Notes on The Elephant in the Brain

For the past several months, I’ve been on a sociology and (evolutionary) biology reading binge. I recently finished my favorite book on the topic: Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s The Elephant in the Brain. I found its ideas so concise, useful, and explanatory, even for someone who’s done previous reading in the area, that I should share a little background as well as my notes from the book.

You may have heard the common X isn’t about Y examples:

Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

The point here is directionally right and this thinking serves as a useful heuristic for understanding systems. But it’s the the mechanisms and fine-grained details that provide a useful mental model and worldview. Hopefully the highlights will intrigue you enough to read the book yourself.

There are some interesting corollaries and implications to the Hansonian worldview that I think are horrendously underrated and not really explored in the book. Namely:

  • Everything is inherently political or status oriented because sexual selection, not natural selection, is what caused us to evolve (this was Darwin’s real discovery which was not fully accepted and modeled until the 1980’s).
  • Virtue signaling must be good, not bad. How else would we set norms on which (arbitrary) games we compete in? Some games are better than others from an external perspective. E.g. consumerist signaling is harmful to the environment.
  • We live in our own little dream worlds. But I don’t know if it matters from personal and philosophical standpoints.
  • Certain political philosophies (Marxism) assume a natural selection-based Darwinian view of human nature (which is only a small fraction of how we actually evolved).

I know those bullets have a lot of big ideas packed into them — I could talk about each one of them for hours. Hit me up for more. I’d rather not attempt to explain everything in an overly-abbreviated post.

Here are my highlights. Update: here is another great list of highlights someone compiled!


Here is the thesis we’ll be exploring in this 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.

The point is, we act on hidden motives together, in public, just as often as we do by ourselves, in private. And when enough of our hidden motives harmonize, we end up constructing stable, long-lived institutions—like schools, hospitals, churches, and democracies—that are designed, at least partially, to accommodate such motives. This was Robin’s conclusion about medicine, and similar reasoning applies to many other areas of life.

The alpha male, for example, almost never tries to replace the gamma male from guard duty; instead the alpha directs all of his competitive energies toward the beta. If the goal were to help weaker members, the alpha should be more eager to take over from the gamma than from the beta.

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.

Now consider the human being. Like the redwood, our species has a distinctive feature: a huge brain. But if we think of Homo sapiens like the lone redwood in the open meadow, towering in intelligence over an otherwise brain-dead field, then we’re liable to be puzzled.

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.

Coalitions are what makes politics so political.

The problem with competitive struggles, however, is that they’re enormously wasteful. The redwoods are so much taller than they need to be. If only they could coordinate not to all grow so tall—if they could institute a “height cap” at 100 feet (30 meters), say—the whole species would be better off. All the energy that they currently waste racing upward, they could instead invest in other pursuits, like making more pinecones in order to spread further, perhaps into new territory. Competition, in this case, holds the entire species back. Unfortunately, the redwoods aren’t capable of coordinating to enforce a height cap, and natural selection can’t help them either.

But our species is different. Unlike other natural processes, we can look ahead. And we’ve developed ways to avoid wasteful competition, by coordinating our actions using norms and norm enforcement—a topic we turn to in the next chapter.

Collective enforcement, then, is the essence of norms. This is what enables the egalitarian political order so characteristic of the forager lifestyle.

right, it was learning to use deadly weapons that was the inflection point in the trajectory of our species’ political behavior. Once our ancestors learned how to kill and punish each other collectively, nothing would be the same. Coalition size would balloon almost overnight. Politics would then become exponentially more complicated and require more intelligence to navigate,

Typically, these are crimes of intent. If you just happen to be friendly with someone else’s spouse, no big deal. But if you’re friendly with romantic or sexual intentions, that’s inappropriate. By targeting intentions rather than actions, norms can more precisely regulate the behavior patterns that cause problems within communities. (It would be ham-fisted and unduly cumbersome to ban friendliness, for example.) But regulating intentions also opens the door to various kinds of cheating, which we’ll explore in Chapter 4.

But there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to do this. It’s perfectly acceptable just to “be yourself,” for example. If you’re naturally impressive or likable, then it seems right and proper for others to like and respect you as well. What’s not acceptable is sycophancy: brown-nosing, bootlicking, groveling, toadying, and sucking up. Nor is it acceptable to “buy” high-status associates via cash, flattery, or sexual favors. These tactics are frowned on or otherwise considered illegitimate, in part because they ruin the association signal for everyone else.

