The Elephant in the Brain

By Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

A man always has two reasons for doing anything, a good reason and the real reason.

- J.P. Morgan

The books thesis is:

  • Natural selection mostly rewards selfish and competitive behavior..

  • Social norms constrain selfish impulses but can be hard to enforce.

  • Our brains react as you would expect to these incentives by continuing to act selfishly and violate norms where we can get can get away with it. To help with norm evasion we need to deceive everyone else of our true motives.

  • One of the best ways to deceive others is to deceive ourselves. “We deceive ourselves, so we are better at deceiving others.”

  • For the most part we are not the agent in charge of the decisions, we are more like the press secretary who gives convenient half truths and post-hoc rationalizations for our actions. In short, we really do things for far less noble reasons than we tell others and tell ourselves.

In part II of this book, “Hidden motives in everyday life” the authors go into detail about how this framework fits in with how we deal with body language, laughter, and even the design of our institutions. For institutions Robin says “Our institutions pretend to give us what we pretend to want, but actually give us more of what we actually want.”