The Elephant in the Brain

55 mins read

What makes people tick?

The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler (Twitter) and Robin Hanson (Twitter) is a book that puts an uncomfortable spotlight on self-deception and the true hidden motives that underlie our behaviors. The title “elephant in the brain” (a play on the English idiom elephant in the room) is the fact that people are “strategically blind to their motives.”

Elephant in the room, n. An important issue that people are reluctant to acknowledge or address; a social taboo.

Elephant in the brain, n. An important but unacknowledged feature of how our minds work; an introspective taboo.

This cognitive blindspot exists for a number of reasons:

  • our true motives make us look bad
  • self-interest drives much of our decision-making
  • many of our wants and desires are at odds with societal norms.

Hidden motives allow us to behave badly (often selfishly) while appearing good – not only in the eyes of others, but most importantly to ourselves.

Humans are social beings and, as such, we are constantly engaged in political games and status-seeking. To succeed in the game of life, we need to attract partners and allies and ward off enemies and rivals (all deep-seated evolutionary imperatives).

There are many different systems in the brain, each connected but also partially isolated from each other. The artificial intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky famously described this arrangement as the “society of mind.”

And like a society, there are different ways to carve it up for different purposes. Just as America can be broken down in terms of political ideology (liberals vs. conservatives), geography (urban vs. rural), or generation (Baby Boomers vs. Millennials), the mind can also be carved up in many different ways.

What this means for self-deception is that our brains can maintain a relatively accurate set of beliefs in systems tasked with evaluating potential actions, while keeping those beliefs hidden from the systems (like consciousness) involved in managing social impressions.

In other words, we can act on information that isn’t available to our verbal, conscious egos. And conversely, we can believe something with our conscious egos without necessarily making that information available to the systems charged with coordinating our behavior.

People who download copyrighted material — songs, movies, books — often rationalize their actions by saying, “Faceless corporations take most of the profits from artists anyway.” Makes sense, right?

The fact that most of these people wouldn’t dream of stealing CDs from Best Buy (an equally faceless corporate entity) attests to a different explanation for their behavior, however. Online, they feel anonymous and are less afraid of getting caught!

This illustrates that we have many reasons for our behaviors, but we habitually exaggerate our pretty, prosocial motives and downplay our ugly, selfish ones.

In the animal kingdom, intimidation and overt shows of strength may be accepted behavior, but humans have developed systems of cultural norms meant to facilitate cooperation and social cohesion. In a civilized society, intimidation through direct means—e.g. punching someone the face unprovoked—carries stiff penalties. This includes potential legal punishments (incarceration and recompense), loss of employment, disapproval from one’s community, and a loss of status and prestige. But status seeking doesn’t disappear just because of standards of behavior (norms). Humans still find ways to assert dominance and jockey for position, albeit in less overt and more cunning ways.

The book is divided in two parts:

  • First Part – the authors explain that we’re often blind to our own true motives for doing things – like the way Jonathan Haidt put it, “The conscious mind thinks it’s the Oval Office, when in reality it’s the press office.” Although we think we are issuing executive orders, but most of the time we’re just rationalizing decisions taken in the unconscious, for reasons we do not fully understand.
  • Second Part – This is where the fun starts. The authors look at how these hidden motives play out in everyday life, and more importantly, in our institutions. The authors’ consider – body language, laughter, consumption, conversation, artistic creativity and our most venerated institutions like charities, education, medicine, religion, and politics are also scrutinized.

