“We should often blush at our noblest deeds if the world were to see all their underlying motives.”
– François de La Rochefoucauld, 17th century author
Acting on hidden motives is coded into the very essence of our being. It’s not a bug per se, but a feature of how our brains have evolved over millennia. This unnerving revelation is at the heart of The Elephant in the Brain, one of the best books I read this year. The authors use the metaphor of the elephant to refer to patterns of human behavior that are governed by the brain without our express consent or recognition. The thick filter of civilization, the authors argue, has not managed to completely obliterate self-serving instincts that we developed eons ago as an evolving social species. The most astounding part of this thesis is that the brain’s machinations are mostly hidden from conscious view, by design. So not only do we pursue self-serving motives, but also have the comfort of not being exposed to this unsavory side of our psychology. We can essentially carry on pursuing our selfish agendas without feeling the burden of guilt. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.
In this piece I have outlined my take on the key ideas, as I’ve understood them. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in human psychology.
How evolution shaped human psychology
It’s no revelation that humans came to rule over all other species because of our extraordinarily large and sophisticated brains. By some lucky accident of evolution, we were set on the path of ever growing brain sizes and eventually took reins of the planet in our own hands. While there are multiple theories on why our brains kept growing, the book focuses on an especially tantalizing one: while the traditional explanation links brain growth in our ancestors to the challenges of survival in a changing ecology, the book posits the theory of an intra-species evolutionary arms race. That is, our brains did not balloon in size because of competition with other species but because we were competing with our own brethren.
We had already comfortably surpassed other species in cognitive ability, so there was little reason for our brains to keep growing. The fact that they did is due to the social nature of human groups. Being a social species, humans were locked in a variety of social and political games with each other and to prevent a few from gaining an upper hand, the others had no choice but to respond with greater intent, in this case with increased mental ability. Essentially, humans sharpened their brains against each other in games of one-upmanship. A quote in the book summarizes this point well:
‘The worst problems for people almost always come from other people’.
The most important games humans indulge in are mating, social status and politics: this is as true for us as it was for our ancestors. All of these games are essentially zero sum because there can be only one winner. More importantly, all of them involve two key skills: evaluating and attracting potential partners, be it for sexual purposes or building social and political alliances. The way we achieve these twin objectives is through signals. For an obvious example, consider the peacock with its brilliant plumage; there is no better advertisement than that for his health and virility. The authors contend that to a large part our capacities for art, music, humor and storytelling are elaborate mating displays like those of the peacock. Once you consider our every action and behavior from the point-of-view of signals, you would’ve understood the very essence of our social existence. We differ from animals in that our true aim is not mere survival but ascending the social hierarchy. This involves not only advertising ourselves as worthy friends, allies and lovers but also attracting the most desirable partners for ourselves. We compete with each other to send out the best signals, but the weird part is that we don’t consciously realize what we’re doing.
Norms and Cheating
Competition was essential to our evolution but it is also inherently destructive. To counter this, another essentially human innovation came to the fore: the ability to coordinate behavior through norms. At some point, we realized that unbridled competition was not productive for the species as a whole and a balancing force was required to align human action for the greater good. Thus, the concept of norms came into being. Norm enforcement was balanced on the foundation of what is called ‘reverse dominance hierarchy’ i.e. the ability of the many to punish an individual. The multitude could now dominate the individual as opposed to the scenario of a tyrant dominating everyone with brute force.
The book discusses an absolutely eye-popping theory of how this rule of the many came into being. Their contention is that the invention of deadly weapons, ones that could be deployed from a distance, tipped the scales in favour of the multitude that traditionally was below the alpha male in the hierarchy. Now, the dominant individual could no longer rely on personal strength to bully the others into submission. Weapons allowed the weak ones to band together and punish the bully without risk of personal harm. In a way, deadly weapons paved the way for a more social dynamic wherein coalitions and alliances replaced brute power as the chief means of maintaining status.
Coming back to norms, some of them are straightforward: those against murder, robbery and rape. But things start to become interesting in areas where things are not so obviously black and white. Some norms, for instance, regulate the intent behind actions. Consider actions such as flirting, bragging, currying favor and playing within-group politics (workplace politics being the most common example). The difference between innocence and norm violation in each of these cases lies in the actual intent. You could just be friendly with a married woman at work, but if you are friendly with romantic intentions, it is most definitely a violation, even if it is difficult for others to determine it with 100% accuracy. It is these norms that are most prone to subversion, precisely because it is extremely difficult to detect that a violation has occurred in the first place. When confronted by others about your true intentions you can always deny the accusations. According to the book, it was this tug-of-war between the would-be cheaters and those who wanted to prevent cheating, that was the chief driver of increasing brain sizes.