When abstract logic puzzles are framed as cheating scenarios, for example, we’re a lot better at solving them. This is one of the more robust findings in evolutionary psychology, popularized by the wife-and-husband team Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.

Here’s another way to think about it. We typically treat discretion or secret-keeping as an activity that has only one important dimension: how widely a piece of information is known. But actually there are two dimensions to keeping a secret: how widely it’s known and how openly or commonly it’s known. And a secret can be widely known without being openly known—the closeted lesbian’s sexuality, for example, or the fact that the emperor is naked.

Scalping—the unauthorized reselling of tickets, typically at the entrance to concerts and sporting events—is illegal in roughly half of the states in the United States. That’s why you’ll often hear scalpers hawking their goods with the counterintuitive (yet perfectly legal) request to buy tickets. Like wrapping alcohol in a paper bag, this practice doesn’t fool the people who are charged with stopping it; the police and venue security personnel know exactly what’s going on. And yet scalpers find it overwhelmingly in their interests to keep up the charade. This is another illustration of how even modest acts of discretion can thwart attempts at enforcing norms and laws. Note that professional norm enforcers, such as police, teachers, and human resource managers, have a strong incentive to enforce norms: it’s their job. Even so, they’re often overworked or subject to lax oversight, and therefore tempted to cut corners. Sometimes the threat of mere paperwork can be enough to keep police from enforcing minor infractions.

In 1527, King Henry VIII’s marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon seemed unlikely to give him the son he desperately needed, and at 38 years old, he was running out of options. Everyone at court knew that Henry wanted a younger woman—Anne Boleyn—as his wife. Unfortunately, his marriage to Catherine had been blessed by the previous pope, and the current pope was in no mood to grant an annulment. What the king needed was a pretext, a false but plausible justification to distract from his real reason. So, nearly 20 years into his marriage to Catherine, the king suddenly “discovered” that she hadn’t been a virgin on their wedding night, and that therefore their marriage was illegitimate. As pretexts go, this was pretty ham-handed. But kings don’t need their excuses to be particularly subtle or airtight; their power is enough of an incentive for most people to go along. In Henry’s case, his pretext was enough to let him break from Roman Catholicism (thereby launching the English Reformation) and secure his annulment from the head of the new Anglican Church. Pretexts are a broad and useful tool for getting away with norm violations. They make prosecution more difficult by having a ready explanation for your innocence. This makes it harder for others to accuse and prosecute you. And as we’ve seen, a pretext doesn’t need to fool everyone—it simply needs to be plausible enough to make people worry that other people might believe it.

Another domain is personal health. You might suppose, given how important health is to our happiness (not to mention our longevity), it would be a domain to which we’d bring our cognitive A-game. Unfortunately, study after study shows that we often distort or ignore critical information about our own health in order to seem healthier than we really are. One study, for example, gave patients a cholesterol test, then followed up to see what they remembered months later. Patients with the worst test results—who were judged the most at-risk of cholesterol-related health problems—were most likely to misremember their test results, and they remembered their results as better (i.e., healthier) than they actually were.

In recent years, psychologists—especially those who focus on evolutionary reasoning—have developed a more satisfying explanation for why we deceive ourselves. Where the Old School saw self-deception as primarily inward-facing, defensive, and (like the general editing the map) largely self-defeating, the New School sees it as primarily outward-facing, manipulative, and ultimately self-serving. Two recent New School books have been Trivers’ The Folly of Fools (2011) and Robert Kurzban’s Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite (2013). But the roots of the New School go back to Thomas Schelling, a Nobel Prize–winning economist best known for his work on the game theory of cooperation and conflict. In his 1967 book The Strategy of Conflict, Schelling studied what he called mixed-motive games. These are scenarios involving two or more players whose interests overlap but also partially diverge.

•Ignoring information, also known as strategic ignorance. If you’re kidnapped, for example, you might prefer not to see your kidnapper’s face or learn his name. Why? Because if he knows you can identify him later (to the police), he’ll be less likely to let you go. In some cases, knowledge can be a serious liability. •Purposely believing something that’s false. If you’re a general who firmly believes your army can win, even though the odds are against it, you might nevertheless intimidate your opponent into backing down. In other words, mixed-motive games contain the kind of incentives that reward self-deception. There’s a tension in all of this. In simple applications of decision theory, it’s better to have more options and more knowledge. Yet Schelling has argued that, in a variety of scenarios, limiting or sabotaging yourself is the winning move. What gives?