Highlights of the Book


  • Main thesis (from preface): People are strategically blind to their motives. Self-deception as a strategy that allows us to appear good despite behaving badly. This maybe a bitter pill to swallow for some readers.
  • Definition of “the elephant in the brain”: “An important but unacknowledged feature of how our minds work; an introspective taboo.” The figurative “elephant” is human selfishness and the hidden motives driving our self-interest.
  • Puzzling phenomenon that incited the authors’ investigation:
    • Why do people in developed nations consume so much medical care – well beyond what is sufficient? (e.g. clinical visits, drugs, diagnostic tests, elective procedures, etc.)
    • Non-medical interventions (e.g. dietary improvements, exercise, sleep, environmental considerations like air quality) have significant benefits but most people and politicians are relatively uninterested in these measures.
    • One hypothesis: People are “easily satisfied with the appearance of good medical care.”
    • In other words: health is not the sole consideration of medicine. “People might have other motives for buying medicine – these motives are largely unconscious.”
    • Conspicuous care” is an important part of the healthcare signaling and theater.
  • Christopher Boehm’s ideas (anthropologist) were another catalyst.
    • Boehm studies human interactions with the same analytical tools used to study primate communities (like chimpanzees).
    • For instance: social status is an important dynamic in the workplace. However, people disguise these status games. For instance, Richard doesn’t complain about Karen by saying, ‘She gets in my way’; he accuses her of ‘not caring enough about the customer.’
  • “People don’t typically think or talk in terms of maximizing social status – yet we all instinctively act this way – pursuing our self-interest without explicitly acknowledging it, even to ourselves.”
  • “Self-deception is therefore strategic, a ploy our brains use to look good while behaving badly.” This occurs at the individual and group level (organizations, institutions, and governments are not invulnerable).

Why We Hide Our Motives

“We don’t know our own minds nearly as well as we pretend to. For the price of a little self-deception, we get to have our cake and eat it too: act in our own best interests without having to reveal ourselves as the self-interested schemers we often are.”

Chapter 1: Animal Behavior

  • Since humans are an animal species, the authors suggest looking at behaviors of other animal species. This is beneficial, in part, because we hold fewer preconceptions about other species and can read them more objectively.
  • Case study: social grooming among primates.
    • Primates can groom themselves to keep clean, but cannot do so effectively (they can’t reach or see their backs, faces, and heads).
    • Social grooming is the behavior where animals groom each other for mutual benefit.
    • Chimps form stable grooming partnerships over their lives.
    • Grooming isn’t just about keeping clean, it’s about politics. “By grooming each other, primates help forge alliances that help them in other situations.”
    • Higher ranked chimps receive more grooming than lower-ranked chimps.
    • Grooming partners are more likely to share food and support each other during confrontations.
  • The surface-level logic of a behavior often belies deeper, more complex motives.”

Chapter 2: Competition

  • Humans are biased in the way we interpret our own motives. “We want our species to be seen in the most flattering light.
  • Consider two explanations for why humans evolved such large brains:
    1. As a response to ecological challenges: Fighting off predators, hunting prey, discovering fire, dealing with harsh climates. This is humans vs. environment.
    2. As a response to social challenges: competition for mates, social status, coalition politics, intra-group violence, deception. This is humans vs. humans.
  • “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.”
  • The Parable of the Redwoods:
    • Redwoods grow tall because they compete among other redwoods.
    • Redwoods don’t evolve in isolation from other members of their species. You won’t find a redwood in a meadow.
    • The redwood could only grow tall surrounded by other redwoods and the evolutionary impetus for height was intra-species competition.
  • The social brain hypothesis: The idea that our ancestors’ intelligence evolved as a competitive response to social and political interactions with other humans.
  • “The most important games played by our ancestors: sex, social status, and politics.”
    • Sexual competition = competition for mates.
    • Social status = obtaining respect and influence.
      • Two flavors of status: dominance (fear-based) and prestige (admiration-based).
      • Respect is a finite resource.
    • Political games = the formation of coalitions (e.g. 2 vs. 1 maneuvering).
      • Coalitions allow for cooperation and shared goals.
  • The three games are interrelated: “To succeed in the mating game, for example, it often pays to have high status and political clout—while an attractive mate can, in turn, raise one’s social status.”
  • Each game requires two complementary skills:
    1. The ability to evaluate potential partners.
    2. The ability to attract good partners.
  • “In each game, the way to win is to stand out over one’s rivals.”
  • Signals: In evolutionary biology, this is “anything used to communicate or convey information.”
    • Example: unblemished skin or fur signals that a specimen is healthy.
    • Example: a growl signals aggression. The volume and depth of the growl signals size.
  • Honest signals: Are signals that are reliable and truthful about their message. Honest signals can be more costly. Example: A lion’s growl is an example of a large animal. A small animal would have a difficult time emulating this characteristic.
  • Remember the axiom: actions speak louder than words. Words cost nothing. “Which is a more honest signal of your value to a company: being told ‘great job!’ or getting a raise?”
    • Example: Loyal friends visit when you are in the hospital.
    • Example: Healthy mates exercise.
    • Example: Gang initiates get tattoos exhibiting their commitment to the gang.
  • Countersignaling: A kind of signaling that is used to distinguish status but is difficult for outsiders to detect. Example: close friends can distinguish themselves from casual friends by insulting or being unfriendly with their friends. For instance calling your friend an “idiot” or humorously insulting them. Close friends can get away with this behavior.

