The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler

Rating: 10/10

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High-Level Thoughts

A phenomenal book on understanding your own "hidden motivations in everyday life" and why we do what we do. Widely applicable to all parts of life, and the kind of explanations you can't stop thinking about after reading.

Summary Notes

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.

Patients are also easily satisfied with the appearance of good medical care, and show shockingly little interest in digging beneath the surface—for example, by getting second opinions or asking for outcome statistics from their doctors or hospitals.

people given free healthcare consume a lot more medicine (relative to an unsubsidized control group), yet don’t end up noticeably healthier.

people spend exorbitantly on heroic end-of-life care even though cheap, palliative care is usually just as effective at prolonging life and even better at preserving quality of life.

expensive medical care does heal us, but it’s simultaneously an elaborate adult version of “kiss the boo-boo.” In this transaction, the patient is assured of social support, while those who provide such support are hoping to buy a little slice of loyalty from the patient.

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.

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 Thesis in Plain English

  1. People are judging us all the time. They want to know whether we’ll make good friends, allies, lovers, or leaders. And one of the important things they’re judging is our motives. Why do we behave the way we do? Do we have others’ best interests at heart, or are we entirely selfish?
  2. Because others are judging us, we’re eager to look good. So we emphasize our pretty motives and downplay our ugly ones. It’s not lying, exactly, but neither is it perfectly honest.
  3. This applies not just to our words, but also to our thoughts, which might seem odd. Why can’t we be honest with ourselves? The answer is that our thoughts aren’t as private as we imagine. In many ways, conscious thought is a rehearsal of what we’re ready to say to others.
  4. In some areas of life, especially polarized ones like politics, we’re quick to point out when others’ motives are more selfish than they claim. But in other areas, like medicine, we prefer to believe that almost all of us have pretty motives. In such cases, we can all be quite wrong, together, about what drives our behavior.

Part 1: Why We Hide Our Motives

1: Animal Behavior

Individual primates can (and do) groom themselves, but they can only effectively groom about half their bodies. They can’t easily groom their own backs, faces, and heads. So to keep their entire bodies clean, they need a little help from their friends. This is called social grooming.

Social grooming, he says, isn’t just about hygiene—it’s also about politics. By grooming each other, primates help forge alliances that help them in other situations.

The political function of grooming also explains why grooming time across species is correlated with the size of the social group, but not the amount of fur. Larger groups have, on average, greater political complexity, making alliances more important but also harder to maintain.

altruistic babblers develop a kind of “credit” among their groupmates—what Zahavi calls prestige status. This earns them at least two different perks, one of which is mating opportunities: Males with greater prestige get to mate more often with the females of the group. A prestigious alpha, for example, may take all the mating opportunities for himself.

The other perk of high prestige is a reduced risk of getting kicked out of the group. If the beta, for example, has earned lots of prestige by being useful to the group, the alpha is less likely to evict him.

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.

2: Competition

The archaeological record is biased toward objects that can endure, which means we get a pretty good picture of our ancestors’ skeletons, stone tools, and some of their body paint (red ocher). But we have almost no way to recover their brain tissue, vocalizations, or body language.

Ecological challenges, such as warding off predators, hunting big game, domesticating fire, finding new food sources, and adapting rapidly to new climates. These activities pit humans against their environment and are therefore opportunities for cooperation. Social challenges, such as competition for mates, jockeying for social status, coalition politics (alliances, betrayals, etc.), intra-group violence, cheating, and deception. These activities pit humans against other humans and are therefore competitive and potentially destructive.

Often a species’ most important competitor is itself.

This is what’s known in the literature as the social brain hypothesis, or sometimes the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis. It’s the idea that our ancestors got smart primarily in order to compete against each other in a variety of social and political scenarios.

From the perspective of evolution, mating, not survival, is the name of the game.

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.

social status among humans actually comes in two flavors: dominance and prestige. Dominance is the kind of status we get from being able to intimidate others (think Joseph Stalin), and on the low-status side is governed by fear and other avoidance instincts. Prestige, however, is the kind of status we get from being an impressive human specimen (think Meryl Streep), and it’s governed by admiration and other approach instincts.

