Book Review: The Elephant in the Brain


The elephant in the room refers to an important issue that people are reluctant to acknowledge or address; a social taboo. The elephant in the brain refers to an important but unacknowledged feature of how our minds work; an introspective taboo.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is about why we hide our motives and explores the incentives which give rise to the elephant in the brain. It looks at animal behavior, competition, norms, cheating, self-deception, and countereit reasons. This gives motivation for the second part of the book which is about exploring hidden motives in everyday life. The second part looks at body language, laughter, conversation, consumption, art, charity, education, medicine, religion, and politics.

What I Got Out of It

  • This book is very much a “red pill”. It helped me to understand how even in a world which appears to be very cooperative on the surface, competition is in fact prevalent and the only way to survive.
  • I was amazed at the brains ability to deceive itself and have updated to think of brain as committees more than as a single person.
  • My previous understanding of the selfish gene was relatively strong with respect to how traits are selected to propogate genes in DNA. This book helped me to the way that memes propogate themselves in culture and social behavior. The culture which becomes prevalent is not necessarily the one that is best for society, but rather the one which is best able to replicate itself.
  • I am now a lot more skeptical about medicine, education, religion, and politics.
  • I learned how to better understand what is actually going on in various social situations and apply patterns of refactored agency.
  • I learned a better framework for understanding how social interactions will evolve with the improvement of technology.

Key Takeaways

  • Often a species most imporant competitor is itself. Redwoods grew so tall to compete with one another, not with other trees.
  • The less we know of our own ugly motives, the easier it is to hide them from others.
  • Taboo topics like social status aren’t discussed openly, but are instead swaddled in euphemisms like “experience” or “seniority.” Lots of euphemisms.
  • When enough of our hidden motives harmonize, we end up constructing stable, long-lived institutions.
  • When push comes to shove, we often make choices that prioritize our hidden agendas over the official ones.
  • Politics provides a place where there are at least opponents to call one another out on their hidden motives. In places where nobody will call anybody out, harmonization of hidden motives can spiral out of control.
  • Some competition can be embraced. What’s hard to acknowledge is competition which drives wedges into otherwise cooperative relationships.
  • Prestige is a zero sum game.
  • The temptation to deceive is ubiquitous. Deception allows an agent to reap benefits without incurring costs. That’s why the best signals - the most honest ones - are expensive. This makes them hard to fake. Otherwise, they become worth only as much as it takes to fake them.
  • The strong physiological reaction to things like somebody cutting in line is part of a behavioral toolkit that’s universal among humans, something we’ve inherited from our forager ancestors. Letting somebody cut in line doesn’t materially affect your life, but this isn’t what you might think based on the reactions people have. These instincts run deep.
  • The essence of a norm, lies not in the words we use to describe it, but in which behaviors get punished and what form the punishment takes. If you’re worried about coordinated punishement, then that’s a norm.
  • Collective enforcement is the essence of norms. This is what enables the egalitarian political order so characteristic of the forager lifestyle.
  • Weapons were key to enabling enforcement by coalition. They make the position of a strong member of the group a lot more fragile. Once this happens, political skill takes over as more important than strength.
  • Metanorms are a way to have more robust bottom up enforcement. Prosecution is expensive, and there are times where individuals would rather not engage in prosecution if they can get away with it. Metanorms recursively punish those who do not engage in prosecution. To get the recursion started there is a base case of fanatic enforcers. Over time more and more people adopt the metanorm. Eventually it gets to a point where the fanatic enforcers can exit the system without disturbing the equilibrium.
  • If norms are supposed to discourage competition, then why do we still need big brains? A plausible answer is that our norms are only partially enforced, so we need big brains to figure out how to cheat. In fact, norm-evaders and norm-enforcers are locked in a competitive arms race of their own—a game of cat and mouse—pushing each other ever upward in mental ability.
  • One of our norm-evasion adaptations is to be highly attuned to the gaze of others, especially when it’s directed at us. Eyes that are looking straight at us jump out from a crowd.
  • A pretext doesn’t need to fool everyone, it simply needs to be plausible enough to make people worry that other people might believe it. This can give you a pass on metanorms.
  • If something is open knowledge, than because of the meta law people have to prosecute you even if secretly they agree with you. If you are discreet about something, this isn’t the case. You need plausible deniability.
  • In chicken the best strategy is to remove your ability to change direction. Self-deception is a tactic that’s useful only to social creatures in social situations. “Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins” - Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  • As Bill Atkinson, a colleague of Steve Jobs, once said of Jobs’s self-deception, “It allowed him to con people into believing his vision, because he has personally embraced and internalized it.”
  • It makes more sense to think of a brain as a committee than a single person. This is illustrated rather dramatically by the rare but well-documented condition known as blindsight, which typically follows from some kind of brain damage, like a stroke to the visual cortex. Just like people who are conventionally blind, blindsighted patients swear they can’t see. But when presented with flashcards and forced to guess what’s on the card, they do better than chance. Clearly some parts of their brains are registering visual information, even if the parts responsible for conscious awareness are kept in the dark.
  • Press secretaries also provide a buffer between the president and reporters probing for sensitive, potentially damaging information. Remember how knowledge can sometimes be dangerous? Press secretaries can use strategic ignorance to their advantage in ways that a president, who must typically remain informed, can’t. In particular, what press secretaries don’t know, they can’t accidentally betray to the press. “I do my best work,” says William Bailey, the fictional press secretary on TV’s The West Wing, “when I’m the least-informed person in the room.” This is the dark art of reticence arbitrage. It’s similar to the idea of separating out the sales from the business department.

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