The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, by Samuel Hammond.

“The elephant in the room” is any important and obvious fact that, for whatever reason, no one is willing to talk about.

In their new book, The Elephant in the Brain, authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson extend the concept to one the most important and obvious, yet unspoken, facts about the human mind: that we are masters of self-deception, equipped by evolution with an “introspective blind spot” that hides our deeper, selfish motives, even when the same motives are easy to spot in others. …

Our introspective blind spot is not unlike the literal blind spot in our eye, located where the optic nerve connects with our eye’s disc of photoreceptor cells. … Our brain automatically fills in the hole using information from the surrounding context, creating the illusion of a continuous field of vision. We can easily verify that the deception is taking place with imaging techniques or simple optical illusions, and yet knowledge of its existence cannot make us any less blind to our own blindness.

Unconscious self-deception in the social domain works similarly: easy to demonstrate but impossible to switch-off. Thus for any action with a mix of sacred and profane motives — as much Good Samaritan as quid pro quo — we are willfully blind to the latter, not as conscious manipulators, but because strategic ignorance of our Machiavellian side had survival value for our ancestors. As the renown evolutionary psychologist Robert Trivers once put it, “We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others.”

The core thesis of The Elephant in the Brain is that this has major implications for public policy that we are loathe to admit. Thus spending on health care, we learn, isn’t merely about improving our health; it’s also a wasteful way to signal our caring for others. Admitting this, we could conceivably cut medical expenditure in half and be no worse off. Likewise, charitable giving isn’t just, or even mainly, about doing good in the world; it’s also a way to flex one’s wealth and generosity while bathing in the “warm glow” of peer approval. …

Take cheating. “Everybody cheats,” declare Simler and Hanson. “There’s no use in denying it … Most of us honor the big, important rules, like those prohibiting robbery, arson, rape, and murder. But we routinely violate small and middling norms.” Even our ancestors were incorrigible cheaters, as shown by “the fact that our brains have special-purpose adaptations for detecting cheats,” manifested in the elusive search for sincerity in the eyes of a suspected liar. The best liars are therefore the ones who believe their own lies, and “drink their own kool-aid.” It’s a feat humans accomplish with the aid of self-serving excuses, what Simler and Hanson call “pretexts” (“I didn’t steal it. I borrowed it.”), that help us construe our misbehavior in a better light. …

Like our visual blind spot, our cheating natures are impossible to excise. Hypocrisy is our evolutionary original sin.