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🐘 The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

The Elephant in the Braing

Hidden Motives in Everyday LifeGoodreads Link

Such an eye-opening book – I’ve been curious about our selfish motives and it feels refreshing to see it through the lens of a social scientist and with a historical perspective. The authors give good context to the topics and even offer some self-criticism of their own motivations, even to write the book itself.

In Ali Abdaal’s 2020 annual review video he mentions this book, as well as few times in his Skillshare courses. And David Perell, who I admire, says he will devour anything that Kevin Simler writes.


Beyond the commonly accepted motivations, humans, as social creatures, have other desires that might be taboo to discuss.
This book dives into those motivations, offering evolutionary context to explain our behaviors.
And the authors highlight that we cannot usually explain our own actions properly.

Who should read / watch / listen to it

For anyone doing purpose-driven work or leading a team, this book offers insights into how our minds work and the social pressures we hesitate to acknowledge.

How it changed me

After reading this book, I am more likely to question my own motives and look for alternative explanations for the behavior of others. On a positive note, it helps explain the value of competitive altruism, and how helping others benefits us all, even when it can feel counter-intuitive.

💬 Top 3 Quotes

1) Prestige or Being Impressive

“Another way to think about prestige is that it’s your ‘price’ on the market for friendship and association (just as sexual attractiveness is our ‘price’ on the mating market.)”

2) How Poorly We Understand Our Brains

“We pretend we’re in charge, both to others and even to ourselves, but we’re less in charge than we think. We pose as a privileged insider, when in fact we’re often making the same kind of educated guesses that any informed outsider could make”

3) Better Situational Awareness

“The next time someone at a party exhorts us to visit some great museum or exotic travel destination, it helps to consider that such advice may not actually be for our benefit, even if it’s presented that way. We shouldn’t let other people make us feel inferior — at least, not without our consent.”

⭐️ Top Five Ideas

1) Why People Buy Luxury Goods

The term conspicuous consumption was coined by an economist and sociologists named Thorstein Veblen to describe why people buy luxury goods.

Consumers will offer up explanations for why they buy expensive or high-end goods, but the demand is actually driven by a desire to flaunt one’s wealth.

2) What Happens with a Split Brain

With the left and right hemispheres severed, “split-brain” patients showed the rationalization that our brains perform.

When shown two different pictures, the image from the right hemisphere would influence what patients pointed to with their left hand.

But when asked to explain, which use the left hemisphere of the brain, they would invent an explanation, not acknowledging the photo they had seen.

3) Advertising Works on Your Friends

When you see a billboard of someone drinking a Corona on a beach you might say “this ad won’t work on me.”

At the same time, however, you admit that it will work on others. A key premise of this book is that we make decisions based on how they will be perceived by our peers.

If we think other people will accept an advertiser’s message, then it becomes reality, and we’ll act accordingly.

4) Domestication in Industrial-Era Schools

Schools continue to exist to domesticate students. They reward good behavior. Schools encourage you to show up every day. And students are rewarded for completing the assignments to get good grades as determined by a professor.

“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.”

The idea of grading, ranking and measuring children’s abilities, often right in front of their peers might seem strange in another setting. The school system makes that the norm for ten or more years.

5) Advice for Social Situations

This knowledge of the Elephant in the Brain can help us to be more aware in various settings.

When people give “helpful” advice you don’t have to expect it to be for your benefit. Many times it is given so someone can feel better about their authority, dominance or prestige.

And some time-sucking meetings are actually supposed to waste time to demonstrate authority or value.

** Jump ahead to More Resources **

✏️ Highlights + Notes

Prestige Status

Amotz Zahavi, at Tel Aviv University, studied the small brown bird in the Arabian peninsula, called the babblers. They squabble to gain status and the most prestigious alpha gets to mate with almost all the females in a group.

High prestige also means you are less likely to get kicked out of the group.

Evolutionary Arms Race

Redwood trees are in evolutionary arms race for height. It’s not just about beating the other plants, but also competing against other redwoods.

This can explain why humans have such elaborate intelligence as compared to other creatures. We are competing against other people.

In The Red Queen by Matt Ridley, he talks about human intelligence as a similar arms race to Redwoods.

“Social Brain 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.”

Dominance vs Prestige

Dominance comes from intimidating others (e.g. Putin).
Prestige comes from being impressive and admirable (e.g. Brad Pitt)

Some people exhibit both, e.g. Steve Jobs, or George Washington.

Prestige is the more accessible trait, which is all about respect. It is less limited than dominance, but still a limited resource. Thus popularity contests, mainly in comparison to others (better looking, more athletic, more artistic, etc).

“Another way to think about prestige is that it’s your ‘price’ on the market for friendship and association (just as sexual attractiveness is our ‘price’ on the mating market.)”

Norms and meta-Norms

A meta-norm is pushing anyone who doesn’t punish others.

Reputation is a way that groups encourage people to enforce norms.

It can be intimidating to call someone out for breaking norms, but if you can gain a reputation for doing so, the pot gets sweeter.

“When everyone is watching and judging everyone else — both for their individual behaviors and their efforts to punish cheaters — norms and their enforcement become viable enterprises.”

Cheating with Discretion

Police ignore public drinking if it is done with discretion.

Similarly, cheating is usually accepted as long as other people don’t find out.

Take ticket scalpers as an example. People at games will ask “do you want to sell tickets” but they are in fact offering to sell tickets.

