The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler


  1. Human behavior is not always what it seems as it tends to be driven by multiple motives and some of these motives are subconscious or we are at least not fully aware of them. We are designed this way so that we can chase selfish motives while attempting not to appear selfish to others. Our brains try to get past this by keeping us in the dark – the less we know, the less we’ll give away. We are strategically self-deceived – individually and as a society. In a word, the “elephant in the brain” is selfishness and this book shows why only by confronting it can we begin to deal with it and what’s really going on. This book shines the light on certain real world examples where self-deception is rampant 

Key Takeaways

  1. Elephant in the brain – an important but unacknowledged feature of how our mind works, an introspective taboo
  2. We pretend like we know what we’re up to but we often don’t and this gets us into trouble 
  3. People are judging us all the time. Namely, our motives. Because people are judging us, we downplay our selfish motives and make our selves look as good as possible. This applies not only to our words but also our thoughts. In some areas of life we are more likely to point out selfish motives (politics) but in others (medicine) we are more likely to gloss over and act like everyone’s intentions are pure 
  4. By studying primates we can get a good idea of what our social interactions really mean. Distance gives perspective. Social grooming in apes is about hygiene but also politics, prestige, status, hierarchy, and reciprocation. Similar for humans 
  5. The major social interactions which fall into this category for humans is sex, hierarchy and politics. Inter-species competition is at the root and is rarely discussed. Collaboration is the flip side of the same coin. A lot of energy is wasted with competition. Imagine how much shorter redwoods could be and how much energy they’d save if they could agree on a height maximum. This is one of our species superpowers – turning wasteful competition into fruitful collaboration. Norms define these behaviors and is part of what we try to deceptively overcome. We hold ourselves back collectively for the greater good. The norm isn’t defined by how it is explicitly defined but by which actions are punished and to what degree. Weapons originally and later gossip and reputation helped keep people in line and follow norms. However, everyone cheats and it is intentions even more than actions which are judged. Humans are incredible at spotting cheating because our brains are adapted to it – meaning humans have always cheated as it gets you the reward without the cost if you can pull it off. A little discretion can go a long way if you’re trying to cheat – think of the brown paper bag used when people want to drink in public. 
  6. The most honest signals are expensive to produce but even more expensive to fake. 
  7. We deceive ourselves but blame others and project our own failings or guilt onto others. Self-deception can be used to protect ourselves but if our mental models help us navigate the world, why would we have evolved to react this way? Information is the lifeblood and you’d think that with less or incorrect info we’d be worse off. This is the old school of thought. The new school is that self deception is used for manipulation and is self-promoting. We deceive ourselves to better deceive others. Lying is hard to pull off, is cognitively demanding, and we are afraid of getting caught so not admitting it to ourselves is easier. We are not as opaque as we believe and our thoughts can be quite transparent to others but if we don’t know something, others won’t be able to see it. Modeling the world accurately isn’t the be all, end all of our brains. It is reproduction and in this case self deception helps us further this goal 
  8. 4 types of self deception in mixed motive scenarios 
    1. Madman – you’ll do anything to attain your goal and others know it. Intimidation
    2. Cheerleader – a form of propaganda where you try to change other people’s beliefs 
    3. Loyalist – shows commitment and belief and will go along with the party or person no matter what. Earned trust 
    4. Cheater – turning a blind eye so you have plausible deniability. Throw people off our trail 
  9. The main cost of self deception is that it can get us to act suboptimally
  10. Our saving grace is inconsistency as one part of our mind’s “system” can be aware of something but be hidden from others. Our brains architecture keeps some of our baser evolutionary motives hidden from full view and allows us to act hypocritically without truly realizing it. Our mind is built to help us advance socially. Shame, guilt, and other negative emotions is our brain’s cue to avoid those neural pathways, putting our true desires even further out of grasp 
  11. The most important self deception is about our own motives. 
  12. We don’t always know the “why” behind what we do but we always think we do. We can rationalize anything we do The brain can be thought of as a press secretary – giving internal and external interpretations of the experiences. Your brain is not the king of decisions like we’d like to think, but merely the rationalizer of them. Every time we give a reason we may just be making it up. We know ourselves less than we think. We cherry pick and celebrate our most pro social reasons and hide away the anti social ones 
  13. We are also intentionally blind to many non-verbal cues such as body language because being consciously aware of and in control of them would give away too much and make us feel too manipulative. Body language is an honest signal and is it the sense that it is more costly to fake them produce so we can use it effectively and should rely upon it in many different situations to get a better feel for how others are feeling rather than relying on what they’re saying. Eye contact (an even ratio of eye contact while listening and speaking conveys dominance and high social status), open postures, contact, lean in or back, pheromones, proximity, touch, how relaxed we seem, social status, and more. The beauty of nonverbal communication is that it allows us to pursue illicit agendas with a smaller risk of getting caught and accused as the actions are harder to pin down than outright actions are. That is why being aware of them is slightly dangerous and is why we don’t teach them to our children 