And everyone, with an eye to raising their price, strives to make themselves more attractive as a friend or associate—by learning new skills, acquiring more and better tools, and polishing their charms.

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.

Machiavelli emphasizes the ruthless, amoral side of human politics, whereas Castiglione emphasizes the softer, more humane ways to curry favor.

The two strategies they outline are both useful for succeeding in politics. It’s important to note, however, that although Castiglione’s methods are less overtly competitive, they nevertheless stem from similar incentives. Not every courtier can be the king’s favorite; one man’s fortune is his rival’s setback. So it is ultimately the same drive—wanting to win at life’s various competitions—that motivates both the scheming sociopath and the charming courtier.

The other important similarity is that each game requires two complementary skill sets: the ability to evaluate potential partners and the ability to attract good partners. In sex, the partners we’re looking for are mates. In social status, we’re looking for friends and associates. And in politics, we’re looking for allies, people to team up with.

A signal, in evolutionary biology, is anything used to communicate or convey information. Unblemished skin or fur, for example, is a signal of a healthy organism; compare a prize-winning beagle to a mangy mutt. A growl is a signal of aggression—and the growl’s depth is a signal of the creature’s size.

That’s why the best signals—the most honest ones—are expensive. More precisely, they are differentially expensive: costly to produce, but even more costly to fake.

For a nonbiological example, consider the difference between blue jeans and dress pants. Jeans are durable and don’t need to be washed every day, whereas dress pants demand a bit more in terms of upkeep—which is precisely why they’re considered more formal attire.

Which is a more honest signal of your value to a company: being told “great job!” or getting a raise?

3: Norms

For sociologists and anthropologists, conventions like queueing are known as norms. They’re the rules or standards about how members of a community should behave.

Despite occasional periods of hardship, foragers enjoy plenty of leisure time—more so than farmers, in fact—which they spend talking, joking, playing, singing, dancing, making art, and otherwise socializing among themselves.

The most striking feature of the nomadic foraging lifestyle, distinguishing it both from the chimpanzee lifestyle and our modern way of life, is its fierce egalitarianism. The main political actors within a band—which always includes adult men and sometimes adult women as well, depending on the culture—relate to each other as peers and equals.

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

If you’re afraid of speaking out against a dangerous regime because you’re worried about retaliation from the regime itself, that’s not a norm. But if you’re worried that your neighbors might disapprove and even coordinate to punish you, then you’re most likely dealing with a norm. It’s this third-party, collective enforcement that’s unique to humans.

humans have at least two other tricks up our sleeves to incentivize good norm-following behavior: gossip and reputation.

The meta-norm highlights how groups need to create an incentive for good citizens to punish cheaters. Whether that incentive comes by way of the stick or the carrot doesn’t really matter. Axelrod framed it in terms of the stick, in that not standing up to a cheater is itself a punishable act. But a group may fare just as well by positively rewarding people who help to punish cheaters.

But in most contexts, we start to bristle when people get too full of themselves. It’s part of that forager aversion to dominance, since bragging is a way to increase one’s influence and dominance within a community.

4: Cheating

Common knowledge is the difference between privately telling an individual and making a big public announcement; between a lesbian who’s still in the closet (although everyone suspects her of being a lesbian), and one who’s fully open about her sexuality; between an awkward moment that everyone tries to pretend didn’t happen and one that everyone acknowledges (and can hopefully laugh about).

there are two dimensions to keeping a secret: how widely it’s known and how openly12 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.

A police officer who turns a blind eye to conspicuous public drinking is open to a lot more criticism, from everyone involved, than an officer who ignores discreet public drinking. In this case, the brown paper bag doesn’t fool the police officers themselves, but it provides them with just enough cover to avoid taking flak from their constituents.

