The Elephant in the brain – Book review

Just as the elephant in the room is there for everybody to see if they’d only just look at it, the elephant in the brain is -according to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson- blindingly obvious if we just take the time to pause and reflect.

The elephant is summarised as, An important but unacknowledged feature of how our mind work; an introspective taboo. And just what is the feature that we don’t acknowledge? Basically, the fact that we are apes whose lives -like those of all other animals in competition for scarce and limited resources- are marked by fierce competition and strategies to come out on top. The elephant in the brain is captured in one word by the authors: selfishness. This then knocks into a whole raft of dominoes – competition, deception, social status, politics – all aspects of what it really means to be human and all aspects that we typically try to suppress in a bid to appear more devoted to things like altruism (yay!), community (yay!), loyalty (yay!), truth (yay!) and beauty (yay!).

The authors themselves argue the point that they may be going out too far on a limb here and that they don’t expect everyone to be in agreement with them. They call upon academics to set them straight where they have gone wrong, and they acknowledge their own base motives in wanting their book to be read. I found a lot of sense in what they wrote, but at the same time wondered whether or not this is the sort of thesis that is unduly influenced by the prevailing mores or the dominant view of human nature. By the end of the book, I was still not sure that I felt comfortable with the objectivity of the thesis, but acknowledge that it is a theory that resonates and an argument that has been well put together.

The authors point out that the theory is far from original. They acknowledge that poets, philosophers, scientists and religions have long argued that there is a part of human nature which is less beautiful and more powerful. And yet we are still unaware of its role in our daily lives. To cross reference this with Steve Peters’ mind model – this is our chimp brain. Where Simler and Hanson take this a little bit further is in their argument that the brain was designed to deceive itself in order to better deceive others. Similarly, organisations that some people see as vast bodies – corporations, hospitals, universities etc- also have this base side which they ignore and which is ignored. They deceive themselves in order to deceive us; they operate according to an agenda which is far from the altruistic principles that we -and they- believe gave rise to them. For me, the central argument of this book is one that I gravitate towards more and more since I became a manager: things are rarely what they seem to be. Graduates of the Noshitsherlockian University will be rolling their eyes at this one. Simler and Hanson would smugly note down this reaction and might possibly use it as an example of how we tend to judge other people harshly in order to feel better about ourselves. Why do we do this? So that other people see our preening and think that we are in with the other alphas.

Boiled down into a tasty reductionist jus – our authors are drawing upon the fields of microsociology, cognitive and social psychology, primatology, and economics to make the case that as social creatures we are conscious of the fact that we are constantly exposed to the judgments of other people and in order to look good, we hide our ugliest nature. We don’t just hide it from other people, we hide it from ourselves. If we manage to convince ourselves of how beautiful and angelic we are, we figure, we will appear all the more beautiful and angelic to others. The same phenomenon can be easily found in our social institutions as well.

They divide the book into two parts: the first part explores the reasons behind why we hide our motives: it considers animal behaviour, the truly competitive nature of humanity, our tendency to establish norms and then to cheat them in order to profit, the central fact that we self-deceive in order to feel good about ourselves but most importantly in order to improve the chances that others will also be fooled. It ends by scrutinising some of the counterfeit reasoning that we employ to make ourselves so heroic to our selves. Part 2 explores how these hidden motivations manifest themselves in our everyday lives and leave you feeling less secure about the worthiness of such things as laughter, conversation, art, charity, education and medicine.

In keeping with earlier book reviews, below are ten things that I found of particular interest when reading this book. On the whole, I found it an enjoyable read, but would have preferred more from part one and less from part two. It was hard to shrug off the suspicion that there were many people out there who would just as eloquently and convincingly shred the arguments put forward in part two – they semed to be more interpretative than factual. A deeper consideration of some of the arguments in part one might have equipped people with a toolbox to go away and draw their onw conclusions about what hidden motivations are at play in everyday life. But the criticism is a small one and one that may have been influenced by the fact that I read most of the second part of the book at the ungodliest of hours while sat in an A&E waiting room that would have made Dickens and Hogarth splutter in disbelief. So, it is only because I don’t know how to award a half banana that I have plumped for a slightly positive midpoint evaluation. The book is available to ebook readers at the moment with the print copies due in late January. I found the writing to be engaging and dynamic and so would happily recommend this as a book worth buying.

  1. Our brains are modular. There is no Self. Instead, there are a bunch of different parts of the brain all going about their business and not talking very efficiently with each other.
  2. One of the modules is the Press Secretary. This part of the brain is tasked with coming up with explanations for why we did the things we did. The main problem is that it has no idea and virtually no information. But it loves being at the microphone…
  3. We are as much at the mercy of the Press Secretary as everyone else is. You think you know why you are reading this? You don’t.  
  4. There are some clues from many disciplines that seem to point to the conclusions that are real reasons for doing things are not particularly high-minded. We like getting on top of others – both metaphorically and physically.
  5. Everything that you despise in other people? That’s you, that is. A humbling thought for this most judgmental of managers.
  6. We don’t self deceive to protect ourselves; we self deceive to deceive others more effectively. A lie is at its most effective when you believe it’s true.
  7. Self-serving behaviours and hypocrisy are the norms. And -more importantly- your tendency to judge others negatively for their self-serving hypocrisy is nothing more than self-serving hypocrisy. Fractalcide!
  8. Solution #1: be doubtful about all of your high-falutin’ humanity. Ultimately, you are as big an arse as everyone else and it’s only your cerebral Sean Spicer that is telling you any different.
  9. Solution #2: be compassionate when dealing with other people. Ultimately, they are no bigger an arse than you are and it’s only their cerebral Sean Spicer that is telling them any different.
  10. Solution #3: ditch the judgmentalism. Echoing the Xinxin Ming  – the way to peak happiness is to stop diving the world into Things Which Are Good and Things Which Are Crap.
  11. Solution #3.5: What do you mean, you’ve never heard of Xinxin Ming? Should be required reading for every manager (and I’m aware of the irony here – welcome to the human condition). Anyway, here’s a selection of translations. Read ’em all, choose your favourite, and begin every remaining day alive reciting it aloud. Your troubles will melt away OR YOUR MONEY BACK.

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2 thoughts on “The Elephant in the brain – Book review

  1. Hi there, thank you for the book reviews: this one and the post about Work Rules helped me get organized and write up a small list of what I learned in 2017 from the reading I did (as a journal at this point). Just wanted to thank you for the idea of your blog for beginning managers. As someone who worked as an academic leader at a language school for 5 years or so in the past enjoy the topics you are writing about, and your sense of humor. Happy winter holidays! Zhenya

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