What’s the benefit of self-deception over a simple, deliberate lie? There are many ways to answer this question, but they mostly boil down to the fact that lying is hard to pull off. For one thing, it’s cognitively demanding.

Beyond the cognitive demands, lying is also difficult because we have to overcome our fear of getting caught.

When asked to raise both hands, one man raised his right hand high into the air and said, when he detected my gaze locked onto his motionless left hand, “Um, as you can see, I’m steadying myself with my left hand in order to raise my right.” Apart from their bizarre denials, these patients are otherwise mentally healthy and intelligent human beings. But no amount of cross-examination can persuade them of what’s plainly true—that their left arms are paralyzed. They will confabulate and rationalize and forge counterfeit reasons until they’re blue in the face.

Meanwhile, the rest of us—healthy, whole-brained people—are confronted every day with questions that ask us to explain our behavior. Why did you storm out of the meeting? Why did you break up with your boyfriend? Why haven’t you done the dishes? Why did you vote for Barack Obama? Why are you a Christian? Each of these questions demands a reason, and in most cases we dutifully oblige. But how many of our explanations are legitimate, and how many are counterfeit? Just how pervasive is our tendency to rationalize?

Kings and popes, for example, would often “invite” their subjects to line up for public kiss-the-ring ceremonies, putting everyone’s loyalty and submission on conspicuous display and thereby creating common knowledge of the leader’s dominance.

the psychology of humor—a topic fruitfully explored in the book Inside Jokes,

And many animals, in addition to using specific gestures, will also move slowly or engage in exaggerated or unnecessary movement, as if to convey playful intent by conspicuously wasted effort that no animal would undertake if it were in serious danger.

In another interview he says, “I don’t think it’s fair to get offended by comedians.” And yet what fans say they love about Burr is that he’s honest—“refreshingly,” “brutally,” “devastatingly” honest. So which is it? Is he just joking or telling the truth? The beauty of laughter is that it gets to be both. The safe harbor of plausible deniability is what allows Burr and other comedians to get away with being honest about taboo topics. As Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.”

Conversation, therefore, looks on the surface like an exercise in sharing information, but subtextually, it’s a way for speakers to show off their wit, perception, status, and intelligence, and (at the same time) for listeners to find speakers they want to team up with. These are two of our biggest hidden motives in conversation.

But why do speakers need to be relevant in conversation? If speakers deliver high-quality information, why should listeners care whether the information is related to the current topic? A plausible answer is that it’s simply too easy to rattle off memorized trivia. You can recite random facts from the encyclopedia until you’re blue in the face, but that does little to advertise your generic facility with information. Similarly, when you meet someone for the first time, you’re more eager to sniff each other out for this generic skill, rather than to exchange the most important information each of you has gathered to this point in your lives. In other words, listeners generally prefer speakers who can impress them wherever a conversation happens to lead, rather than speakers who steer conversations to specific topics where they already know what to say.

Now, it did make some sense for our ancestors to track news as a way to get practical information, such as we do today for movies, stocks, and the weather. After all, they couldn’t just go easily search for such things on Google like we can. But notice that our access to Google hasn’t made much of a dent in our hunger for news; if anything we read more news now that we have social media feeds, even though we can find a practical use for only a tiny fraction of the news we consume.

But when researchers Jesse Prinz and Angelika Seidel asked subjects to consider a hypothetical scenario in which the Mona Lisa burned to a crisp, 80 percent of them said they’d prefer to see the ashes of the original rather than an indistinguishable replica. This should give us pause.

Consider the lobster—as David Foster Wallace invites us to do in an essay of the same name. “Up until sometime in the 1800s,” writes 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 one source describes the situation. Today, of course, lobster is far less plentiful and much more expensive, and now it’s considered a delicacy, “only a step or two down from caviar.”

A similar aesthetic shift occurred with skin color in Europe. When most people worked outdoors, suntanned skin was disdained as the mark of a low-status laborer. Light skin, in contrast, was prized as a mark of wealth; only the rich could afford to protect their skin by remaining indoors or else carrying parasols. Later, when jobs migrated to factories and offices, lighter skin became common and vulgar, and only the wealthy could afford to lay around soaking in the sun.

asked participants how much they would agree to pay for nets that prevent migratory bird deaths. Some participants were told that the nets would save 2,000 birds annually, others were told 20,000 birds, and a final group was told 200,000 birds. But despite the 10- and 100-fold differences in projected impact, people in all three groups were willing to contribute the same amount. This effect, known as scope neglect or scope insensitivity, has been demonstrated for many other problems, including cleaning polluted lakes, protecting wilderness areas, decreasing road injuries, and even preventing deaths. People are willing to help, but the amount they’re willing to help doesn’t scale in proportion to how much impact their contributions will make.