If norms are supposed to discourage competition, then why do we still need big brains? A plausible answer is that our norms are only partially enforced, so we need big brains to figure out how to cheat. In fact, norm-evaders and norm-enforcers are locked in a competitive arms race of their own—a game of cat and mouse—pushing each other ever upward in mental ability.

5: Self-Deception

A study of competitive swimmers found that those who were more prone to self-deception performed better during an important qualifying race.

But if you really want to win, here’s what Schelling advises. When you’re lined up facing your opponent, revving your engine, remove the steering wheel from your car and wave it at your opponent. This way, he’ll know that you’re locked in, dead set, hell-bent—irrevocably committed to driving straight through, no matter what. And at this point, unless he wants to die, your opponent will have to swerve first, and you’ll be the winner.

the perverse incentives of mixed-motive games lead to option-limiting and other actions that seem irrational, but are actually strategic.

Closing or degrading a channel of communication. You might purposely turn off your phone, for example, if you’re expecting someone to call asking for a favor. Or you might have a hard conversation over email rather than in person.

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.

Classical decision theory has it right: there’s no value in sabotaging yourself per se. The value lies in convincing other players that you’ve sabotaged yourself.

often the best way to convince others that we believe something is to actually believe it.

There are at least four ways that self-deception helps us come out ahead in mixed-motive scenarios. We’ll personify them in four different archetypes: the Madman, the Loyalist, the Cheerleader, and the Cheater.

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.

The Loyalist “Sure, I’ll go along with your beliefs,” says the Loyalist, thereby demonstrating commitment and hoping to earn trust in return.

The Madman “I’m doing this no matter what,” says the Madman, “so stay outta my way!”

The Cheerleader “I know this is true,” the Cheerleader says. “Come on, believe it with me!” This kind of self-deception is a form of propaganda. As Kurzban writes, “Sometimes it is beneficial to be . . . wrong in such a way that, if everyone else believed the incorrect thing one believes, one would be strategically better off.”

The startup founder who’s brimming with confidence, though it may be entirely unearned, will often attract more investors and recruit more employees than someone with an accurate assessment of his own abilities.

The Cheater “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” the Cheater says in response to an accusation. “My motives were pure.”

Like the general who erases the mountain range on the map, then leads the army to a dead end, self-deceivers similarly run the risk of acting on false or missing information. Luckily, however, we don’t have to bear the full brunt of our own deceptions. Typically, at least part of our brain continues to know the truth. In other words, our saving grace is inconsistency.

it’s possible for our brains to maintain a relatively accurate set of beliefs in systems tasked with evaluating potential actions, while keeping those accurate beliefs hidden from the systems (like consciousness) involved in managing social impressions.

No matter how fervently a person believes in Heaven, for example, she’s still going to be afraid of death.

6: Counterfeit Reasons

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

we know why the patient got out of his chair—because the researchers asked him to, via his right hemisphere. The patient’s left hemisphere, however, had no way of knowing this. But instead of saying, “I don’t know why I stood up,” which would have been the only honest answer, it made up a reason and fobbed it off as the truth: “I wanted to go get a Coke.”

When we use the term “motives,” we’re referring to the underlying causes of our behavior, whether we’re conscious of them or not. “Reasons” are the verbal explanations we give to account for our behavior. Reasons can be true, false, or somewhere in between (e.g., cherry-picked).

Even more dramatic examples of rationalization can be elicited from patients suffering from disability denial, a rare disorder that occasionally results from a right-hemisphere stroke. In a typical case, the stroke will leave the patient’s left arm paralyzed, but—here’s the weird part—the patient will completely deny that anything is wrong with his arm, and will manufacture all sorts of strange (counterfeit) excuses for why it’s just sitting there, limp and lifeless.

When we capitalize “Press Secretary,” we’re referring to the brain module responsible for explaining our actions, typically to third parties. The lowercase version of “press secretary” refers to the job held by someone in relation to a president or prime minister.

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

The upshot is that every time we give a reason, there’s a risk we’re just making things up. Every “because” clause, every answer to a “Why?” question, every justification or explanation of a motive—every one of these is suspect. Not all will turn out to be rationalizations, but any of them could be, and a great many are.

