Why do we hide our true motives?

My highlights from this week's reading, The Elephant in the Brain.

Welcome to the seventh issue of Great Stuff! There was no newsletter last week because I had finals, but I’m back to posting now.

I finished up with finals week yesterday and realized that my reading list—which I’ve been adding to since last year—has a massive backlog of books I’ve been meaning to get to. I posted the list to my story recently, and it seems to have resonated with a lot of people, so I thought: Why not finish one book from it each week of my winter break and write about it on the newsletter?

This week’s book is The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. Since I only started reading it yesterday, I’ll split it across two issues.

The book argues that we often disguise our actions to look virtuous, selfless, and moral when really, we’re doing them for our own benefit. Crucially, it says that in order to sell the con, our subliminal minds deceive us into believing what we’re peddling. The best way to decode our true motives, then, is to reverse-engineer them from our behavior. The book is packed with great insights that come from applying this strategy. Here are my favorites. (These gloss over a lot of the nuance—be sure to read the book if you find them interesting!)


My Highlights

Humans are smart because we have to compete with each other, not because we have to compete with other species.

We don’t need to know about quarks, genes, or AI to put food on the table. Instead, we’re smart because we have to compete with other humans. The strongest chimp gets the most mates, so chimps are incentivized to be strong; similarly, we have to be smarter than our peers lest they hog up all the resources.

A chimp.
Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash

Humans are political because we have access to deadly weapons.

In chimpanzee troops, the strongest male chimp dominates; politics is unnecessary, because he can use violence to force other chimps into submission. In humans, the physical difference between the weakest and strongest individuals is negated by the fact that the weaker one in a fight can use a big rock to gain a decisive advantage. So we need to play politics to establish dominance. This involves building coalitions, choosing allies, and strategically deceiving others.

Nearly everything we do is part of an elaborate signaling process.

From making art to buying things, almost everything we do is intended to help us get ahead in the games of “sex, politics, and social status.”

We often pretend to be rude to our closest friends, because we’re countersignaling.

A casual friend probably won’t be comfortable calling you an idiot if you spill something on yourself. But a close friend almost certainly will. We do this with our closest friends so they can distinguish us from their casual friends.

Most of our thoughts and actions are subliminal.

The book says your conscious mind is mostly just a press secretary for your subconscious: It rubber stamps and rationalizes the feelings, impulses, and emotions that it’s been fed. Indeed, our ability to rationalize our actions is incredible. The book uses the example of split-brain patients—with brains whose hemispheres are disconnected—to illustrate this effect. In one study, the right hemisphere was shown a picture of a snowy field, and the left a picture of a chicken. When the right hemisphere was asked to point at a photo that it associated with a snow day, it picked a shovel, because you have to shovel snow on snow days. When the person was asked why they picked the shovel, the left hemisphere, which handles speech and explanations but thought it had picked a chicken, confidently responded: “You need it to shovel a chicken coop.”

We love gossip because it enables us to punish norm violations.

Norms are things like queueing up in a line or paying taxes. When our position is too weak to stand up to someone who’s violating norms, we gossip about them. This reduces their social prestige, thereby forcing them to fall in line with the group. The book uses an example of a bully in one of the authors’ workplace. No one wanted to stand up to him, so they started to do back-door meetings about his behavior. Eventually, the pressure forced the bully to step down.

Everybody cheats, because we all secretly want to skirt the norms.

It’s just a matter of degree. Indeed, it’s a very rational act: Norms are advantageous for the group as a whole, but not for every individual in the group. When no one is watching, we don’t feel as uncomfortable doing something immoral. The book proposes that this is why the concept of god exists: if we feel like we’re being watched all the time, then we’re less likely to violate norms. When we don’t cheat, it’s for strictly rational reasons, not moral ones. It’s often advantageous not to cheat. For instance, it allows us to signal loyalty to a group, like a religion. It also signals virtue to potential “mates.”

We misremember things not because our brains are imperfect, but because they’re designed to distort our memories.

The shame you feel when you think about an embarrassing moment is a signal from your subconscious that you shouldn’t give it headspace—just let it fade away. Conversely, you feel pride when you recall a memory where others applauded you; these are the memories that we keep with ourselves.

We strategically self-sabotage to get ahead.

The authors use an example of a street racing game called “chicken.” Two teenagers race their cars directly towards each other until one chickens out and swerves. The best way to win this game, according to a Nobel Prize-winning economist, is to take off the steering wheel from your car and wave it at your opponent. That way, they know that you can’t swerve, so they’ll always chicken out first. (No one actually wants to die.) This is called the “Madman” strategy. In real life situations, we often don’t even have to actually sabotage ourselves—we just have to make others think we have.

My Favorite Quotes

On our ignorance of our subconscious and the fact that our conscious minds are mostly responsible for rationalizing our hidden impulses.

[Timothy Wilson] writes about the “adaptive unconscious,” the parts of the mind which lie outside the scope of conscious awareness, but which nevertheless give rise to many of our judgments, emotions, thoughts, and even behaviors. “To the extent that people’s responses are caused by the adaptive unconscious,” writes Wilson, “they do not have privileged access to the causes and must infer them.” He goes on: Despite the vast amount of information people have, their explanations about the causes of their responses are no more accurate than the explanations of a complete stranger who lives in the same culture.

[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.’

On how humans enforce norms.

Paul Bingham calls [gossip and other forms of social sanction] “coalition enforcement,” highlighting the fact that norm violators are punished by a coalition, that is, people acting in concert. Christopher Boehm calls it a “reverse dominance hierarchy,” where instead of the strongest apes dominating the group, in humans it’s the rest of the group, working together, that’s able to dominate the strongest apes and keep them effectively in check.

On the real world impact of hidden motives.

When signals are used in competitive games, like sex, status, and politics, an arms race often results. In order to outdo the other competitors, each participant tries to send the strongest possible signal. This can result in some truly spectacular achievements: Bach’s concertos, Gauguin’s paintings, Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, Rockefeller’s philanthropic foundation, and Einstein’s theories of relativity.


Interestingly, the book started out by claiming that its ideas will probably never be mainstream because people find it hard to talk about their hidden motives. I thought this was some kind of reverse-psychology marketing gimmick at first. But as I read through it, found selfish motives I could relate to, and imagined recounting them to other people, my brain cringed hard. Clearly, the authors are right. There are some things that our biology doesn’t want us to talk about.

I’m only halfway through the book, but it has my unconditional recommendation—there were an incredible number of “Aha!” moments where I found that I’d done something for different reasons than I’d thought. This is why I enjoy reading about psychology: a lot of the insights help me understand myself better. And that’s why I think you should read about it too.

That’s all for this week!


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