The Elephant in the Brain | Kevin Simler

Summary of: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life
By: Kevin Simler


In ‘The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life’, authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson uncover the underlying motives that drive human behavior. Just like chimpanzees engaging in social grooming, humans too have hidden agendas in their everyday interactions. Drawing upon parallels between human and primate behavior, this book reveals that humans often unconsciously hide their true intentions, even from themselves. Simler and Hanson explore various aspects of our lives, including competition, the impact of social norms, the significance of body language, and the role of art in human evolution, ultimately providing insights into our hidden motives and how they shape our behavior.

Social Grooming: A Political Game

Beyond the act of simply cleaning themselves, chimpanzees engage in social grooming as a means of forming political relationships and alliances built on trust. This act is reciprocal in nature as Chimp A grooms Chimp B with an expectation of being groomed in return. Primatologist Robin Dunbar highlighted the deeper significance of these grooming rituals, which proved to be a political game with long-term benefits. However, humans are distinct from primates in their ability to hide their motives, even from themselves, which can lead to deception. While the motives of others may be difficult to determine, human beings are conscious enough to judge each other based upon perceptions.

The Unseen Motives Inside Our Minds

Humans and chimpanzees share a common trait; both can be driven by selfish and hidden motives. Our brains unconsciously keep us in the dark, making it easier to dupe others. These hidden agendas are referred to as “the elephants in our brain,” important motives that go unacknowledged. The authors explore why we prefer to hide our motives from ourselves and others, and how it’s possible to reveal them through self-reflection or an honest appraisal from others. The presence of these elephants can be seen as taboo and introspective, but ignoring them can have consequences that are detrimental in both personal and professional settings. Whether it’s pushing for a promotion at the expense of colleagues or engaging in behavior that is less than honorable, it’s easy to be dismissive of chimps while unaware of our own selfish and unconscious motivations.

The Evolutionary Drive to Compete

Humans evolved to outcompete fellow humans rather than against other species. This concept, known as intra-species competition, meant getting ahead required selling others out. The social brain theory suggests we developed our intelligence to compete in a social forest of human interactions and secure resources, sex, and social status. Speaking of sex, competition to find a mate requires us to show off our worth through various means. Just like peacocks displaying their extravagant tails, humans use art and music to signal their worth and ability. Ultimately, our competitive drive extends beyond mere survival and has shaped various aspects of our lives.

The Power of Norms and Gossip

Humans are naturally competitive, and norms are community-specific standards or rules created to curb competition. To function, norms require collective enforcement, and gossip is one of the most potent mechanisms. Gossip allows groups to enforce norms collectively, even when they lack the power to do so individually. When a new colleague proved to be a bully, Simler and his colleagues enforced the norm by engaging in gossip. The resulting negative reputation led to the colleague’s dismissal. The desire to compete is deeply ingrained in us, but norms and gossip can help society to function better.

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