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.

Consequently, even the most celebrated studies are often statistical flukes. For example, one study looked at the 49 most-cited articles published in the three most prestigious medical journals. Of the 34 of these studies that were later tested by other researchers, only 20 were confirmed.

In fact, patients show surprisingly little interest in private information on medical quality. For example, patients who would soon undergo a dangerous surgery (with a few percent chance of death) were offered private information on the (risk-adjusted) rates at which patients died from that surgery with individual surgeons and hospitals in their area. These rates were large and varied by a factor of three. However, only 8 percent of these patients were willing to spend even $50 to learn these death rates. Similarly, when the government published risk-adjusted hospital death rates between 1986 and 1992, hospitals with twice the risk-adjusted death rates saw their admissions fall by only 0.8 percent. In contrast, a single high-profile news story about an untoward death at a hospital resulted in a 9 percent drop in patient admissions at that hospital.

And yet medicine deserves its share of public scrutiny—as much, if not more so, than any other area of life. One of the simplest reasons is the prevalence and high cost of medical errors, which are estimated to cause between 44,000 and 98,000 deaths in the United States every year. As Alex Tabarrok puts it, “More people die from medical mistakes each year than from highway accidents, breast cancer, or AIDS and yet physicians still resist and the public does not demand even simple reforms.”

found that death rates plummet when doctors are required to consistently follow a simple five-step checklist. •Requiring autopsies. Around 40 percent of autopsies reveal the original cause-of-death diagnosis to have been incorrect. But autopsy rates are way down, from a high of 50 percent in the 1950s to a current rate of about 5 percent. •Getting doctors to wash their hands consistently. Compliance for best handwashing practices hovers around 40 percent. Some of these problems are downright scandalous, and yet, as Tabarrok points out, they’re largely ignored by the general public. We’d rather not look our medical gift horse in the mouth. Another way we’re reluctant to question medical quality is by getting second opinions. Doctors frequently make mistakes, as we’ve seen, and second opinions are often useful—for example, for diagnosing cancer, determining cancer treatment plans, and avoiding unnecessary surgery. And yet we rarely seek them out.

If we’re using medicine as a signal of support, however, then we’ll provide and consume more of it during a patient’s times of crisis, when they are more grateful for support. And this is exactly what we find. The public is eager for medical interventions that help people when they’re sick, but far less eager for routine lifestyle interventions. Everyone wants to be the hero offering an emergency cure, but few people want to be the nag telling us to change our diets, sleep and exercise more, and fix the air quality in our big cities—even though these nagging interventions promise much larger (and more cost-effective) health improvements. One study, for example, tracked 3,600 adults over seven and a half years. Investigators reported that people who reside in rural areas lived an average of 6 years longer than city dwellers, nonsmokers lived 3 years longer than smokers, and those who exercised a lot lived 15 years longer than those who exercised only a little. In contrast, most studies that look similarly at how much medicine people consume fail to find any significant effects. Yet it is medicine, and not these other effects, that gets the lion’s share of public attention regarding health.

Imagine a preacher addressing a congregation about the virtue of compassion. What’s the value of attending such a sermon? It’s not just that you’re getting personal advice, as an individual, about how to behave (perhaps to raise your chance of getting into Heaven). If that were the main point of a sermon, you could just as well listen from home, for example, on a podcast. The real benefit, instead, comes from listening together with the entire congregation. Not only are you learning that compassion is a good Christian virtue, but everyone else is learning it too—and you know that they’re learning it, and they know that you’re learning it, and so forth. (And if anyone happens to miss this particular sermon, don’t worry: the message will be repeated again and again in future sermons.) In other words, sermons generate common knowledge of the community’s norms. And everyone who attends the sermon is tacitly agreeing to be held to those standards in their future behavior. If an individual congregant later fails to show compassion, ignorance won’t be an excuse, and everyone else will hold that person accountable. This mutual accountability is what keeps religious communities so cohesive and cooperative.

In the end, our motives were less important than what we managed to achieve by them. We may be competitive social animals, self-interested and self-deceived, but we cooperated our way to the god-damned moon.