These two examples illustrate one of the most effective ways to rationalize, which is telling half-truths. In other words, we cherry-pick our most acceptable, prosocial reasons while concealing the uglier ones. Robin really does want to get his ideas out there, and Kevin really is a private person. But these two explanations aren’t the full story.

Parents will often enforce kids’ bedtimes “for their own good,” when a self-serving motive seems just as likely—that parents simply want an hour or two of peace and quiet without the kids.

Minor impediments are often exaggerated to avoid unwanted social encounters: “I’m not feeling well today” as an excuse not to go work, for example, or “I’m too busy” to decline a meeting. Typically there’s a grain of truth to these reasons, but it’s often exaggerated, and meanwhile other reasons (e.g., “I simply don’t want to”) are conveniently omitted.

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

Part 2: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

7: Body Language

humans are strategically blind to body language because it often betrays our ugly, selfish, competitive motives.

A cue is similar to a signal, in that it conveys information, except that it benefits only the receiver. In other words, a cue conveys information the sender might wish to conceal. Sometimes we refer to cues in the human realm as “tells”—like in the poker movie Rounders, when one character unconsciously twists open an Oreo whenever he has a winning hand. Other cues or tells can include sweaty palms (indicating nervousness), shortness of breath (indicating windedness from exertion), and pacifying behaviors such as rubbing one’s neck (indicating anxiety or discomfort).

Back in the human realm, 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.

much of the thrill and drama of courtship lies in struggling to decipher the other’s mixed signals. Women, for example, sometimes instinctively “play coy,” attempting to hide or downplay their interest, thereby requiring men to put more effort into courtship.

A couple out on a date, for example, will often use “tie-signs”—handholding, arm-on-shoulder, and so forth—to signal their romantic connection to their partner. These signals are intended not just for each other, but also for third parties, that is, potential rivals.

Women asked to smell T-shirts worn by different men were more attracted to men who had complementary immune systems (which would benefit their potential children). Meanwhile, gay men preferred the sweat of other gay men to the sweat of straight men.

When we feel comfortable around others, we touch them and allow ourselves to be touched. When we sense hostility, however, we’re much more skittish about these violations of personal space.

“It has always been my impression,” says Joe Navarro, a Federal Bureau of Investigation interrogator and body-language expert, “that presidents often go to Camp David to accomplish in polo shirts what they can’t seem to accomplish in business suits forty miles away at the White House. By unveiling themselves ventrally (with the removal of coats) they are saying, ‘I am open to you.’

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.”

In contexts governed by dominance, eye contact is considered an act of aggression.

In contexts governed by prestige, however, eye contact is considered a gift: to look at someone is to elevate that person.

If you make eye contact for the same fraction of time while speaking and listening, your visual dominance ratio will be 1.0, indicative of high dominance. If you make less eye contact while speaking, however, your ratio will be less than 1.0 (typically hovering around 0.6), indicative of low dominance.

8: Laughter

The most important observation is that we laugh far more often in social settings than when we’re alone—30 times more often, in Provine’s estimate.

The second key observation about laughter is that it’s a vocalization, a sound. And across the animal kingdom, sounds serve the purpose of active communication.

When Provine studied 1,200 episodes of laughter overheard in public settings, his biggest surprise was finding that speakers laugh more than listeners—about 50 percent more, in fact. This makes little sense if we think of laughter as a passive reflex, but becomes clear when we remember that laughter is a form of active communication.

The final key observation is that laughter occurs even in other species. Specifically, it’s found in all five of the “great apes”—orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees, and humans—although not in any other primates, suggesting an origin in our common ancestor, 12 to 18 million years ago.

The core idea here is that laughter is necessarily coupled with play. If the mood is serious, a terrible face will elicit a scream, but if the mood is playful, the very same stimulus will elicit a laugh.

“We’re just playing” is such an important message, it turns out, that many species have developed their own vocabulary for it. Dogs, for example, have a “play bow”—forearms extended, head down, hindquarters in the air—which they use to initiate a bout of play.

