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.

banana_1f34cbanana_1f34cbanana_1f34cScreen Shot 2017-12-28 at 08.53.36


Work rules! – a book review

Written by the SVP of People Operations at Google, Laszlo Bock,I bought this book after a management training session some time ago. I buy books in the same way that addicts buy their fix. It’s frenzied, ill-thought out and addicts are actually more pragmatic in that they tend to make some use of whatever vice they’ve bought. My books just sit there. But I’m off to a new job soon and trying to get as good a grip on how to be as good a manager as possible, so this came off the shelf and got a read.

Usually when I read, I begin by suspending disbelief. Actually, that makes me sound much nobler than the truth. Let me rephrase: usually when I read, I naively swallow anything that I am told. If they say that daily consumption of cheese is necessary in order to come across as a good manager, then I will happily hoover up a half pound of Harbourne Blue.  Mmm. Cheese…

But the cynicism remained strong at the opening part of the book: sure…to be a good manager, you just need to work at a global giant with possibly the strongest force of attraction for all of the world’s brightest and best. It would be like being Pep Guardiola – everyone says you’re an amazing manager, but you have the resources available to you that nobody else could even dream of. How many pub team managers scour Guardiola’s thoughts to see how they can get the Ramsbottom Rustbuckets to the top of the league?

However, the voice of Cynical Chimp had faded by the time I got to the end of the book and I think it had some useful -some very useful- bits of advice to offer me. It also resulted in me discovering Re:work which was a mighty fine find and made me even more convinced that benevolent dictators might not be such a bad thing. If Google takes what little worth my identity may have, but in return gives me a free email account, a search facility that is unparalleled in human history, AND shed loads of information and resources for doing my job better, who’s really losing out? Which I suppose is really just an updated version of Jesus’s (gender-marked) ponderings: “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” Umm…well, he’ll be a lot happier for a start, JC.

The book is organised around 14 chapters, each of which LB explores from his perspective as Head HR Honcho in Glorious Google. He discusses the small experiments Google tried out and the data that they uncovered. They then use this data to inform themselves about how best to proceed.  So, Google’s approach to managing huge numbers of people is to try and rely on evidence-based findings rather than intuition and ideological leanings. Of course, there are many jobs where the evidence might suggest that workers are, on the whole, much happier if you just pay them the money and don’t expect them to come in to work (or do anything at home). But the balancing act that managers have to pull off is to keep people as productive as possible while avoiding a situation where the hirelings feel that they are no more than reluctantly-oiled cogs in a creaking machine. So, the evidence that Google searches for is that which points to efficiency and effectiveness in production and retention. I have no idea where all this goddamn alliteration is coming from.

What I found most interesting about this book was that according to the Googlemeister, the sorts of thing which lead to success and fortune are compassion, empathy, respect, sacrifice, humility and trust. These are the kinds of thing that simply can’t be faked. Of course, in and of themselves, they are not enough: you also need to build a team of committed and inspired people, drawing on all the sources that are available to you. So, they have this thing in Google HR called three thirds. This basically means that a third of their HR team is made up of HR experts, a third is made up of consultants or people with a background in consultancy, and a third is made up of people with a solid set of skills in data analysis. The three parts generate a particularly powerful and successful force that certainly can’t be accused of having held Google back…But coming back to the main point of this paragraph, the argument is put forward that it is the humanity of a management team that makes all the real difference. And yet modern management in many institutions is characterised by “saying people matter but treating them like they don’t”. C’est vrai, non?

Anyway, ten things that I thought were interesting in this book:

  1. Those people who have always succeeded are not always very good at learning, precisely because they’ve never had to learn. Success came to them. Learning is more frequently a process of reflecting on what went wrong.
  2. Pretty much every process that underpins management in places where I have worked is based on an outdated approach to managing people that is based upon findings of a time when datasets were tiny and findings were essentially confirmations of the researchers’ biases.
  3. The idea that creativity is not a genetic gift, but the result of a synthesis of different experiences. “Creativity is an import-export game. It’s not a creation game…The trick is, can you get an idea which is mundane and well-known in one place to another place where people would get value out of it,”
  4. “We believe we know ourselves, and that certainty is part of the problem.” Google works to reduce the effects of cognitive biases when dealing with managers and their evaluations.
  5. Google recognises that managers are made, not born. And so they provide help and guidance in certain procedures that might not always be so intuitive.
  6. Google found that nudges were very effective in shaping behaviour within the workplace, but -more interestingly- they found that nudges were most effective when the company spelt out what it was planning to do to the people it was planning to do it to. So, no underhand manipulation of the masses.
  7. Treat the people you manage as co-founders of the company…or trying to inculcate that sense. “[You] want them to behave…[as] if it were their company. And the only way for that to happen is if you give up a little bit of your authority.”
  8. People who work at Google also develop a sense of entitlement rather than an appreciation of privilege. It must be a human thing – which means that I’m as guilty of it as any other human. A reminder to stop being so judgemental of everyone else.
  9. “[W]ork doesn’t need to be miserable…it can be ennobling and energizing and exciting” [is this where the alliteration is coming from???]
  10. Google’s Project Oxygen set out to prove that managers were not necessary in the modern workplace, but concluded that this was not actually the case. All of the evidence seemed to lead to the conclusion that managers were an important part of a productive and happy workforce.

The book is definitely worth a read, but for those of you who are unlikely to get around to it, here is a summary of the fourteen chapters of the book:

  1. Create a sense of ownership among the people who work on the team.
  2. Create the right culture – this is way more important than missions and strategies etc.
  3.  The most important thing you can do is recruit the right people. The way that this is most commonly done is to recruit average people and hope -against the data- that they can be transformed.
  4. Recruit slowly and only recruit people who are better than you.
  5. Your intuition is not your friend – data is. Beware of managers being forced to play the role of experts. The wisdom of crowds can counterbalance this.
  6. Wherever possible, devolve power to the people you are managing. You’re there to work for them, not the other way round.
  7. Everybody hates performance management, but it is possible to work with your team to design an approach that is effective and acceptable.
  8. Focus on the Two Tails: provide support to your struggling team members, but don’t neglect to pay close, close, close attention to the superstars. What are they good at exactly?
  9. Tips on how to build a learning institution
  10. The idea that you pay people according to the value they bring.
  11. The assertion that it is possible to enrich people’s lives at work without having to spend a fortune.
  12. Use nudges…a lot
  13. An acknowledgement that sometimes things go awry.
  14. A call to arms…right now

There’s definitely a lot of lessons to be learned from Google. Of course, their experiences are particularly unique (I realise that this is tautological), but there are some fundamental truths about human psychology which manifest themselves whether you work in Google or some poky little cornershop. If your aim is less focused on becoming a global giant and more on avoiding contributing to the sum of human unhappiness in the world, I’m willing to bet that you might find this book useful.