Made You Think Podcast

Jun 12, 2018
Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson
Part of

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.

In this episode of Made You Think, Neil and Nat discuss The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. In this book the authors dig into the true motives that drive our decisions and behaviors.

We cover a wide range of topics, including:

  • Being selfish without noticing it
  • Outsmarting other humans
  • Gossiping, signalling and laughing
  • The truth about Rolex watches (and is not about time precision)
  • Metrics used to measure a charity effectiveness
  • Mona Lisa conspiracy theories

And much more. Please enjoy, and be sure to grab a copy of The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson!

Links from the Episode

Mentioned in the show

Books mentioned

People mentioned

Show Topics

4:50 – “Elephant in the brain, n. An important but unacknowledged feature of how our minds work; an introspective taboo”. Is there a survival advantage to not being too much introspective? Pros and cons of meditation. Stated reasons for doing things when we interact with other people. The effect of open offices, cafes and music on Neil.

9:17 – Underlying motives of our actions. Figuring out other people: what’s making them tick? Example: parents who believe that college is a good idea for their kids, once they already paid. Starting a bitcoin mining company to pay studies at CMU.

11:41 – Thesis outline: we all have selfish modisms. However:

  1. People are judging us all the time.
  2. Because they are judging we are eager to look good. It’s better if we don’t show our selfishness.
  3. This applies not just to our words, but also to our thoughts.
  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.

12:51 – #1 Animal Behavior. Biological social reasons for selfish modisms. Social grooming. The monkeys example: they over spend grooming others, much more than really needed and they’ll fight to groom the higher rank monkeys. Analogies with employees in the corporate context. We do things that on the surface look pro social, but in reality we are just looking to increase our social standing. Altruistic behavior is not quite what it seems.

15:18 – Altruistic babblers example: these birds work to earn “prestige” in their community. Prestige will give them more mating opportunities. Analogies with student and religious groups. Knowledge suppression: we hide our big motivators from ourselves because other people are better at reading to our intentions. For example we can read bad sellers.

19:06 – #2 Competition. We are more selfish than we let ourselves think. Evolution first was about competition with the environment. Since we outsmarted other animals, we evolve to outsmart other humans. Unconsciously we try to increase our elements of social status: dominance (intimidate others) and prestige (being an impressive human being).

23:04 – Envy. “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”. Signalling. The most honest signals are expensive. Nowadays being in shape is more expensive than being fat. Facebook and Instagram as tools for signalling. The King and the whisperer.

26:46 – Deceiving signals. Digital Nomads showing off while not being able to support themselves in the US. Behaviors that can be explained by competitive signalling. Luxury consumption is our version of the peacock tail. No one buys a Rolex to tell the time. There is sexual sense to men paying for the first meal on a date. Hot vs Beautiful: most products are advertised to make women hotter than attractive, and that may be a cause of unhappiness.

33:21 – #3 Norms. Gossiping and reputation. Gossip is to tell our group other people is not following norms. We lose reputation when others gossip of us. Gossip is cross cultural, and it seems to exist to enforce reputations and norms. Useful and harmful gossiping. Gossiping as valuable recommendations of people to employ and work with.

37:27 – Gossip are learned behavior or inherited genetics? Gossiping to get attention. Arguments that telling small lies in front of friends erodes your reputation and trust. Telling small lies to ourselves to prove ourselves an action we took. Analogies to the book: Chip & Dan’s elephant and the writer in Switch, Plato’s horses and the chariot driver.

41:01 – #4 Cheating. In order to cheat people, we need to be able to hide our intentions because we are good at sniffing out cheaters. Drinking in public, hiding the bottle in brown paper bags. Pipes and vape pens for… tobacco? Finding ways to encourage good behavior that one wouldn’t do otherwise. Recycling.

44:09 – Tangent. Danish study on grocery bags: plastic bags beat paper bags 40 to 1. Electric cars CO2 impact much larger than gas cars.

47:53 – #5 Self Deception. Convincing others that you had sabotaged yourself, and the best way to convince someone for something is for you to actually believe it. Iran’s nuclear deal with the US. North Korea wanting to be taken seriously. Looking like the mad man in town. Closing or degrading a channel communication. Strategic ignorance. Avoid looking at kidnappers face.

52:02 – #6 Counterfeit Reasons. We make up reasons to explain why we do things or why we want things. Split brain patients test. Narrative fallacy. Making up reasons to deny a disability. Press secretary. Sean Spiner on the podium trying to explain Trump’s decisions. We accentuate and exaggerate our pro-social motives and downplay our ugly selfish ones.