  14. Laughter is designed for social situations, it is a sound which is always used for communication purposes, and laughter occurs in other species. This inter and intraspecies communication indicates to self and others our playful intent and happy mood. This allows for safe social play even when the behavior could technically be dangerous or serious – it is a play signal. Flirting with violating a norm or actually violating it tends to be found funny. Context is extremely important as the same event can be seen very differently. Humor is extremely informative and showing us what is acceptable and what is transgressive, showing us where the boundaries are and are norms and how far we can push it. Since laughter is in voluntary and deniable it is a great window of truth because we can’t hold it back as easily as we can with language and it gives a safe harbor to be able to explain things away if what we laugh it seems inappropriate to others
  15. Language and speech 
    1. Speaking gains you social status if you prove you’d be a powerful ally who knows something which is new and/or useful to you. When you speak you can show off your verbal and mental “tools” which make you a strong ally. That is the subtext to every speech. Speaking well gains you prestige as prestige can be equated with being a strong allies others want to partner with 
    2. This may be why people tend to speak more than listen although listening might be the best thing you can do as you can learn more 
    3. People are more impressed with others who have something interesting to say regardless of where the conversation goes rather than being led to a specific topic the speaker knows a lot about 
  16. Conspicuous consumption influences everything we do, what we buy, how we judge others, it conveys our status, values and priorities
  17. People have forever been obsessed with gossip, news, and media. And although they may say it is for staying on top of global events, the subtext is that they want to be able to know what others are talking about and chime in in conversation 
  18. Art is an impressive display in the sense that it is meant to impress others. Evolutionarily it is hard to describe or explain because it is costly takes a lot of time and does not directly do anything to enhance our survival but one thought about what it signals to potential mates the fact that we have surplus time, energy, health, and wealth to pursue these sorts of things it makes more sense. The gower bird is a great example because the male builds some impressive structures and collects hard to find artifacts and colors to put within the structure which shows the female he has surplus energy and proves he is a qualified mate. What makes this even more interesting is that after they mate the male does not help raise the young at all. His pre-mating structure speaks to his genes more than anything else he could do. Art therefore needs to be impractical in order to succeed as it shows the fitness of the individual who is performing it
  19. Charity, like everything else discussed, is not done for pure charitable reasons or else people would donate differently. There are five main factors which influence what we do and how we give it including: visibility, peer pressure, proximity, relatability, and mating motives. Being generous signals that we have a surplus of wealth time and fitness and we want our leaders to be generous because it shows that they don’t play zero-sum games, that they know how to share, and that they are socially aligned 
  20. Education in large part is the signaling mechanism to show that you have the capability to learn a broad swath of information, prioritize and work hard. It does not necessarily mean that you know these topics very well. Education is a form of conspicuous consumption too as it tends to be expensive and going to college shows you can afford it. It shows which students can learn well but not necessarily how much they know. Colleges also are in some fashion propaganda machines and also serve to “domesticate” young people
  21. As is this case with many of these hidden mode of explanation, things which seem like flaws for the stated function are in fact features of the hidden one
  22. Bringing food to people who are sick is a universal but in today’s age, far more important is that it is homemade – showing you took time out of your busy schedule to make this
  23. Americans spend too much on medicine in an effort to “keep up with the Joneses”. It is hard for most people to act in the belief that doing less or maybe even nothing is the best course of action no matter if it has been proven that it can be better. More is thought of as better because it signals that we care and are cared for. People don’t actually care as much about if something works – they want the best doctors doing the most expensive treatments. Sleep, rest and eating well is not received well when we’re sick. 
  24. We worship and believe in religion because it helps us socially by forming a cohesive community. We become accepted by a group which helps us survive and reproduce. While the skeptic may think of religions as delusions, it is hard to argue against their benefits. Sacrifice is very socially beneficial to show your loyalty and fitness. The boredom experienced in sermons may be a feature and not a bug – you are conspicuously sacrificing your time for the group 
  25. Groups of nice, trusting people tend to out compete groups of nasty people. This has deep implications if you think about it

What I got out of it

  1. Fun read with deep implications. We keep ourselves in the dark to many of our selfish motives in order to better deceive others