Chapter 3: Norms

  • Norms are behavioral conventions. They promote social cooperation and suppress competition. For example: orderly queuing in lines rather than battling or rushing to the front.
  • Norms can be strict (explicit enforced laws) or informal guidelines (like what to wear to a formal event).
  • Collective enforcement enables adherence to norms.
    • Punishment and the threat of punishment can be used as an enforcement strategy. Moreover, weapons democratize power. Weaker individuals or coalitions of individuals can gang up on single, stronger individuals.
    • Gossip can curtail bad behavior (it also carries negative consequences as well).
    • Reputation (or loss of it) incentivizes the enforcement of norms by making it profitable to do so (e.g. confront a cheater and be celebrated for your bravery).
  • Some subtle norms to consider (along with their violations):
    • Bragging: The incentive to brag (boost status) is strong but people frown on overt expressions.
    • Currying favor: Interpersonal status games between high status person and low status person can confer extra prestige to the lower status person. Sycophancy is disdained; it interferes with the clear associative signaling in a relationship (e.g. that the two people like each other because each person is admirable).

Chapter 4: Cheating

  • Everyone cheats. The incentive to do so is too high.
  • Most cheating occurs around less stringent or low-stakes norms.
  • Cheating lets us reap benefits without incurring the typical costs.”
  • Common knowledge: information that is known by individuals in a group in which everyone is aware of their peers knowledge on the topic as well. It is public, on the record information.
  • Closeted knowledge: information that is known to individuals. However, the individuals do not know if the information is generally or publicly known. It may be secret information.
  • “Modest acts of discretion can thwart attempts at norm enforcement.”
    • Example: Public drinking where a paper bag is used to “hide” a bottle of alcohol.
    • Example: Scalpers at a concert who make their intentions known by asking to buy tickets (offering to buy tickets is not illegal and it signals that they have tickets to sell).
  • Norm enforcement requires two things: detection and prosecution.
  • For cheaters “anything that hampers enforcement (or prosecution) will improve the odds of getting away with a crime.”
    • Pretexts: Excuses or alibis. A justifiable reason for doing something that obfuscates the real reason.
    • Discrete communications: Keeping something on the down-low. Body language, innuendo, slang and code words are different tactics. For instance, when propositioning someone for sex you might use a euphemism or coded language.
    • Skirting a norm: Operating in a gray area rather than outright violating a norm.
    • Subtlety: Indirect violations. For instance, rather than a brazen insult, you offer a clever or subtle insult that is insufficient to provoke a response.

Chapter 5: Self-Deception

  • “We don’t just deceive others; we also deceive ourselves.”
  • Two explanations for why we engage in self-deception:
    • Freudian approach: Self-deception as a coping strategy.
    • New school approach: Self deception as manipulation. Advocates include Trivers, Kurzban and Schelling.
  • “Schelling [economist] has argued that, in a variety of scenarios, limiting or sabotaging yourself is the winning move.”
  • “There’s no value in sabotaging yourself per se. The value lies in convincing other players that you’ve sabotaged yourself. In the game of chicken, you don’t win because you’re unable to steer, but because your opponent believes you’re unable to steer.”
  • Kurzban: “Ignorance is at its most useful when it is most public.”
  • “Those who refuse to play such mind games will be at a game-theoretic disadvantage relative to others who play along”
  • Self-deception is useful because it allows us to convincingly mislead others. That is, rather than direct or over lying, by altering our personal view of the truth or reality (i.e. being self-deceived) it makes it easier for individuals to sell or convince others of the lie.
  • Trivers: “We hide reality from our conscious minds the better to hide it from onlookers.”
  • “Psychologically, then, politicians don’t so much “lie” as regurgitate their own self-deceptions. Both are ways of misleading others, but self-deceptions are a lot harder to catch and prosecute.”
  • For archetypes of self-deception:
    • The Madman: “I’m doing this no matter what so stay outta my way!” Commit to a course of action to influence the response of our peers.
    • The Loyalist: Loyalists go along with the beliefs of others in order to earn trust. “Belief is a political act. This is why we’re typically keen to believe a friend’s version of a story…even when we know there’s another side of the story…”
    • The Cheerleader: “I know this is true. Believe it with me!” A kind of propaganda and attempt to change the beliefs of others through sheer conviction and zeal.
    • The Cheater: “I have no idea what you’re talking about. My motives were pure.”
  • Modularity: Model of the brain in which the brain consists of discrete modules for processing information. These modules may not convey information accurately or cleanly between each other.
  • “The very architecture of our brains makes it possible for us to behave hypocritically—to believe one set of things while acting on another. We can know and remain ignorant, as long as it’s in separate parts of the brain.”
  • Self-discretion: The mental habit of minimizing the importance of damaging information. Differs from self-deception which is more bluntly lying to ourselves.
  • “Our minds are built to sabotage information in order to come out ahead in social games. When big parts of our minds are unaware of how we try to violate social norms, it’s more difficult for others to detect and prosecute those violations.”

