“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.

‘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.

I read like a man possessed | I write to understand the world | Twitter: @DhawalHelix

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