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The Elephant in the Brain

Hidden Motive in Everyday Life

By Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson
13-minute read
Audio available
The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motive in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

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.

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

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, MeltingAsphalt.com. 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

Hidden Motive in Everyday Life

By Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motive in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson
Synopsis

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.

Key idea 1 of 8

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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