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The Elephant in the Brain summary

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

Hidden Motive in Everyday Life

3.9 (98 ratings)
16 mins

Brief summary

The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explores the hidden motives behind our actions, arguing that self-interest and social status drive much of what we do, think, and say.

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    The Elephant in the Brain
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    Animals’ motivations for behavior are deep, complex and often selfish, but they aren’t always aware of it.

    If you’ve ever watched chimpanzees at the zoo, you’ll probably know the scene well – chimps picking bits of dirt from one another. But this act isn’t just about keeping clean; there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. An exchange – guided by deep and mostly selfish reasons – is taking place called social grooming.

    For starters, Chimp A is more than happy to groom Chimp B, as it means Chimp B is likely to groom Chimp A in return. There are places even a chimp can’t reach!

    After many years studying primates, the primatologist Robin Dunbar observed a deeper significance to this act of grooming. The secondary purpose is politicala means of forming relationships and mutual alliances built on trust – the long-term benefits of which can’t be appreciated enough.

    Dunbar’s insights were based on the fact that primates continued to groom one another even after their fur was clean. This proved that grooming wasn’t just a hygienic procedure. Something altogether trickier and more political was at play.

    But of course, primates aren’t humans – they’re not conscious in the same way that we are. And while they’re not aware of social strategies, they enact them nonetheless. It’s instinctual. Humans, on the other hand, have a sense of what’s going on in other people’s minds and judge each other based upon this perception.

    Consequently, we sometimes hide our motives from others, and – critically – conceal them even from ourselves. After all, if we aren’t consciously aware of what it is that’s driving us, then it’s unlikely others will either.

    By comparison, other primates are unable to determine the motives of others in the same way, so there’s no need for them to be deceptive.

    While chimps are all well and good, let’s look at humans a little more closely.

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    What is The Elephant in the Brain about?

    The Elephant in the Brain (2018) explores the selfish motives that drive much of human behavior but which we’d much rather remain unaware of.

    The Elephant in the Brain Review

    The Elephant in the Brain (2018) explores the hidden motives that drive human behavior, shedding light on the true nature of our actions. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • The authors delve deep into uncomfortable truths about why we really do the things we do, exposing the hidden agendas behind our actions.
    • They draw on a wide range of research and evidence from psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology, making their arguments compelling and well-supported.
    • Through their frank and thought-provoking analysis, Simler and Hanson challenge conventional wisdom and encourage readers to question their own motivations and behaviors.

    Best quote from The Elephant in the Brain

    Human behavior is rarely what it seems (…)

    —Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson
    example alt text

    Who should read The Elephant in the Brain?

    • Students of psychology and anthropology
    • People interested in evolutionary theory
    • Anyone curious about the dynamics of human behavior

    About the Author

    Kevin Simler is a designer, engineer and author. He has written primarily on human behavior and philosophy. The majority of his output can be found on his blog, Simler is based in San Francisco, California.

    Robin Hanson is a research associate at Oxford University and associate professor at George Mason University, Virginia. Hanson earned his PhD in social science at the California Institute of Technology and has worked with artificial intelligence for both NASA and Lockheed Martin – the renowned aerospace and defense company. Hanson also authored The Age of Em (2016), which considers the impact of robotic advancements on the future of Earth.

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    The Elephant in the Brain FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Elephant in the Brain?

    The main message of The Elephant in the Brain is that we often have hidden motives driving our behavior.

    How long does it take to read The Elephant in the Brain?

    The reading time for The Elephant in the Brain varies, but you can get the key ideas in just a few hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in 15 minutes.

    Is The Elephant in the Brain a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Elephant in the Brain is a thought-provoking read that sheds light on our hidden motives. It's definitely worth your time.

    Who is the author of The Elephant in the Brain?

    The authors of The Elephant in the Brain are Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson.

    What to read after The Elephant in the Brain?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Elephant in the Brain, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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