The Elephant in the Brain

The Elephant in the Brain

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson team up to put together The Elephant in the Brain. It's supposed to be a careful examination of the hidden motives behind everything that we do. Now that I’ve completed it, I can definitely attest that it’s changed my worldview quite a bit.

The big idea here borrows from the phrase "the elephant in the room"—the big, uncomfortable truth that nobody wants to acknowledge.

In this case, it's the uncomfortable side of ourselves: that we can be modeled as status-seeking monkeys who care mostly about sex, power, and improving our social standing.

We don't introspect ourselves in this way, or even really talk about most of these motivations. The authors argue that there's an evolutionary reason behind this: if we can't see these motivations, it makes us more credible to others.

Instead, when we think of most dynamics, we tend to want to focus on the altruistic side of things, e.g. collaboration, reciprocity, and integrity.

The authors promise to analyze and acknowledge these motives, but also to take them a step further than any prior analysis: to apply them to institutions, not just individuals.

I’ll caveat that I only buy about 70% of what Simler and Hanson are putting out there, but that said, it’s definitely given me a lot to consider.

Why are our brains so big? Status.

A key question the book aims to answer is: “why are humans so different from other animals?”. Why do we have such a more developed brain and set of social norms than other species?

The authors make the case that humans stopped natural selection (e.g. “I don’t want to be eaten by a lion”) long ago. And when we did, we started competing internally with other people, or people-like groups. The core currency we competed on: social status.

When humans compete on status, we begin shifting the traits that are selected for from natural selection to sexual selection.

Consider chickens, they have a well-defined “pecking order” which is more or less based upon the size of the chicken. If you’re a small chicken, there’s not a lot you can do to move up the pecking order.

Humans, on the other hand, can form coalitions. We are rewarded by being able to convince other humans to do things. The authors argue that this makes status and fitness displays natural traits that are selected for.

Now, I think this argument falls down a little bit if you model people as monogamous, pair-wise individuals (as the book does). In that case, there’s no selection happening, whether you are high status or low-status!

But that said, I’ve definitely observed that people, broadly-speaking, tend to compete on various games of status.

Hanson and Simler argue that the pursuit of status, and in particular, signaling status to others, drive a lot of our everyday actions. And that all of that status boils down to imply that we are more “fit” and likely to succeed than our peers.

The press secretary

To understand this "hidden bias", the authors use a great metaphor: our brain is like the White House press secretary.

The press secretary doesn't sit in on a lot of confidential briefings. Instead, they are given a message from the president's office, and are asked to relay that message. They have plausible deniability about any other motives behind the response, because they only have the information they are handed.

The authors argue that our brains work in the same way. We can think of our subconscious performing a lot of low-level actions for us. Many of these never make their way up to the higher level consciousness, and we rationalize our actions in spite of them.

Split-brain studies support this idea. In these studies, people who had split hemispheres of the brain would be fed two different instructions (e.g. the left eye saw an instruction to "stand up"). Participants often "invent" reasons behind their actions rather than say "I don't know".

I'm reminded of the human interactions in The Three Body Problem. It's better for us to not acknowledge our own selfish motives in ourselves, because then we'd actually start thinking about them and reconsidering them.


There's a couple of theories on laughter throughout the ages:

  • superiority (I laugh at your meager efforts)
  • cognitive dissonance (that doesn't make sense!)

The authors make the case that laughter is actually signaling! Across cultures and situations, we find that we laugh more when other people around. Their hypothesis is that we laugh as a way of showing "ease".

You can see this phenomenon in infants. If you laugh before surprising a baby, you are far more likely to have them laugh in surprise rather than shriek in terror.

You can see it too when people injure themselves. If an elderly person falls down the stairs and starts laughing, they signal to onlookers "I'm okay!". If one of the onlookers started laughing ahead of this action, they would be ostracized for it.


One of the most interesting chapters is the one that discusses art.

Isn't it strange that although art seems to have no clear evolutionary purpose, every civilization we know of has independently produced some form of art? The authors argue that there must be an evolutionary reason for it.

The idea presented in the book is that Art is another fitness display. If I not only am able to feed myself, but also craft beautiful clay pots, that must mean I am a higher status individual, and therefore more desirable.

This theory definitely helps explain a lot of the ideas behind art, in my opinion.

It supports the idea that art will have various trends or fads. If art is always viewed in comparison to what other people will do, it's clear why art is constantly evolving (after all, a fitness display is only worthwhile if few other people can do it). You can see why we moved from hyper-realism to abstract art to new forms of modern art. As more and more people gained the ability to copy certain skills of craft, we began to value raw creativity more.

Additionally, we value the work that went into creating a piece of art. If you found a seashell on the beach, I'd value it less than if you 3-d printed it, and I'd value it still more if you had carved it from marble.


If you ask the regular person on the street "why do we go to school?", the answer you'd get is "to learn things". In fact, this is probably the answer I would've given you.

Instead, the authors make the case that school really has different goals, especially at the level of higher education.

There, the primary purpose of school is not focused on what you know, but around signaling proof-of-work to future employers.

College and universities exist to show an employer that we are able to learn the skills needed to be a valuable employee.

That's the reason why we don't have exit exams which assess your knowledge (knowledge isn't really important). Why we pay such a premium for a degreed-holding graduate vs someone who has completed only 3-years. And why Harvard doesn't franchise itself to accept ever more students (it would dilute the signal).

In some senses, this theory suggests that the college admissions departments are doing some of the most important work at the universities.

Beyond signaling proof-of-work, there's secondary goals of education (particularly state-supported education): to help "domesticate" future workers by giving them good social skills, and to give adults time to participate in the workforce.

All of this has made me re-think the various aspects of education, whether they are more assessment/credential focused, or whether they are more about sparking curiosity and interest. For the latter, it's harder to find a business model, at least in the U.S.