When we laugh at our own actions, it’s a signal to our playmates that our intentions are ultimately playful (although we may seem aggressive). This is the kind of laugh a young child might give after play hitting an adult or other child, or that adults give when they’re gently poking fun at someone.

When we laugh in response to someone else’s actions, however, it’s a statement not about intentions but about perceptions. It says, “I perceive your actions as playful; I know you’re only kidding around.” This is reactive laughter, the kind elicited in response.

We don’t laugh continuously throughout a play session, only when there’s something potentially unpleasant to react to.

This helps explain why an element of danger is so important for getting a laugh. Now, danger isn’t strictly required—we sometimes laugh at harmless wordplay, for example. But danger certainly helps. A pun is a lot funnier when it’s a sexual double-entendre told in the presence of children.

humor is like opening a safe. There’s a sequence of steps that have to be performed in the right order and with a good deal of precision. First you need to get two or more people together.35 Then you must set the mood dial to “play.” Then you need to jostle things, carefully, so that the dial feints in the direction of “serious,” but quickly falls back to “play.”

But where there’s danger, there’s also an opportunity for exploratory play. And just as the physical danger of a roller coaster tickles our physiological funny bone, flirting with norm-related danger tickles our social funny bone.

In the broadest sense, there are at least two ways to use the danger of norms for comedic effect. The first is to feint across the norm boundary, but then retreat back to safety without actually violating it. The second way is to step across the boundary, violating the norm, and then to realize, like a child jumping into snow for the first time, “It’s safe over here! Wheee!”

A real danger of laughter, then, is the fact that we don’t all share the same norms to the same degree. What’s sacred to one person can be an object of mere play to another.

When someone gets hurt, the humane response is to break from a playful mood into a serious mood, to make sure they’re OK. The popular girls’ laughter, then, reveals that they don’t take Maggie’s suffering seriously. They’re treating her pain as an object of play—a mere plaything.

I’m worried every time I see a comedian apologize. [Addressing a hypothetical attacker:] Just because you took what I said seriously doesn’t mean I meant it. You don’t get to decide that you’re in my head and that you know my intent. If I’m joking, I’m joking.”

As Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.”

9: Conversation

If speakers are giving away little informational “gifts” in every conversation, what are they getting in return?

If exchanging information were the be-all and end-all of conversation, then we would expect people to be greedy listeners and stingy speakers.

Speakers strive to impress their audience by consistently delivering impressive remarks. This explains how speakers foot the bill for the costs of speaking we discussed earlier: they’re compensated not in-kind, by receiving information reciprocally, but rather by raising their social value in the eyes (and ears) of their listeners.

in Miller’s theory, speakers are primarily trying to impress potential mates, while for Dessalles, the primary audience is potential allies.

If you’re a reliable source of new information, you’re likely to make a good teammate, especially as the team faces unforeseeable situations in the future.

10: Consumption

So why do we continue working so hard? 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.

when subjects are primed with a status motive, they show a stronger preference for green products when shopping in public, and a weaker preference for green products when shopping online. Clearly their motive isn’t just to help the environment, but also to be seen as being helpful.

Why change two things at once, both the engine and the body? A likely reason is that a distinctive body makes the car more conspicuous. Whether out on the road or parked in a driveway, a Prius is unmistakable. If the Prius looked just like a Camry, fewer people would notice it.

Today there’s a stigma to wearing uniforms, in part because it suppresses our individuality. But the very concept of “individuality” is just signaling by another name.

Just as Ivan Pavlov trained his dogs to associate an arbitrary stimulus, a ringing bell, with the promise of food, lifestyle ads train consumers to associate a brand or product with positive emotions, like relaxation in the case of Corona or rugged, manly spirit in the case of Marlboro.

If you think the ad will change other people’s perceptions of Corona, then it might make sense for you to buy it, even if you know that a beer is just a beer, not a lifestyle.

a good rule of thumb is that the easier it is to judge someone based on a particular product, the more it will be advertised using cultural images and lifestyle associations.

