How much do I want to read more? 6/10
The idea behind the book is somehow "gloomy": not only do we act for our self-interest, but our brain tricks us in believing we act for a more honorable reason.
"Human beings are self-deceived because self-deception is useful. It allows us to reap the benefits of selfish behavior while posing as unselfish in front of others; it helps us look better than we really are."
Reading about animals' customs and behavior is just as fascinating as watching a good documentary, observing what they're doing and why.
[quote, Andrew McAfee]
“This is the most unconventional and uncomfortable self-help book you will ever read. But probably also the most important.”
[quote, Allan Dafoe]
“This book will change how you see the world.”
[quote, Jaan Tallinn]
“A captivating book about the things your brain does not want you to know.”
[quote, Tucker Max]
“It’s hard to overstate how impactful this book is.”
[quote, Ramez Naam]
“An eye-opening look at how we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others.”
[quote, Steven Landsburg]
“A provocative and compellingly readable account of how and why we lie to our rivals, our friends, and ourselves.”
Our basic thesis—that we are strategically blind to key aspects of our motives—has been around in some form or another for millennia. It’s been put forward not only by poets, playwrights, and philosophers, but also by countless wise old souls, at least when you catch them in private and in the right sort of mood.
And yet the thesis still seems to us neglected in scholarly writings; you can read a mountain of books and still miss it.
elephant in theroom, n. An important issue that people are reluctant to acknowledge or address; a social taboo.
elephant in thebrain, n. An important but unacknowledged feature of how our minds work; an introspective taboo.
Why do patients spend so much on medical care? To get healthier: That’s their one and only goal, right?
Maybe not. Consider some of the puzzling data points that Robin discovered. To start with, people in developed countries consume way too much medicine—doctor visits, drugs, diagnostic tests, and so forth—well beyond what’s useful for staying healthy.
When a toddler stumbles and scrapes his knee, his mom bends down to give it a kiss. No actual healing takes place, and yet both parties appreciate the ritual. The toddler finds comfort in knowing his mom is there to help him, especially if something more serious were to happen. And the mother, for her part, is eager to show that she’s worthy of her son’s trust. This small, simple example shows how we might be programmed both to seek and give healthcare even when it isn’t medically useful.
Robin’s hypothesis is that a similar transaction lurks within our modern medical system, except we don’t notice it because it’s masked by all the genuine healing that takes place. In other words, expensive medical care does heal us, but it’s simultaneously an elaborate adult version of “kiss the boo-boo.”
The conclusion is that medicine isn’t just about health—it’s also an exercise in conspicuous caring.
THE CORE IDEA
[quote, Karl Popper]
“We are social creatures to the inmost centre of our being.”
[quote, Ralph Waldo Emerson]
“Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins.”
Here is the thesis we’ll be exploring in this book: We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives—we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people. And in order to throw them off the trail, our brains often keep “us,” our conscious minds, in the dark. The less we know of our own ugly motives, the easier it is to hide them from others.
Again, it’s not that we’re completely unaware of our unsavory motives—far from it. Many are readily apparent to anyone who chooses to look. For each “hidden” motive that we discuss in the book, some readers will be acutely aware of it, some dimly aware, and others entirely oblivious. This is why we’ve chosen the elephant as our metaphor. The elephant—whether in a room or in our brains—simply stands there, out in the open, and can easily be seen if only we steel ourselves to look in its direction. But generally, we prefer to ignore the elephant, and as a result, we systematically give short shrift to explanations of our behavior that call attention to it.
So what, exactly, is the elephant in the brain, this thing we’re reluctant to talk and think about? In a word, it’s selfishness—the selfish parts of our psyches.
we’re competitive social animals fighting for power, status, and sex; the fact that we’re sometimes willing to lie and cheat to get ahead; the fact that we hide some of our motives—and that we do so in order to mislead others.
Truth, Beauty, Safety, Altruism, Cooperation, Loyalty, Tradition, Community
Competition, Deception, Progress, Social status, Selfishness, Politics, Sex
Human behavior is rarely what it seems—that’s the main lesson here. Of course, we’re hardly the first people to make this point. Thinkers across the ages have delighted in identifying many ways, large and small, that our actions don’t seem to align with our supposed reasons.
[quote, François de La Rochefoucauld]
“We should often blush at our noblest deeds, if the world were to see all their underlying motives.”