Chapter 6: Counterfeit Reasons

A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.

J. P. Morgan
  • Studies of split-brain patients (corpus callosotomy) have impaired communication between the two hemispheres of their brains. Researchers tested these patients by asking the right hemisphere to do something and then asking the left hemisphere to explain the action. The result was that the explanations were completely fabricated rationalizations based on available context.
  • Confabulation: The brain attempting to rationalize a behavior. These rationalizations can be wholly fabricated unconsciously (as with the split-brain experiments).
  • “We have strong incentives to portray our motives in a flattering light, especially when they’re the subject of norm enforcement.” This results in the creation of counterfeit motives.
  • Motives are the underlying causes of a given behavior. Reasons are the verbal explanations we use to explain those behaviors.
  • Reasons can be honest or dishonest or somewhere in between.
  • Interpreter module: Some researchers believe the brain has a system that manages “sense making” as it pertains to explaining our experiences: “stories that integrate information about the past and present, and about oneself and the outside world.”
    • Some researchers call this system the Press Secretary (to use a real life analogy).
    • The interpreter module works can only work with the information it receives. “Even we don’t have particularly privileged access to the information and decision-making that goes on inside our minds.”
    • The interpreter module serves both an internal audience (ourselves) and an external audience (other people).
    • The interpreter module is “structured to deliver counterfeit explanations, but also to make those explanations hard to detect, which is as close as you can get without actually lying.”
  • Example of interpreter module and confabulation: experiments where participants are given otherwise identical products in different packaging or branding (e.g. wine). Participants will make up all sorts of fanciful rationalizations for why one is better than the other when the real reason is simply that they liked the packaging better.

Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

There are many different systems in the brain, each connected but also partially isolated from each other. The artificial intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky famously described this arrangement as the “society of mind.”

And like a society, there are different ways to carve it up for different purposes. Just as America can be broken down in terms of political ideology (liberals vs. conservatives), geography (urban vs. rural), or generation (Baby Boomers vs. Millennials), the mind can also be carved up in many different ways.

What this means for self-deception is that our brains can maintain a relatively accurate set of beliefs in systems tasked with evaluating potential actions, while keeping those beliefs hidden from the systems (like consciousness) involved in managing social impressions.

In other words, we can act on information that isn’t available to our verbal, conscious egos. And conversely, we can believe something with our conscious egos without necessarily making that information available to the systems charged with coordinating our behavior.

People who download copyrighted material — songs, movies, books — often rationalize their actions by saying, “Faceless corporations take most of the profits from artists anyway.” Makes sense, right?

The fact that most of these people wouldn’t dream of stealing CDs from Best Buy (an equally faceless corporate entity) attests to a different explanation for their behavior, however. Online, they feel anonymous and are less afraid of getting caught!

This illustrates that we have many reasons for our behaviors, but we habitually exaggerate our pretty, prosocial motives and downplay our ugly, selfish ones.

