but the facts themselves can be secondary. Instead, it’s more important for speakers to demonstrate that they have abilities that are attractive in an ally.

Every remark made by a speaker contains two messages for the listener: text and subtext. The text says, “Here’s a new piece of information,” while the subtext says, “By the way, I’m the kind of person who knows such things.”

We’re continuously trying to show off

One of the big answers, as most people realize, is that we’re stuck in a rat race. Or to put it 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.

The idea that we use purchases to flaunt our wealth is known as conspicuous consumption. It’s an accusation that we buy things not so much for purely personal enjoyment as for showing off or “keeping up with the Joneses.”

“Conscious Consumers”

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.

Clearly their motive isn’t just to help the environment, but also to be seen as being helpful

The evolutionary purpose of art??

Art poses a challenge for evolutionary thinkers. It’s a costly behavior, both in time and energy, but at the same time it’s impractical. Art doesn’t put food on your table, look after your children, or keep you warm at night—at least not directly. So art, on its face, seems like a waste of time and energy.

Miller argues that while ecological selection (the pressure to survive) abhors waste, sexual selection often favors it. The logic, as you may recall from Chapter 2, is that we prefer mates who can afford to waste time, energy, and other resources. What’s valuable isn’t the waste itself, but what the waste says about the survival surplus—health, wealth, energy levels, and so forth—of a potential mate.

The argument we’re making in this chapter is simply that “showing off” is one of the important motives we have for making art, and that many details of our artistic instincts have been shaped substantially by this motive. Not only do artists want to show off, but consumers simultaneously use art as a means to judge the artist. That’s one of the big reasons people appreciate art, and we can’t understand the full range of phenomena unless we’re willing to look at art as a fitness display.

Art originally evolved to help us advertise our survival surplus and, from the consumer’s perspective, to gauge the survival surplus of others. 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.” The waste is important. It’s only by doing something that serves no concrete survival function that artists are able to advertise their survival surplus

Charity Donations

When we analyze donation as an economic activity, it soon becomes clear how little we seem to care about the impact of our donations.

  1. The majority of Americans (85 percent) say that they care about nonprofit performance, but only 35 percent do research on any charitable gift in the course of a calendar year.
  2. Of those that research, most (63 percent) do so to validate the nonprofit they’re seeking to give to.
  3. Only 3 percent of donors do comparative research to find the best nonprofit to give to

These behaviors don’t make sense if we try to explain charity-related behaviors as an attempt to maximize ROD (return on donation). Something else is going on—but what, exactly? What might we be trying to accomplish with our generosity, if not helping others as efficiently as possible? Are we simply failing in our goals, or do we have other motives?

People seldom initiate donations on their own; up to 95 percent of all donations are given in response to a solicitation. 32 In-person solicitations, like when someone comes to your door or passes the collection plate at church, work better than impersonal solicitations like direct mail or TV advertisements. People are especially likely to donate when the solicitor is a close associate

One final factor influencing our generosity is the opportunity to impress potential mates. Many studies have found that people, especially men, are more likely to give money when the solicitor is an attractive member of the opposite sex. Men also give more to charity when nearby observers are female rather than male.

In light of all this evidence, the conclusion is pretty clear. We may get psychological rewards for anonymous donations, but for most people, the “warm fuzzies” just aren’t enough. We also want to be seen as charitable

Griskevicius calls this phenomenon “blatant benevolence.” Patrick West calls it “conspicuous compassion.” The idea is that we’re motivated to appear generous, not simply to be generous, because we get social rewards only for what others notice. In other words, charity is an advertisement, a way of showing off.

People who donate are more attractive

Which kind of people are likely to make better friends, coworkers, and spouses—“calculators” who manage their generosity with a spreadsheet, or “emoters” who simply can’t help being moved to help people right in front of them? Sensing that emoters, rather than calculators, are generally preferred as allies, our brains are keen to advertise that we are emoters. Spontaneous generosity may not be the most effective way to improve human welfare on a global scale, but it’s effective where our ancestors needed it to be: at finding mates and building a strong network of allies

If humans are so selfish, how can we hope to improve collective welfare?

Enter here the philosophy of “enlightened self-interest.” This is the notion that we can do well for ourselves by doing good for others. It’s the philosophy described by Alexis de Tocqueville, preached by Adam Smith, and practiced by Benjamin Franklin. In the biological literature, it’s known as “indirect reciprocity” or “competitive altruism”.

In light of this, we absolutely need ideals—not just as personal goals to strive for.

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