“The elephant in the room” is any important and obvious fact that, for whatever reason, no one is willing to talk about. In their new book, The Elephant in the Brain, authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson extend the concept to one of the most important and obvious, yet unspoken, facts about the human mind: that we are masters of self-deception, equipped by evolution with an “introspective blind spot” that hides our deeper, selfish motives, even when the same motives are easy to spot in others. The result is an entertaining and insightful book that sheds light on a diverse collection of perplexing human behaviors — from laughter to religion to the origin of language.
For fans of books like The Selfish Gene and The Mating Mind, The Elephant in The Brain will be familiar territory. But for almost everyone else, the core thesis is likely to be extremely challenging. That’s because our introspective blind spot is not unlike the literal blind spot in our eye, located where the optic nerve connects with our eye’s disc of photoreceptor cells. Thanks to an evolutionary adaptation, our brain automatically fills in the hole using information from the surrounding context, creating the illusion of a continuous field of vision. We can easily verify that the deception is taking place with imaging techniques or simple optical illusions, and yet knowledge of its existence cannot make us any less blind to our own blindness.
Unconscious self-deception in the social domain works similarly: easy to demonstrate but impossible to switch-off. Thus for any action with a mix of sacred and profane motives — as much Good Samaritan as quid pro quo — we are willfully blind to the latter, not as conscious manipulators, but because strategic ignorance of our Machiavellian side had survival value for our ancestors. As the renown evolutionary psychologist Robert Trivers once put it, “We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others.”
The core thesis of The Elephant in the Brain is that this has major implications for public policy that we are loathe to admit. Thus spending on health care, we learn, isn’t merely about improving our health; it’s also a wasteful way to signal our caring for others. Admitting this, we could conceivably cut medical expenditure in halfand be no worse off. Likewise, charitable giving isn’t just, or even mainly, about doing good in the world; it’s also a way to flex one’s wealth and generosity while bathing in the “warm glow” of peer approval. A movement dedicated to “effective altruism” could rectify this by subjecting philanthropic causes to utilitarian rigor.
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