The Elephant in the Brain

Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

[Amazon Link]

Why it seems only a few weeks back (because it was only a few weeks back) that we read Alan Jacobs' How to Think, in which he observed that books about thinking have a trait in common: "they're really depressing to read."

I don't find them depressing, but I get his point: such books concentrate on all the myriad ways our thinking can go seriously wrong.

Reader, beware: The Elephant in the Brain is one of those books. The authors, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, purport to report on why we act the way we do, specifically our motivations for our social behavior. Those motives are not as pure as they appear to be. Down deep, our brains are a product of millions of years of survival-of-the-fittest evolution, looking out for our own procreation and safety. But we've also evolved as a social animal, so our selfish motives are also channelled by the need to get along with others of our tribe. So we've adapted elaborate disguises for our motives, a network of deceptions that outwardly display as noble.

As an added feature, this often amounts to self-deception as well: we convince ourselves we're being nice and socially virtuous, ignoring the "elephant" of our baser instincts. Why? Because, as an evolutionary adaptive strategy, fooling ourselves makes it easier to fool others.

Their high-level picture (snipped from Amazon):

[The Elephant in the Brain]

They could have stolen a title from Harlan Ellison: Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled.

Hanson and Simler develop this thesis in (what I've come to think of as) the standard way: accumulating evidence from psychological research, animal studies, evolutionary theory. They then show how this model plays out in various specific aspects of life, devoting one chapter to each of: Body Languuage; Laughter; Conversation; Consumption; Art; Charity; Education; Medicine; Religion; and Politics.

The book is accessible, insightful, and fun to read. And made me a tad uncomfortable in trying to find out about my own "hidden" motives. (Yup, there I am: page 302. And probably other places I glossed over.) All in all, recommended to anyone interested in stuff like this.

And yet, I kept telling myself: Hanson and Simler are telling a plausible story, but they are not telling the whole story. The very existence of the book confirms that while we can and do engage in fallacious self-deception about our motivations, we don't always do so. What's typical? Who's better, who's best? How do we improve? How would we measure such improvement? (The book, to its credit, does make a nod toward these issues in its "Conclusion" chapter.)

But I keep coming back to Deirdre McCloskey's "Great Fact": the amazing relatively-overnight improvement in human standards of living after millennia of relative stagnation. That's another real "elephant" that needs explaining. I think Hanson and Simler could have had something insightful to say here, but don't.

URLs du Jour


[Amazon Link]

  • We move (backwards, sue us) to a new Proverbial chapter today, with Proverbs 13:1:

    1 A wise son heeds his father’s instruction,
        but a mocker does not respond to rebukes.

    Stupid mockers again.

  • At the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Ryan Young writes on Peter Navarro's Economic Ignorance on Trade. Longest article ever written? No. But it may not be comprehensive. Skipping over a couple of points, I liked this bit:

    Third, Navarro thinks in aggregates, not individuals, joining the Keynesian and Harvard-MIT traditions in error. Countries don’t trade with each other, people do. “China” and “America” do not trade with each other; people who live in China and people who live in America do.

    Remember this every time Navarro’s boss tweets something like “We are on the losing side of almost all trade deals. Our friends and enemies have taken advantage of the U.S. for many years. Our Steel and Aluminum industries are dead.” As Ludwig von Mises points out on p. 44 of “Human Action,“ “It is always single individuals who say We”. Also, domestic steel production is above its 40-year running average, according to the St. Louis Fed. Ditto aluminum.

    I pulled my dusty copy of Human Action off the shelf, and: yes, there it is on page 44. And, reading on, I was reminded that Mises was not known for his punchy prose.

    And Young reminds me, if I needed it, that Trump is dangerously ignorant. And proud of it.

  • Patterico has a refreshingly original take on ex-FBI Director Comey's new book: James Comey and the Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

    I’m someone who agrees with Comey that Donald Trump is morally unfit for office. I tend to like Comey and (for the most part) find the universal disdain for him and his book befuddling. But this post constitutes a harsh criticism of Comey, because it’s the thing that has most bothered me about him — and it’s the part of the book that I found most jarring. It’s his inexplicable decision to let Hillary Clinton off the hook. And to my way of thinking, Comey just keeps digging that hole deeper in his book. To me, nothing demonstrates his elevation of the FBI’s reputation over equal justice under the law like his mishandling of the Hillary investigation.

    The "Iron Law of Bureaucracy", by the way, is from the late Jerry Pournelle:

    Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people":

    First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

    Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

    The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

    Patterico considers Comey to be an example of the second group. He makes a convincing argument.

  • Our Google LFOD News Alert rang (unexpectedly!) for a site called "SNEWS", and an article by Amelia Arvesen: The greenest states in the U.S..

    Spoiler: Greenest is Vermont; least green is West Virginia. But NH made the top 10. Kate Paine, VP of Marketing for a company called NEMO Equipment, based just down the road in Dover:

    "Interestingly, in New Hampshire, famously the 'Live Free or Die' state, a lot of this progressive action is driven from a grassroots movement of individuals and businesses who care and therefore act," Paine said. "There’s a lot of organizing around renewable energy, local agriculture, land conservation, and waste reduction. We’re a member of New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility, which offers a great forum for connecting with businesses who share the same goals. I’ve been really impressed by the motivation and intentionality of the business community in New Hampshire."

    Yes, it's a bullshit-heavy article. The WalletHub article on which the rankings are based is here. Did you know, for example, that NH has the fourth-lowest total municipal solid waste per capita?

  • And a Milwaukee-based news site, Shepherd Express, writes a fawning story about the earnest kids walking out of school (again) to push their ignorant opinions about guns: Area High School Students Continue to Push For Gun Reform. But:

    Two pro-gun advocates were also present at the really, wearing jackets that said “Loaded and Ready,” and “Live Free or Die.” William Polster of Plymouth said he was simply observing the event.

    “I think it’s interesting hearing their concepts, because right now they are being protected by people with firearms,” said Polster, referring to multiple police officers who were parked nearby. “It’s a shame when people fight for their rights, and then their own rights are being taken away.”

    Your experience will probably vary, but when I view the article, there's an add from the United States Concealed Carry Association urging me to click over to their site to "Find Your Perfect Handgun".

  • And our Ramirez du Jour covers the latest outrage:

    Impressive detail, right?

Last Modified 2018-12-22 7:14 AM EDT