11: Art

Miller argues that while ecological selection (the pressure to survive) abhors waste, sexual selection often favors it.

Bower-building is difficult, but that’s precisely the point. If it were easy, every male could do it; fit males demonstrate their fitness only by doing things that unfit males can’t do.

Because replicas are cheap relative to the originals, we’ll pay less to see a much wider variety—and in the convenience of our hometowns, rather than scattered around the world in Paris, London, Venice, and New York. Of course, replica museums don’t exist, and the idea strikes us as a bit silly—but that’s precisely the point. Our disdain for replicas strongly suggests that we often use art as something other than a trigger for sensory or intellectual experiences.

its value as art hinges entirely on the artist’s technique. If she found it on the beach: meh. If she used a 3D printer: cool. And if she made it by manually chiseling it out of marble: whoa!

“We find attractive,” says Miller, “those things that could have been produced only by people with attractive, high-fitness qualities such as health, energy, endurance, hand–eye coordination, fine motor control, intelligence, creativity, access to rare materials, the ability to learn difficult skills, and lots of free time.”

A live performance, or even more so an improvised one, won’t be as technically perfect as a prerecorded one, but it succeeds by putting the artists’ talents on full display.

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

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.”

12: Charity

According to one calculation, for the cost of sending a kid through college in America, you could instead save the lives of more than 50 children (who happen to live in sub-Saharan Africa). Yes, many of us do try to help people in extreme need, but we also spend a lot on personal indulgences.

The striking thing about real-world altruism is how sharply it deviates from effective altruism. The main recipients of American charity are religious groups and educational institutions.

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.

Giving $3,500 to the Against Malaria Foundation will save a whole human life, while the same amount divided across 100 different charities might go entirely to waste, hardly covering the administrative overhead necessary to collect and process all those separate donations.

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.

we can observe highly trained lawyers, doctors, and their husbands and wives giving up their time to work in soup kitchens for the homeless or to deliver meals to the elderly. Their time may be worth a hundred times the standard hourly rates for kitchen workers or delivery drivers. For every hour they spend serving soup, they could have donated an hour’s salary to pay for somebody else to serve soup for two weeks.

Consider these two strategies for giving to charity: (1) setting up an automatic monthly payment to the Against Malaria Foundation, or (2) giving a small amount to every panhandler, collection plate, and Girl Scout. Making automatic payments to a single charity may be more efficient at improving the lives of others, 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.

we give more when we’re being watched.

People seldom initiate donations on their own; up to 95 percent of all donations are given in response to a solicitation.

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.

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

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.

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

13: Education

If only a small amount of useful learning takes place, then sending every citizen to an extra year of school will result in only a small increase in the nation’s overall productivity. Meanwhile, when you’re an individual student within a nation, getting more school can substantially increase your future earnings—not because of what you’ve learned, but because the extra school helps distinguish you as a better worker.

if superior instruction could explain the value of college—then why not franchise the Ivy League? Why not let more students benefit? It will never happen because the top U.S. colleges draw their mystique from zero-sum competition.

It seems that the governments that most need to indoctrinate their citizens do in fact pay for more school.

prior to the Industrial Revolution, most men were free; outside of childhood and war, few had to regularly take direct orders from other men.

Children are expected to sit still for hours upon hours; to control their impulses; to focus on boring, repetitive tasks; to move from place to place when a bell rings; and even to ask permission before going to the bathroom (think about that for a second).

Teachers systematically reward children for being docile and punish them for “acting out,” that is, for acting as their own masters. In fact, teachers reward discipline independent of its influence on learning, and in ways that tamp down on student creativity.

Children are also trained to accept being measured, graded, and ranked, often in front of others. This enterprise, which typically lasts well over a decade, serves as a systematic exercise in human domestication.