It’s just a matter of being subtle about it that keeps them from getting in trouble.

Humble Bragging

Lots of people get away with breaking the rules based on their social status. Some weak norms, however, can be broken by most anyone.

Bragging and boasting, slacking off, or gossiping about others are all accepted activities. Humble bragging is a “minor sin” that is often forgiven.

The trick is that we can’t be too brash with these activities or flaunt them, without getting called out.

Self Deception

Take the example of Mixed-Motive games, where the interest of participants diverges. Meaning there is a win-win.

In the game of chicken, whoever swerves first loses. Unless you remove your steering wheel from the car. These “irrational” actions can be strategically advantageous.

Another irrational example is believing what is known to be false. If a general believes his army can win, even against the odds, he may convince the opponent to back down.

Robert Kurzban’s book Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite (2013) gives an explanation of self-deception as manipulative and self-serving.

Introspection Illusion

People are terrible at explaining their own behavior. Timothy Wilson, the social psychologist, wrote a book in 2002 called Stranger to Ourselves where he talks about how poorly we understand our own brains.

“We pretend we’re in charge, both to others and even to ourselves, but we’re less in charge than we think. We pose as a privileged insider, when in fact we’re often making the same kind of educated guesses that any informed outsider could make”

Look at Me Strategy

Aposematism is the name of the confident call attention to themselves. One example is someone with loud shoes or brightly colored clothing.

High-status individuals are more willing to do this. It also explains why the biggest lion will roar its heart out, or why poisonous frogs are bright colors.

Eye Contact in Social Settings

In settings of dominance, eye contact can be interpreted as aggressive behavior. The submissive people must refrain from staring at the dominant.

But in prestige settings, looking at someone is to elevate that person. Higher status individuals are called to attention through eye contact by the most prestigious person

It’s interesting to think back to past experiences or try to observe this yourself in social situations.

History of Laughter

Laughter was first explained by the superiority theory (Plato, Thomas Hobbes, Descartes) as mean-spirited. It was perceived as a way to act out our superiority to others.

Later it was described by the relief theory (Freud, Herbert Spencer) as a physiological process to release nervous energy.

This is where the equation comes from of Laughter = Tension + Release.

An then the incongruity theory (Kant, Shopenhauer) says that we laugh when our expectations are violated, particularly when it’s pleasing.

Safe Social Play

Laughing at our own actions signals that we are being playful. (e.g 😬)

Laughing in response to something is a way to show our perception, demonstrating that we interpreted something as playful.

Kevin’s example – bursting into laughter after firing a shotgun, mostly because he was raised considering guns taboo.

Showing Off

People say interesting things to raise their own social value. You can pull something from your backpack and duplicate it, which is much easier with information than with physical goods.

The theory from Miller and Dessalles is that people speak and share interesting things to be compensated in social value. This helps them further down the line, sometimes with mates, but more often with allies.

Demand for News

People prefer to learn from folks with respected pedigrees, which makes sense if we look at it through the lens of conversation.

We want to know about the most recent ‘hot’ topics so that we can seem knowledgeable when talking to others.

News about prestigious people helps us feel like we affiliate with them.

Author’s Motivations

The book authors explain their own motivation to publish the book you are reading now. Kevin and Robin wrote the book to seek prestige and want to testify to the size and quality of their “backpacks.”

Auditory Cheesecake

Steven Pinker calls music “auditory cheesecake” because it is pleasurable but not particularly useful.

The Downside to Empathy

We focus on single individuals and therefore miss out on the larger picture.

“The mark of a civilized man is the capacity to read a column of numbers and weep.”

— Bertrand Russel

Enlightened Self Interest

Also called competitive altruism, this is the idea that we can do well for ourselves by doing good for others.

Described by Alexis de Tocqueville and practiced by Benjamin Franklin.

Cheating Detectors

Researchers found that brains solve puzzles better when framed as cheating (Cosmides and Toby).

Our brains have adapted to detect cheating very well, and people have an easier time solving abstract puzzles that are framed as cheating scenarios.

❇️ More Resources

🎙 Podcast Interviews

Envy and the Elephant in the Brain | Not Overthinking Podcast (Jul 2020)

In this podcast, the doctor / YouTuber Ali Abdaal and his brother Taimur Abdaal discuss the book.

Hidden Motives in Everyday Life | Made you Think Podcast (Jun 2018)

A conversation between Nat Eliason and Neil Soni discussing the book.

↪ Bibliography

Subliminal by Mlodinow

Talks about how non-verbal signaling is automatic.

Deception | Radiolab Episode with Harold Sakeim (2008)

Talking about self-deception preserves one’s self esteem.

How Companies Learn Your Secrets by Charles Duhigg

NYTimes Feb 26, 2012
Telling the story of how Target can know a customer is pregnant before they do.

“Peer Review Practices of Psychological Journals: The Fate of Published Articles, Submitted Again” Peters and Ceci

Behavioral and Brain Sciences 5, June 1982
Resubmitted published articles without their accolades and far fewer were accepted

Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense by Pfeffer and Suttons (2006)

Profiting from Evidence-Based Management. This book explains the results that students perform worse when scored on a curve.

Spent by Geoffrey Miller

Consumers will offer up explanations for why they buy expensive or high-end goods, but the demand is actually driven by a desire to flaunt one’s wealth. This book explains it from an evolutionary biology perspective.