‘We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others’
Cheating is inherently attractive because it allows us to reap benefits without incurring the costs. And the most effective form of cheating is not directed at an external target but at our own selves. But how can deceiving yourself be a smart move? These questions can be answered through what is called the ‘theory of mind’. The essence of the idea is that as humans we have partial visibility into what others are thinking. We are always trying to judge motives of others while hiding our own true ones from coming out in the open. Therefore, it’s important for us to downplay our selfish (real) motives and present the most prosocial ones.
Now in order to prevent detection, one could simply lie but that has its own costs. For one, it’s cognitively demanding because you have to keep track of all the falsehoods you have spun. Mark Twain was spot on when he said that if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. Secondly, telling lies has physiological giveaway like fidgeting, sweating and increasing anxiety. The best way, therefore, to convince others that we believe in something is to believe it ourselves. Differently put, self-deception is outward facing and manipulative. It is most effective when others start believing your self-deceptions as well. In fact, those who do not sabotage themselves in this way are at a game theoretic disadvantage because of this mind-peering abilities of humans.
Consider the unrealistic confidence of a startup founder, most famously objectified by Steve Jobs. His absolutely insane belief in his ideas was not a show put on for others; he actually believed in them and that’s exactly what made others fall in line with his vision. Another famous example comes from the movie Rocky. The biggest strength of the titular character is not his technical prowess but his give-it-all approach. He convinces his opponent that he will take every punch thrown at him but will not back down. This glint of madness is what unnerves his opponents allowing him to go in for the kill.
In sum, the mind can sabotage real, factual information and misrepresent it to win at social games without our conscious selves ever recognizing what’s happening. It’s true that this strategy is sub-optimal in some cases, especially when an accurate model of reality would serve us better, but overall it is worth it. In fact, the design of our brain is such that it incentivizes such a course of action. It is so because rather than being a cohesive whole, the brain is an aggregate of different modules that serve different functions and often do not talk to each other. This structure has been called the ‘society of mind’ to reflect its similarity to real human societies with its various constituents, each pursuing its own agenda. This modular build often allows action to de-link itself from conscious thought and respond to hidden motives. In a final flourish of deviousness, our brains ensure that we never really glimpse the selfish machinations it’s indulging in, thus saving us from being racked by guilt.
Why this matters
The real mind-bending insight of the book is that this concept of hidden motives transcends individual human behavior and scales at the level of our most cherished institutions such as education, healthcare, religion and politics. Each of these man made constructs have specific stated goals but under the surface are the real hidden motives that determine most of their activities. For instance, what is the real purpose of college education? Students forget most of what is taught and they also fail to effectively transfer their learning to the real world. What then is the benefit of this elaborate system? The answer is uncomfortable but not really surprising: credentialing. A college degree is proof that a young person has the right qualities to be a good employee viz. a solid work ethic, diligence, basic intelligence, and the ability to finish tasks and take directions. In other words, a degree is a reliable signal of an employee’s fitness for work.
Or consider the tendency of doctors to overmedicate even minor ailments. Why don’t you ever find a doctor who only prescribes a healthy diet, enough sleep and exercise? The authors contend label this trend as conspicuous caring i.e. being seen by society as caring enough for the health of a patient. This is obviously not only limited to doctors but also to our friends and family who must go out of their way to prove that they care, lest they be accused of being apathetic. Now, modern healthcare has obviously saved millions of lives and has eradicated unnecessary suffering, but there is enough evidence that the scales of medical intervention do tend to tip to the other extreme.
Elephant in the Brain is a powerful book because it shines a light on taboos we are reluctant to discuss otherwise. Through the use of empirical evidence, it makes a solid case for the role of unconscious and hidden motives in most of the actions we take. The bad news is that despite knowing about this facet of our minds, we might not be able to dramatically alter how we think and behave. We will continue to pursue self-serving agendas and justify them with spurious reasoning. However, there is a sliver of hope that we can at least begin to analyze our actions more closely and determine whether the first chosen course of action is the wisest. By taking some time to lay bare our reasons, we might become better decision makers. In any case, we now have the wherewithal to detect hidden motives at work all around us, not just with our friends, colleagues and family but also with the institutions that are the pillars of human civilization. By doing so, we stand a reasonable chance of improving the quality of relationships and the efficacy of our institutions.
Highly, highly recommended book. Get it here.