14: Medicine

Each party is hoping to earn a bit of loyalty from the patient in exchange for helping to provide care. In other words, medicine is, in part, an elaborate adult version of “kiss the boo-boo.” Like the conspicuous behaviors we’ve seen in other chapters, we’re going to call this the conspicuous caring hypothesis.

The dangers of being abandoned when ill—both material and political dangers—explain why sick people are happy to be supported, and why others are eager to provide support. In part, it’s a simple quid pro quo: “I’ll help you this time if you’ll help me when the tables are turned.” But providing support is also an advertisement to third parties: “See how I help my friends when they’re down? If you’re my friend, I’ll do the same for you.”

Christmas gifts are usually more expensive, and often less useful, than items you would have bought for yourself.

Patients in higher-spending regions, who get more treatment for their conditions, don’t end up healthier, on average, than patients in lower-spending regions who get fewer treatments.

variations in death rates across the 50 U.S. states were predicted by variations in income, education, and other variables, but not by variations in medical spending.

For each extra day in the ICU, patients were estimated to live roughly 40 fewer days.18 The same study also estimated that spending an additional $1,000 on a patient resulted in somewhere between a gain of 5 days and a loss of 20 days of life.19 In short, the researchers found “no evidence that improved survival outcomes are associated with increased levels of spending.”

As measured by total spending, patients with full subsidies consumed 45 percent more than patients in the unsubsidized

Despite the large differences in medical consumption, however, the RAND experiment found almost no detectable health differences across these groups.

We could probably cut back our medical consumption by a third without suffering a large adverse effect on our health.

Yes, vaccines, penicillin, anesthesia, antiseptic techniques, and emergency medicine are all great, but their overall impact is actually quite modest. Other factors often cited as plausibly more important include better nutrition, improvements in public sanitation, and safer and easier jobs.

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.

When choosing between doctors, people typically focus on the prestige of their school or hospital, instead of their individual track records for patient outcomes.

“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.”

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.

15: Religion

We’re scared of Hell, therefore we pray. All that would be left to explain, then, is where the beliefs come from. Let’s call this the belief-first model of religious behavior.

And yet, as we’ve seen throughout the book, beliefs aren’t always in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of the underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological.

This is the religious elephant in the brain: 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. In this regard, faith-based religions like Christianity and Islam are the exception rather than the rule.

Greeks and Romans, were less concerned with doctrinal propositions like, “Zeus rules the gods on Mount Olympus,” and more concerned with ritual observance, like coming out to celebrate on public holidays.

When Muslims face Mecca to pray, we call it “religion,” but when American schoolchildren face the flag and chant the Pledge of Allegiance, that’s just “patriotism.” And when they sing, make T-shirts, and put on parades for homecoming, that’s “school spirit.”

A religion, therefore, isn’t just a set of propositional beliefs about God and the afterlife; it’s an entire social system.

Crucially, 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. Actions speak louder than words, and expensive actions speak the loudest.

Less symbolically, many practices also serve to stigmatize practitioners in the eyes of outsiders. By wearing “strange” clothes or refusing to eat from the same plates as secular folk, members of a given sect lose standing in broader society (while gaining it within the sect, of course).

(though imperfect) way to gauge whether someone was trustworthy. You’d be understandably wary of your neighbors who didn’t come to church, for example, because they’re not “paying their dues” to the community.

If you’re using birth control, you’re also more likely to delay marriage, get an advanced degree, and pursue a dynamic, financially rewarding career. This makes it harder on your more traditional, family-oriented neighbors. Your lifestyle interferes with theirs (and vice versa), and avoiding such tensions is largely why we self-segregate into communities in the first place.

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.

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.

An analysis of this kind of belief should proceed in three steps.

  1. People who believe they risk punishment for disobeying God are more likely to behave well, relative to nonbelievers.
  2. It’s therefore in everyone’s interests to convince others that they believe in God and in the dangers of disobedience.
  3. Finally, as we saw in Chapter 5, one of the best ways to convince others of one’s belief is to actually believe

In all of these cases, instincts that are adaptive in one context can lead us fatefully astray in another. But we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the instincts are necessarily maladaptive, or that the people acting on them are hopelessly foolish or deluded. They’re just chasing their highs, same as the rest of us.

