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  • Dan Connors

Do we have an elephant in our brains?

Updated: Jun 4, 2022

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Kevin Simler, Robin Hanson 2017

Why do we do what we do? Are we pretty upfront about our goals and our motives, or do we lie to ourselves and others about hidden agendas behind what we do? That's the premise to this stimulating book by authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, and it makes one think about the subtext of almost any transaction.

There was a great dating show called Blind Date that aired a while back, and it showed in humorous and touching ways the hidden context behind questions men and women asked each other while on dates. Their actual words were contradicted by word balloons from the show producers that detail some of the elephants in the room the two daters were ignoring. You got to see the inner thoughts that must have been going through their minds during the date. Sometimes I wish there were ways to download an app that would clue us all in on these hidden meanings that we are either willfully ignoring or just don't understand.

Humans are guilty of a behavior known as signaling, in which they do something publicly to make themselves look better. Call it the peacock effect if you will, but colleagues, potential mates, and prospective employers look around at each other to see who is making the biggest public shows of themselves. We all do it, we just aren't always aware that we do it. We are a competitive animal, and are trying to top each other with expensive cars, dazzling fashions, or cosmetic surgery- all in an attempt to gain an edge.

The problem is that most of these signaling attempts are wasteful on their own, and don't add much to the world besides gaudy excess. Elephant in the Brain looks at things like societal norms, cheating to get around those norms, and self-deception to make us feel better about cheating to get around norms. We all have an inner press secretary, much like the odious political ones, whose only job is to explain our behavior to make us look good, even if it has to be through lying. Our inner public relations department tiptoes around the elephant in the brain to pretend that we are acting rationally and ethically, when the truth is that we are in many ways desperately trying to signal others about how cool we are.

I'm not sure that I agree our motives are as dark as this book portrays, because we are complex, sentient beings, and there can be dozens of motives for hundreds of actions. But this book lays out a convincing case that through our body language, communications, purchases, and even our laughter, we are manipulating others to like us and want to be around us.

The authors give a deep look at six specific areas in which signaling outweighs actual results, and this was the best part of the book for me. We enter into these activities with an agenda to make ourselves look good, and we waste a lot of time and money in the process. Here there are:

1- What is art and how do we evaluate it? According to this theory, we look for art that is bold and impractical- wasteful and impressive- art that symbolizes extrinsic properties of a show-off. We don't focus so much on the message the artist is trying to convey or the intrinsic skills of the artist. This effect is even seen in fashion where the boldest and most avant-garde designs are prized above the practical and subtle.

2- Why do we donate to charity? While some of us donate to feel good about helping others, much of charitable giving (especially by the wealthy and by corporations) is an elaborate public relations and signaling enterprise. By giving large amounts, you are saying- "Look at me- I have money to blow and am so wealthy and socially conscious". There is something called effective altruism that judges how non-profits actually make an impact, but most donors don't seem to care about where their money goes or if it does any actual good. They just want to feel good and look good donating publicly. Certainly, some people give anonymous gifts, but they are in the minority and those bricks, signs, and names on buildings give donors a sense of immortality.

3- Why do we pick the schools that we pick? Most employers don't care about what topics you studied or if you actually learned anything. All they care about is your GPA and if it signals to them that you are hard-working and trainable. Students, therefore, value getting a degree over any actual learning that might have happened in school, and often forget much of it after graduation. In a way, schools are more of a sorting mechanism to show employers who the talented people are, and the teaching and learning are simply byproducts and a means to an end.

4- Why do Americans spend so much on health care with no better results than anywhere else? The book introduces the idea of conspicuous caring, where most patients want the best care possible, even if it goes overboard. Thus we end up with people taking too many medicines, doing too many diagnostic tests, and having too many surgeries, all in a futile chase for the best healthcare. The irony is that this top-notch healthcare isn't making us that much healthier. There was a famous study in 1982 where two groups of subjects were offered different levels of health plans- one subsidized, one not. The subsidized group spend almost 50% more on healthcare, but the researchers found no detectable health effect for all that money over the group with no subsidy. In America we have twin problems of poor people not getting basic diagnostic medical services, while the wealthy get too much medical care that adds almost nothing to their general health or life expectancy.

5- Why do humans perform religious ceremonies? For God, or for other people to see how devoted we are? Religion is a team sport according to this theory, and personal sacrifices, synchronized movements, and elaborate ceremonies are how we signal to our fellow humans how holy, reliable, and devoted we are. It reminds me of the debate over prayer in schools. Students are always able to pray in private to any deity they choose, but some parents want a public display of a specific Christian prayer that fits in their narrative to make students send the right social signals to each other. For many, religion or spirituality is a deeply personal and private experience, but for the majority, it's a group event to signal your faith to others.

6- Why does politics have to be so tribal? People choose teams in politics now and barely even look at the qualifications of candidates or the complexities of a the many issues. According to this book, voting isn't even about whether your candidate wins, but it's more a statement of loyalty to a particular political tribe. People vote for unqualified candidates or those whose policies hurt those in their circumstances because of the need to signal their tribe-mates. Politics has drifted to such a stark, polarized extent that compromise is seen as a sell-out, and we're more concerned about what our fellow partisans think of us than what's best for the nation or future generations.

I confess that I don't have quite as dark a picture of human nature as these authors. There's something to be said about the human spirit rising above peer pressure or self interest to accomplish truly meaningful acts. The authors devote the final chapter towards ways around the elephant in the brain, most of which involve getting the larger perspective. With a better awareness of our unspoken, uncomfortable motives, we can move past them and not worry about what our neighbor thinks of us.

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