Chapter 7: Body Language

  • The book considers all forms of nonverbal communication: facial expressions, eye behaviors, touch, use of space, non-verbal vocalizations (tone, timbre, volume, speaking style).
  • Body “language” isn’t just a way to communicate. It’s also functional; it has material consequences. If we lunge aggressively toward another person, for instance, we better be prepared to fight. And owing to these consequences, body language is inherently more honest than verbal language.
  • “Humans are strategically blind to body language because it often betrays our ugly, selfish, competitive motives.”
  • Signals vs Cues:
    • Signals: Signals are used by a sender to influence the behavior of a receiver. Signals benefit the sender (and often the receiver). Example: The peacock’s tail signals information about the health and strength of the male bird to the female (helpful for mating purposes).
    • Cues (aka “tells”): Cues communicate information through involuntary or unconscious responses (e.g. sweaty palms, shortness of breath, physical ticks or habits). Cues benefit the receiver but not the sender. Example: Poker players look for certain “tells” to give them advantages over their competitors.
  • “Body language is inherently more honest than verbal language.” In part, this is because body language is harder to fake.
  • “We find honest signals underlying much of our body language. An open posture makes a person vulnerable, for example, which is more dangerous (i.e. costly) for people in tense situations than for people in calm situations. An open posture is therefore an honest signal of comfort.”
  • Various examples:
    • Hand-holding in public: Signals the love and comfort between two people. It also acts as a mate-guarding signal for 3rd parties and would-be rivals.
    • Kiss-the-ring ceremonies (historical relic): Loyal subjects would kiss the hand of a monarch or leader in public. Results in a public display of submission.
  • Two varieties of status:
    • Dominance: Ability to intimidate and instill fear.
    • Prestige: Ability to impress and inspire awe.
  • Body language allows people to communicate or reinforce ideas that cannot be communicated directly or verbally.
  • “Relative to spoken messages, nonverbal messages are much harder to pin down precisely, making it easier to avoid accusations of impropriety.”

Chapter 8: Laughter

  • Laughter as an involuntary social behavior: flirting with others, bonding with friends, mocking enemies, exploring social norms, determining social boundaries.
  • Robert Povine’s (psychologist) research observations from the 1990s:
    • Social dimension of laughter: we laugh 30 times more in social settings compared to when we’re alone.
    • Laughter is active communication. Speakers laugh ore than listeners (roughly 50% more).
    • Laughter occurs in other species: specifically the other great apes (orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees).
  • Laughter’s function as a play signal: Laughter helps coordinate safe social play between humans. We can communicate friendly intentions through laughter.
  • “We use laughter to gauge and calibrate social boundaries—both behavioral boundaries (norms) and group membership boundaries (who deserves how much of our empathy).”
    • Language is too precise and too “on the record.”
    • Laughter “has two properties that make it idea for navigating sensitive topics.”
      1. It is an honest signal.
      2. Deniability (“I was just kidding!”).

Chapter 9: Conversation

  • Sharing information is a key function of language.
  • Communication involves two behaviors: speaking and listening.
  • What are the benefits of sharing information?
    • Simple answer: quid pro quo sharing (aka reciprocal-exchange).
    • Hidden answer: “Speaking functions in part as an act of showing off.”
  • The reward of speaking is increased social value and status.
  • “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 gain prestige by exhibiting our individual abilities (one of which is speaking well) AND by publicly displaying our allies (e.g. other high status or prestigious people).
  • Show is often more important than substance. For example: “If consumers truly cared about pundit accuracy…better for us to find and pay attention to those rare pundits whose predictions tend to come true. Instead, we seem content with the just the veneer of confidence and expertise, as long as our pundits are engaging, articulate, connected to us, and have respected platforms.”

Chapter 10: Consumption

  • Conspicuous consumption: The idea that our purchase decisions are made for the purpose of impressing our peers. This includes material goods as well as experiences and services purchased.
  • Consumer habits signal one’s desirable traits to others. These signals need to be conspicuous and public:
    • “I’m environmental.” Example: Toyota deliberately gave the Prius a distinctive style. Had the Prius looked like other automobiles, it would not provide an effective signal.
    • “I’m loyal to our city.” Example: Wearing clothing for your local sports team.
    • “I’m cool.” Example: I have the latest gadget or fashion.
    • “I’m adventurous.” Example: Traveling to remote parts of the world on vacation.
  • The stories about how or why we obtained an item is also a kind of signal. Consider the example of different people’s reasons for buying a pair of running shoes:
    • Alice bought them after reading a review in Runner’s World. Alice is a running enthusiast concerned about performance.
    • Bob purchased them because they made without child labor. Bob cares about labor and welfare.
    • Carol purchased them because they were on sale. Carol is thrifty and can find deals.
  • Third-Person Effect: An explanation for why advertising is so effective even when it targets those who aren’t purchasers of the product. “BMW needs to advertise in media whose audience includes both rich and poor alike, so that the rich can see that the poor are being trained to appreciate BMW as a status symbol.”