16: Politics

the literature on voting makes it clear that people mostly don’t vote for their material self-interest, that is, for the candidates and policies that would make them personally better off.

even if you stood to gain an enormous $500,000 worth of personal value (including subjective benefits) from Candidate A’s election, in expected value, your vote would still be worth less than a penny. In terms of outcomes and probabilities, you’d be better off buying a lottery ticket.

Swing states see only a modest uptick in turnout, somewhere between one and four percentage points.

We’d rather debate hot-button identity issues, like gay marriage or immigration, than issues that hinge on an understanding of facts, like trade agreements or net neutrality. And we see a similar bias when electing our representatives.

The fact that we attach strong emotions to our political beliefs is another clue that we’re being less than fully honest intellectually. When we take a pragmatic, outcome-oriented stance to a given domain, we tend to react more dispassionately to new information. We do this every day in most areas of our lives, like when we buy groceries, pack for a vacation, or plan a birthday party. In these practical domains, we feel much less pride in what we believe, anger when our beliefs are challenged, or shame in changing our minds in response to new information. However, when our beliefs serve non-pragmatic functions, emotions tend to be useful to protect them from criticism.

Holding constant the quality of their publications, Republican academics (compared to Democrats) have jobs at significantly lower-tier colleges. This effect is larger than the effect for women, who also seem to face discrimination in academic jobs.

the desire to signal loyalty helps explain why we don’t always vote our self-interest (i.e., for the candidates and policies that would bring us, as individuals, the greatest benefit). Rather, we tend to vote for our groups’ interests.

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. We also embrace slogans like “Black lives matter” or “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” As arguments, these slogans radically oversimplify the issues—but as badges, they work great.

For our beliefs to function as loyalty signals, we can’t simply “follow the facts” and “listen to reason.” Instead, we have to believe things that are beyond reason, things that other, less-loyal people wouldn’t believe.

what better way to signal your loyalty than to say, “I’m not budging. It’s my (group’s) way or the highway.”

The answer we’ve given in this chapter is that we use far-off national politics as a medium in which to jockey for local advantages. As apparatchiks, we’re motivated less by civic virtue than by the desire to appear loyal to our political coalitions. And 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.

17: Conclusion

The biggest lesson from Part I is that we ignore the elephant because doing so is strategic. Self-deception allows us to act selfishly without having to appear quite so selfish in front of others.

The first benefit is situational awareness—a better, deeper understanding of the human social world. It’s easy to buy into the stories other people would sell us about their motives, but like the patter of a magician, these stories are often misleading.

When meetings at work seem like an unnecessary waste of time, such waste may in fact be the point; costly rituals can serve to keep a team cohesive or help anxious leaders cement control over their subordinates.

We have a gaping blind spot at the very center of our introspective vision. If we’re going to second-guess our coworkers and friends, we shouldn’t give ourselves an easy pass. In fact, knowing about our own blind spots should make us even more careful when pointing fingers at others.

People who are able to acknowledge uncomfortable truths and discuss them dispassionately can show a combination of honesty, intellectual ability, and perhaps even courage (or at least a thick skin).

Another benefit to confronting our hidden motives is that, if we choose, we can take steps to mitigate or counteract them. For example, if we notice that our charitable giving is motivated by the desire to look good and that this leads us to donate to less-helpful (but more-visible) causes, we can deliberately decide to subvert our now-not-so-hidden agenda.

Another promising strategy is to put ourselves in situations where our hidden motives better align with our ideal motives. For example, if we want to express sincere yet accurate beliefs, we might get into the habit of betting on our beliefs.

One promising approach to institutional reform is to try to acknowledge people’s need to show off, but to divert their efforts away from wasteful activities and toward those with bigger benefits and positive externalities. For example, as long as students must show off by learning something at school, we’d rather they learned something useful (like how to handle personal finances) instead of something less useful (like Latin).

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.

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