THE BASIC ARGUMENT
At least four strands of research all lead to the same conclusion—that we are, as the psychologist Timothy Wilson puts it, “strangers to ourselves”:
Microsociology. When we study how people interact with each other on the small scale—in real time and face to face—we quickly learn to appreciate the depth and complexity of our social behaviors and how little we’re consciously aware of what’s going on. These behaviors include laughter, blushing, tears, eye contact, and body language. In fact, we have such little introspective access into these behaviors, or voluntary control over them, that it’s fair to say “we” aren’t really in charge. Our brains choreograph these interactions on our behalves, and with surprising skill. While “we” anguish over what to say next, our brains manage to laugh at just the right moments, flash the right facial expressions, hold or break eye contact as appropriate, negotiate territory and social status with our posture, and interpret and react to all these behaviors in our interaction partners.
We now realize that our brains aren’t just hapless and quirky—they’re devious. They intentionally hide information from us, helping us fabricate plausible prosocial motives to act as cover stories for our less savory agendas.
As Trivers puts it: “At every single stage [of processing information]—from its biased arrival, to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others—the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual goal of appearing better than one really is.”
For the price of a little self-deception, we get to have our cake and eat it too: act in our own best interests without having to reveal ourselves as the self-interested schemers we often are.
The point is, we act on hidden motives together, in public, just as often as we do by ourselves, in private. And when enough of our hidden motives harmonize, we end up constructing stable, long-lived institutions—like schools, hospitals, churches, and democracies—that are designed, at least partially, to accommodate such motives. This was Robin’s conclusion about medicine, and similar reasoning applies to many other areas of life.
Education isn’t just about learning; it’s largely about getting graded, ranked, and credentialed, stamped for the approval of employers.
This line of thinking suggests that many of our institutions are prodigiously wasteful. Under the feel-good veneer of win-win cooperation—teaching kids, healing the sick, celebrating creativity—our institutions harbor giant, silent furnaces of intra-group competitive signaling, where trillions of dollars of wealth, resources, and human effort are being shoveled in and burned to ash every year, largely for the purpose of showing off.
This may sound like pessimism, but it’s actually great news. However flawed our institutions may be, we’re already living with them—and life, for most of us, is pretty good. So if we can accurately diagnose what’s holding back our institutions, we may finally succeed in reforming them, thereby making our lives even better.
Why do people laugh? Who’s the most important person in the room (and how can I tell)? Why are artists sexy? Why do so many people brag about travel? Does anyone really, truly believe in creationism? If we listen to what people say about themselves, we’ll often be led astray, because people strategically misconstrue their motives. It’s only by cross-examining these motives, using data about how people behave, that we’re able to learn what’s really driving human behavior
“We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others.”
Human beings are self-deceived because self-deception is useful. It allows us to reap the benefits of selfish behavior while posing as unselfish in front of others; it helps us look better than we really are.
PART I Why We Hide Our Motives
1/ Animal Behavior
Individual primates can (and do) groom themselves, but they can only effectively groom about half their bodies. They can’t easily groom their own backs, faces, and heads. So to keep their entire bodies clean, they need a little help from their friends. This is called social grooming.
Social grooming, isn’t just about hygiene—it’s also about politics. By grooming each other, primates help forge alliances that help them in other situations.
The groomer says, “I’m willing to use my spare time to help you,” while the groomee says, “I’m comfortable enough to let you approach me from behind (or touch my face).” Meanwhile, both parties strengthen their alliance merely by spending pleasant time in close proximity. Two rivals, however, would find it hard to let their guards down to enjoy such a relaxed activity.
“Grooming, creates a platform off which trust can be built.”
For example, it explains why higher-ranked individuals receive more grooming than lower-ranked individuals.
grooming partners are more likely to share food, tolerate each other at feeding sites, and support each other during confrontations with other members of the group.
The political function of grooming also explains why grooming time across species is correlated with the size of the social group, but not the amount of fur. Larger groups have, on average, greater political complexity, making alliances more important but also harder to maintain.
Note that these primates don’t need to be conscious of their political motivations. As far as natural selection is concerned, all that matters is that primates who do more social grooming fare better than primates who do less.
Primates are thereby endowed with instincts that make them feel good when they groom each other, without necessarily understanding why they feel good.