06 Jan 2021

The White House in Your Brain

“A most judicious choice, sire.”

President Eisenhower in the White House.

Welcome to the eighth issue of Great Stuff! Admittedly, I’ve been in a bit of a slump—missed last week’s post, late this week. But I’m trying to get back on track—bear with me! This week’s issue is a continuation of my discussion of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. You don’t need to read part one.

TL;DR: The structure of social and governmental institutions like the White House mirrors our own psychology. This is because these institutions often have to deceive others and rationalize irrational decisions; this is exactly what human brains excel at.

Let’s be real: humans are awesome liars. Now, I’m not saying that you’re a liar. (Hurling accusations like that seems like a surefire way to lose readers.) I’m just saying that if you had to lie about something, you’d probably be really, really good at it. The authors of The Elephant in the Brain, the book I was reading this week, say this is because deception is one of the key abilities that human evolution has perfected over millennia. We’ve been locked in an arms race between deception and lie-detection, and so far—surprise, surprise—deception seems to be winning.

Here’s the thing, though. We haven’t just perfected lying to other people. We’re also really good at lying to ourselves. We do this because our minds have hidden agendas that are on a need-to-know basis, and, well, we don’t need to know. (It’s easier for us to convince others that we’re doing the right thing if we believe it already.)

Under this model, your conscious mind—your “I”—is just a Press Secretary for your hidden agendas. Just like a real press secretary, its job is to come up with a plausible explanation for what the boss—your subconscious—is doing, even if it doesn’t actually know what it’s doing. And just like a White House press secretary, the brain is capable of performing incredible mental gymnastics to come up with a rationalization.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders doing a press briefing.
Pictured: Your Press Secretary wondering how it’s gonna get itself outta this one. Source: The New York Times

The Elephant in the Brain gives a pretty convincing example of this gymnastics in action:

Even more dramatic examples of rationalization can be elicited from patients suffering from disability denial, a rare disorder that results from a right-hemisphere stroke. In a typical case, the stroke will leave the patient’s left arm paralyzed, but—here’s the weird part—the patient will completely deny anything is wrong with his arm, and will manufacture all sorts of strange (counterfeit) excuses for why it’s sitting there, limp and lifeless.

Some of these excuses:

  • “Oh, doctor, I didn’t want to move my arm because I have arthritis in my shoulder and it hurts.”
  • “Oh, the medical students have been prodding me all day and I don’t really feel like moving my arm just now.”

The crucial part here is that the patient believes their reason, but their motive is unclear to them and to others. (Ahem. A reason is what you tell others. A motive is why you actually did it.)

We’ve all seen our own Press Secretary in action, although we may not have noticed it. Maybe you liked someone and didn’t know why. Or maybe you hated them. In these cases, you’ll find yourself coming up with rationalizations: perhaps she “smells nice,” or they’re “too self-absorbed.” In any case, we do this all the time without realizing it.

[The] conclusion from the past 40 years of social psychology is that the self acts less like an autocrat and more like a press secretary. In many ways, its job—our job—isn’t to make decisions, but simply to defend them. “You are not the king of your brain,” says Steven Kaas. “You are the creepy guy standing next to the king going, ‘A most judicious choice, sire.’”

Digging into the analogy

I hope you’re still with me. (Take a deep breath.) After reading the section on the brain’s Press Secretary, a curious question came up in my mind. What if this analogy works so perfectly because the organization of our social institutions mirrors that of our brains? After all, the similarities are striking:

  1. Press secretaries aren’t privy to all the decision-making. (Just like our Press Secretary.)

  2. Press secretaries use their ignorance to their advantage, concocting plausible but deceptive explanations. This way, they aren’t lying, because they don’t know the truth. Plus, since they’re not completely clued in, they can strategically feign ignorance. (Just like our Press Secretary.)

  3. Press secretaries operate on mixed motives. They want to be cooperative, because their job is to appease the public. But they can’t be too cooperative, lest they reveal some hidden agenda. (Just like… well, you get the idea.)

This last one (#3) is particularly striking. Corporations often play mind-games that mirror those played by individuals because of their mixed motives. They feign ignorance of laws in order to break them, and convince people they’re bankrupt so they don’t have to pay their debts. You might remember the last time you feigned ignorance or convinced others that you weren’t in a position to help them. (If you don’t, you’re a saint. Buy yourself something nice.)

Here’s what I’m getting at: Many of the games that we play with each other at the individual level are also played by social institutions at the societal level. This is because human brains have perfected these games over millennia, and they represent peak performance when it comes to mixed-motive situations. So social institutions, which also have mixed motives, also tend to independently converge upon these same games.

The convergence of individual and institutional behavior means that we can examine our brains to understand how to better run our institutions. It also goes the other way: By learning how institutions exploit loopholes and deceive people, we can better understand ourselves. Isn’t there something mind-blowing about that?

If you liked this post, share it! If you didn’t, let me know why in the comments or by replying to this email.

Get more like this in your inbox