Chapter 11: Art

  • From an evolutionary standpoint art is a costly behavior (time and energy) that yields questionable practical benefits.
  • Ellen Dissanayake’s (writer) definition: Art is anything made special for human attention and enjoyment (more than for a functional or practical purpose).
  • “The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller…argues that while ecological selection abhors waste, sexual selection often favors it…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.”
  • Adaptations vs. byproducts:
    • Adaptations: Functional traits evolved by natural selection. Example: Human bipedalism.
    • Byproducts: Abilities that result from adaptations. For instance, reading is a byproduct of adaptations like vision, language, tool, use, etc.
  • The male Vogelkop bowerbird builds elaborate structures in order to woo females as part of the mating selection process. These structures serve no purpose in the rearing of offspring. They exist solely as signals of a potential suitors prowess and capabilities.
  • The biological dimensions of art:
    • As a courtship display.
    • As a fitness display: attracting allies and intimidating rivals.
  • Intrinsic vs. extrinsic properties of art:
    • Intrinsic: The properties inherent to the work itself. For a painting this would include what’s visible on the canvas: the colors, texture, brush strokes, etc.
    • Extrinsic: These are factors beyond the canvas that are not immediately visible: who the artist is, how the painting was made, how long it took to make, the circumstances under which it was made, etc.
  • Discernment: The skill in which people are able to determine what is quality and what is not. The ability in itself is a fitness display (consider the fine art connoisseur or even a wine connoisseur).

Chapter 12: Charity

  • Effective Altruism: A movement that seeks to use reason and objective measures for identifying the optimal way to help others. Includes the concept of “ROD’ (Return on Donation) which is analogous to ROI in business.
  • Real world altruism does not adhere to the tenets of effective altruism. Real world altruism is not efficient and belies the goal of helping people in the best ways possible. “Overall, no more than 13 percent of private American charity goes to helping those who seem to need it most: the global poor.”
  • “When we evaluate charity-related behaviors, gross inefficiencies don’t seem to bother us. For example, wealthy people often perform unskilled volunteer work (and are celebrated for it), even when their time is worth vastly more on the open market.”
  • Warm glow theory: Idea that we perform acts of charity because they make us feel good (selfish psychological motive).
  • “Making automatic payments to a single charity may be more efficient…but the other strategy—giving more widely, opportunistically, and in smaller amounts—is more efficient at generating those warm fuzzy feelings. when we diversify our donations, we get more opportunities to feel good.”
  • Five factors that influence or charitable behavior:
    1. Visibility: People give more when watched or observed. Example: this is why charities reward donors with plaques.
    2. Peer pressure: Social influence impacts our giving. Example: This is why universities solicit donations via alumni.
    3. Proximity: We prefer local causes over global ones.
    4. Relatability: We prefer identifiable people and stories over statistics and facts.
    5. Mating motive: Generosity increases with this motive.
  • People want to be seen as charitable. This is why anonymous donations are not the norm. We only receive social rewards for what others notice.
  • “In effect, charitable behavior ‘says’ to our audiences, ‘I have more resources than I need to survive; I can give them away without worry. Thus I am a hearty, productive human specimen.’”
  • “Contrast charity with conspicuous consumption…both are great ways to show off surplus wealth, but consumption is largely selfish, whereas charity is the opposite.”
  • “The fact that we use charity to advertise our prosocial orientation helps explain why, as a general rule, we do so little original research to determine where to donate. Original research generates private information about which charities are worthy, but in order to signal how prosocial we are, we need to donate to charities that are publicly known to be worthy.”

