Jose Luis Ricon, (Ricon n.d.)


A review of Kevin Simler, Robin Hanson | The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life


The book is X isn’t (only) about Y with examples: education, medicine, charity, sex, career, fashion, art etc.


The book’s main thesis can be boiled down to (a)

Our main goal is to demonstrate that hidden motives are common and important— that they’re more than a minor correction to the alternate theory that people mostly do things for the reasons that they give. For this purpose, we don’t need to be right about everything. In fact, we expect most readers to buy only about 70 percent of what we’re selling— and we’re OK with that.

In some sense, I agree with the thesis, and in another sense I disagree, and overall I gravitate towards this second sense, but after having read the review you may think that I actually gravitate more towards the first one. It can be both things, depending on how one weighs the different agreements and disagreements. I am weighing heavily the core claims and discounting many object level claims. I am also putting some weight behind conceptual clarity and discussion of possible alternative explanations (Side effects of reading too much philosophy!). This last thing does not make me disagree per se, but makes me reduce the strenght of my agreement with a given claim.

By where is this disagreement? Isn’t it true that education is -to a large degree - about signaling [Signaling]? Isn’t it true that politics is not just about making policy? Isn’t it true that charity is not just about helping others in the most efficient way? Yes, those things are true, but that’s not my point. The object-level claims of the book, the claims about how things are are largely correct. It is the interpretation I take issue with.

What is exactly the elephant in the brain?

The authors (Simler and Hanson, henceforth SH) say: selfishness, the selfish parts of us. But not quite, they say shortly after. The elephant in the brain is also competition for status, power, and sex, and also misdirection, lies, and self-delusion.

These are, note, different things. One can be acting for selfish purposes deliberately instead of “unconsciously”, for example. Indeed, most of the things we do are done selfishly, for our own goals and purposes. We perhaps don’t think about it, but we don’t think that we are constantly breathing either, yet we wouldn’t say that we are deluded about breathing.

Things we do that are not selfish are rare and few: From helping strangers, to donating to charity, to just being nice to people, but note that in some of these there can even be a selfish component to altruistic actions, and it can even be the case that this selfish component can be arranged to serve a non-selfish end, as we will see with the discussion on Effective Altruism.


The idea here is that the way education works is not so much oriented towards teaching (building up human capital), but towards credentialing: each student has a somewhat fixed ability level (i.e. intelligence, conscientiousness, etc), and being able to go through university certifies that you do have those skills. IQ tests alone wouldn’t do, because the sought traits are not just intelligence. Going through 3-5 years of university maintaining consistent high scores not only says you are smart, but that you are willing to devote those smarts to a task, for years, dealing with both subjects you will like and subjects that you will not like: Education doesn’t make you a better worker, it reveals how much of a good worker you are [X isn’t (only) about Y]. (Well, it will help somewhat, but you get the idea).


Students are happy when classes are canceled because they think classes are inefficient and thus can be compressed. Students at school are there to pass the exams, get high grades, go to uni and get a job, ask any. There is a time T to teach all the material, and if you think, as a student, the efficient time is smaller than T [There’s no speed limit], as it was the case when I was at school, then you would be happy if classes are cancelled: it just means you will get more condensed classes afterwards. Exam and learning-wise it is the same, plus you get free time.


Ultimately, we might have these things - I’m speculating here, by own admission- because of the aristocratic and then religious origins of modern education. In the past, if you wanted to become a blacksmith, you just learned from your father or became an apprentice at the local guild. Aristocrats had to learn their signaling subjects. Men of religion had to learn grammar, and logic, rhetoric, and latin to engage in theology. When education was then extended to the masses, elites wanted them to have proper values and morals, etc. People might also have been looking upwards at what the elites were doing, and seeing those things as being high status, they became engrained into what education was becoming. Fast forward to the present and we still have some of that present. (This could also be tied with the propaganda explanation)

About students who study the “useless” subjects like liberal arts mentioned is because, as anyone who has access to Google would know, those subjects get you consumption benefits (People like studying them), and they also get you access to jobs. Are students deluded about the purposes of their education? Not at all! They can honestly think that they study what they like, and that they also gain skills somewhat related to their future employment. A story like “I like History so I study it, plus learning History will help me gain a broad understanding of human nature, writing, critical analysis, etc, and this is useful for management or whatever” sounds like a plausible reason a History student would give.


So here is the thing: I have agreed with the signaling theory of how education works. I have agreed with the object level claims that education is inefficient, that students forget about what they learn, that much of what schools teach is useless for getting a job and so forth. My disagreement is in the why. We observe and agree about the reality of the same phenomena, but we disagree about the underlying, hard to observe (We would have to engage in some surveying and historical analysis) causes of what we see.

Confused concepts

I’m not going to review every single chapter at length, but I’ll make in this section a series of remarks about the underlying theory.


Take sex. What is sex about? Why do people engage in sex with protection? It is pleasurable. That’s it. I hope you don’t find this statement controversial: It is the answer most people would give, and if you poked their brains hard enough.

It would be odd to see someone saying: No, that’s not the real reason: the real reason is reproduction, or bonding, or something, people are hypocrites about why they have sex.

This confused use of concepts applies to many of these hidden motives: and it is the basic misunderstanding first year students of evolutionary psychology are taught to avoid: There are ultimate [Ultimate cause] and proximate [Proximate cause] explanations for behaviours. Reproduction may be the ultimate reason why we happen to find sex pleasurable. But pleasure itself and alone is in most cases why people have sex while going to great lengths to avoid conceptions.

Similarly, for selfishness, take the case of a parent who does X for her child out of altruism. Again, something saying: “it is actually selfishness, X helps propagate certain genes that reward X” would be mistaken in their assessment of X as selfish in the standard meaning of selfishness, even if that were correct from a gene-centric perspective.