55:32 – Sponsor! Scentbird. Monthly subscription for premium perfumes and colognes, delivered at your door in convenient packaging for only $15/mo! Avoid the weird and bulky shapes of perfume bottles. Scentbird has a very compact and handy rechargeable cartridge system. Neil is using Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue which is very summery. Nat buyed Gin by Commodity, Bergamote by Commodity, and Encens by Rag & Bone. Use our code to get 50% off the first month.

Neil is drinking Milk Oolong from Cup & Leaf Tea (a tea that tastes milky but doesn’t have milk!). You can reinfuse Oolong up to 5 times! Try it iced too. Cup & Leaf will give a 10%  lifetime discount to its first 100 customers. The Cream Earl Grey is great too. Replace-your-coffee and MYT kits coming soon.

1:03:11 – #7 Hidden motives in everyday life. Body Language. Cue is like a signal but it only provides value to the receiver. Catching cues reading other people while playing poker. Eye contact ratio while speaking and listening is a sign dominance.

1:06:12 – #8 Laughter. “We laugh far more often in social settings than when we’re alone—30 times more often”. Laughter is a social way of initiating play with each other. Flirting with the edges of acceptable behavior. Comedians can talk things in ways no one else can talk in public. Laughing seems to come from an instinct. Great apes laugh too. Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you”. Making offensive statements in a playful manner with friends.

1:11:39 – Theory that laughter relieves nervous energy. Comedians make jokes about things they really don’t believe, but many people extrapolates them wrongly. Laughter to test relationships with new people. Argument that humor normalizes bad behavior. Rape jokes. Jokes in the wrong audience.

1:22:49 – #9 Conversation. Conversation is not primarily an exchange of information, but mainly we do it to prove we are a reliable and good source of information. The backpack full of tools analogy. Reading and curiosity. Staying on topic, but not repeating ourselves.

1:27:43 – #10 Consumption. We buy things to look good. Prius example: it was designed ugly on purpose. Lifestyle ads. Corona beer theories: the first, Pavlovian, associating Corona and the beach, the second, one would buy Corona worrying about what others may associate the brand with. Super Bowl ads. BMW have to show their ads to poor people as well, so rich people associate the brand with luxury. Car ads reinforcing owners’ believes. Products can be marketed for utility or lifestyle. Guinness and Budweiser have the same amount of calories, but they are marketed and perceived differently (surprisingly, Guinness is very keto-friendly).

1:33:33 – #11 Art. We find waste sexually attractive, because wasting resources is kind of a proof of wealth. People that hold a group in conversation are attractive. We tend to value art because we associate effort and skill with it. Mona Lisa’s ashes and replicas survey. Is it the real Mona Lisa in the Louvre? Motivations behind mass shooters. Dinosaurs bones in museums. Conspiracies.

1:39:54 – #12 Charity. People donate in very inefficient ways. Donating for malaria vs high schools. Ivy League schools as hedge funds with an educational side. Comparing malaria deaths with other diseases that lower the quality of life. Is it dollar-to-lifes the best metric to look at when donating? The problem with Red Cross and other famous non-profits. Hollywood movies as non-profits.

1:49:34 – #13 Education. Kids don’t learn much in class compared to unschooled ones. National GDP does not rise with education, but individual earning does. School seems more a filtering mechanism where, if you graduate from Harvard it doesn’t mean you learned a ton but that you survived it. School as domestication. The most performant students are those more domesticated.

1:52:08 – Required attendance shows that the teacher is insecure of being interesting. Learning topics through other mediums than class subjects. School is more a signalling tool to show conformity to society and employment. For parents, it’s a tool to brag that “made it”. School may be useful from a network standpoint. Why we haven’t franchised the Ivy League.

2:01:54 – #14 Medicine. We get much more medicine than we need mostly as a way to show we take care of each other. Medicine is great for saving lives, but doesn’t perform well on life and quality of life extension.

2:03:21 – #15 Religion. Proving you are a member of the community by sacrificing part of your freedom, time, resources and even identity.

2:04:10 – #16 Politics. We often vote to show loyalty to a community. You’d better don’t want everyone to participate in an election, especially if they’ll vote the opposite candidate you’ll vote. Cheering for your party, as in sports.

2:06:31 – #17 Conclusion. It’s easy to spot others doing it, it’s difficult to pick up ourselves doing it. “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. 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”.

2:07:56 – Support us by buying the book through our Amazon affiliate link. Support us by buying stuff from our sponsors, Perfect Keto for all your keto diet needs, Kettle & Fire for grass fed bone broth, Four Sigmatic for delicious mushroom coffee and other low caffeine drinks.