Chapter 13: Education

  • “Students go to school not so much to learn useful job skills as to show off their work potential to future employers.”
  • Value of education isn’t learning, it’s credentialing.
  • School provides employers with a decent proxy for future performance. There is a strong correlation between performance in school and performance on the job.
  • “A lot of the value of education lies in giving students a chance to advertise the attractive qualities they already have.”
  • The traditional view of education is that schools increase student value through improvement. The signaling model views education as a way to increase student value through certification (e.g. subject them to tests and measurements and score them, using grades, to indicate value).
  • Flaws of the system are, in fact, features: “The fact that school is boring, arduous, and full of busywork might hinder students’ ability to learn.” But these characteristics are essential to weeding out the good students from the bad.
  • Schools serve a number of other purposes: day care, socialization, networking, making friends, finding a mate (college).
  • “Beyond intrinsic personal enjoyment, college may also serve as conspicuous consumption—a way to signal your family’s wealth and social class.”
  • Two darker reasons for school: state propaganda and domestication.

Chapter 14: Medicine

  • Conspicuous caring: The ritualized transaction between people in which demonstrations of caring that lack therapeutic value are offered and performed so that both parties benefit. The giver benefits by showing their loyalty and concern. The recipient benefits by knowing that their friends, family, and community cares for them.
    • Example: Toddler falls and scrapes her knee and runs to mother for a kiss. Mother kisses the boo-boo. The toddler feels good knowing that mom is there to help and mom earns her child’s trust.
    • Example: Bringing home-cooked meals to a family during a time of need. If the goal was solely to feed the family, one could just buy prepared food and deliver it. But in many cases, we want to cook the meal ourselves in order to demonstrate the time and effort we have made for the recipient.
  • Evolutionary benefit of conspicuous caring: visible demonstrations of our alliances—especially when ailing—send messages to our rivals and enemies. Similarly, our allies know we will reciprocate when they are in need.
  • Story of King Charles II and the macabre litany of treatments he endured. The reason? Exhibit loyalty and efforts to save the King. No one wants to be accused a lack of effort. [Similar to Candace Millard’s account of James A. Garfield’s medical treatments]
  • Studies have shown that increased spending and access to medical treatment (presumably past a certain point) do not result in better health outcomes.
  • Consuming more medicine and medical care makes the consumer feel better.
  • Similarly: “Most published medical research is wrong (or at least overstated). Medical journals are so eager to publish “interesting” new results that they don’t wait for the results to be replicated by others. Consequently, even the most celebrated studies are often statistical flukes.” [Consider the idea of “perverse incentives” in like of this and prior claims]
  • “If everyone around you spends a lot on medical care, you’ll need to spend a lot too, or risk looking like someone who doesn’t care enough.”
  • “Conspicuous care prefers gifts that can be more easily seen as requiring effort and sacrifice.”
    • This idea may explain why the general public dismisses simple remedies like eat healthier, get more sleep, exercise, etc.
    • People prefer expensive, complicated, cutting-edge, therapies and treatments.
    • “The public is eager for medical interventions that help people when they’re sick, but far less eager for routine lifestyle interventions.”

Chapter 15: Religion

  • “We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead, we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.”
  • “Most religions are fairly lax on questions of private belief as long as adherents demonstrate public acceptance of the religion.”
  • On the purpose of religion: “Religion isn’t a matter of private beliefs, but rather of shared beliefs and, more importantly, communal practices…the net result is a highly cohesive and cooperative social group. A religion, therefore, isn’t just a set of propositional beliefs about Good and the afterlife; it’s an entire social system.”
  • Communities benefit the members who participate in them. There is a strong incentive to be part of a cohesive group.
  • Sacrifice is a strong social signal: We prefer allies who are exhibit this behavior vs. allies who exhibit self-interest.
  • “Rituals of sacrifice are honest signals whose cost makes them hard to fake. It’s easy to say, ‘I’m a Muslim,’ but to get full credit, you also have to act like a Muslim—by answering the daily calls to prayer, for example, or undertaking the Hajj.”
  • Other common religious sacrifices:
    • Food: Offering food.
    • Money: Alms and tithing.
    • Health: Fasting, self-flagellation.
    • Pleasure: Avoiding alcohol, sexual abstinence.
    • Time and energy: Attending long church meetings.
    • Status: Kneeling, bowing, prostrating.
    • Fertility: Celibacy.
  • “A community’s supply of social rewards is limited, so we’re often competing to show more loyalty than others—to engage in a ‘holier than thou’ arms race.”
  • Religion imposes a set of norms to constrain behavior:
    • Norms on how to treat others.
    • Standards for sex and family life.
  • When a community is in alignment with respect to behaviors and standards, less energy is needed to police and monitor those behaviors.
  • Other rituals that foster cohesion and orthodoxy:
    • Sermons: “Sermons generate common knowledge of the community’s norms. And everyone who attends the sermon is tacitly agreeing to be held to those standards…”
    • Badges: Visible symbols expressing your religious affiliation. These include: hairstyles, clothing, hats, jewelry, tattoos, piercings. Dietary rules and other visible behaviors (like mid-day prayers) are badges.
    • Supernatural beliefs: They may be at odds with society in general, but adherents are rewarded within their religious community for adopting them. Beliefs that are weird or stigmatizing also function as sacrifices.

Chapter 16: Politics

  • Apparatchiks: In the Soviet Union, under Stalin, these were the loyal party members who obeyed the the party line.
  • “It wasn’t enough simply to show great loyalty to Stalin; those who didn’t show more loyalty than others were suspected of disloyalty and often imprisoned or killed.”
  • “Even in modern, pluralistic democracies, we face the same kind of incentives as the apparatchik. We, too are rewarded for professing the ‘right’ beliefs and punished for professing the ‘wrong’ ones—not by any central authority but by our fellow citizens.”
  • People reside in complicate networks of groups competing for our loyalties. This include geographical groups (neighborhoods, cities, states, nations); work or professional groups, religious groups, race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.
  • Political behavior as a performance: “The political behavior of ordinary, individual citizens is often better explained as an attempt to signal loyalty to ‘our side,’ rather than as a good-faith attempt to improve outcomes.”
  • Shanto Iyengar (political scientist): “Political identity is fair game for hatred, racial identity is not…You cannot express negative sentiments about social groups in this day and age. But political identities are not protected by these constraints.”
  • People face tremendous social and peer pressure to conform to the ideas and beliefs of those around them.
  • “When we’re socialized from birth into a politically homogenous community—we might find it all but impossible to notice these social influences on our beliefs. Our political views will simply seem right, natural, and true.”
  • “The desire to signal loyalty helps explain why we don’t always vote our self-interest. Rather, we tend to vote for our groups’ interests.”
  • Expressive voters are those who derive value from the act of voting itself (as well as the related activities: rallies, discussions, posting on social media, watching election coverage, etc.). These voters gain psychological rewards from the sense of belonging (to their group) and affirmation of their identity (owing to their belonging).
  • “In the physical world, for example, we put up lawn signs and bumper stickers, while on social media, we use politically charged hashtags and change our profile pictures to show support for the cause-du-jour.” These, along with popular slogans, are kinds of badges.
  • When people adopt and adhere to the orthodoxy of their group they receive credit for their group loyalty.
  • The social consequences of our political behavior has a greater impact on our day-to-day lives than the real political consequences of our political behaviors.
  • Compromise is counterproductive as an in-group signaling behavior: “Anyone who advocates for compromise risks being accused of insufficient loyalty.”
  • “If politics is a performance, then our audience is mostly our peers—friends and family, coworkers and bosses, churchmates and potential romantic partners, and anyone who might follow us on social media.”

Chapter 17: Conclusion

  • We ignore the figurative elephant on purpose. Self-deception allows us to act in our own self interest without the blatant appearance of doing so to ourselves and to our peers.
  • Awareness of our selfish and hidden motives can benefit us:
    • It gives us better situational awareness and how people interact.
    • Understanding our own blind spots should give us empathy towards others. Don’t second guess others without reflecting on our own behaviors and motives.
    • Understand when and why our inclination is to “show off.”
    • Choosing to behave better.
    • Enlightened self-interest: “This is the notion that we can do well for ourselves by doing good for others.” (biologists call this indirect reciprocity or competitive altruism).
    • Design better institutions and elimination of wasteful signaling costs.
    • Even if motives are selfish, the outcomes and behaviors can still be beneficial to broader society. In this case, the ends justify the means.

Closing Thoughts

In all, The Elephant in the Brain is an entertaining and insightful book that sheds light on a diverse collection of perplexing human behaviors — from laughter to religion to the origin of language. It’s widely applicable to all parts of life, with explanations you can’t stop thinking about after reading.

And, to give you a sneak peek into the book’s conclusion: Ultimately, our motives are less important than what we manage to achieve by them. As the authors put it:

“We may be competitive social animals, self-interested and self-deceived, but we cooperated our way to the god-damned moon.”

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