*Elephant in the Brain* — what is really going on in this book?

by on January 11, 2018 at 10:36 am in Books, Education, Medicine, Philosophy | Permalink

Not long ago, over lunch, I asked Robin who he wanted to see rise and fall in status, as a result of his book with Kevin Simler.  As for who should rise, he cited the book’s epigram to me:

To the little guys, often grumbling in a corner, who’ve said this sort of thing for ages: you were right more than you knew. —Robin

So yes the little guys, but I also stress the cynics as well, or maybe it is the gentle cynics who go through life with a smile.

And who should decline in status?  Robin’s lunch answer was again to the point: policy analysts.  Policy analysis, while it often incorporates behavioral considerations, when studying say health care, education, and political economy, very much neglects the fact that often both the producers and consumers in these areas have hypocritical motives.  For that reason, what appears to be a social benefit is often merely a private benefit in disguise, and sometimes it is not even a private benefit.  Things that feel good aren’t always good for you, or for the broader world.  Here is Robin’s take on that:

Our new book, The Elephant in the Brain, can be seen as taking one side in a disagreement between disciplines. On one side are psychologists (among others) who say of course people try to spin their motives as being higher than they are, especially in public forums. People on this side find our basic book thesis, and our many specific examples, so plausible that they fear our book may be too derivative and unoriginal.

On the other side, however, are most experts in concrete policy analysis. They spend their time studying ways that schools could help people to learn more material, hospitals could help people get healthier, charities could better assist people in need, and so on. They thus implicitly accept the usual claims people make about what they are trying to achieve via schools, hospitals, charities, etc. And so the practice of policy experts disagrees a lot with our claims that people actually care more about other ends, and that this is why most people show so little interest in reforms proposed by policy experts. (The world shows great interest in new kinds of physical devices and software, but far less interest in most proposed social reforms.)

In ignoring hypocrisy, policy analysts are themselves hypocritical, and thus Robin wishes to downgrade their status, perhaps doubly so.  Sorry people!

I find these status questions to be a useful means of thinking about many non-fiction books, sometimes fiction too.  I would note it is sometimes hard to market books with the “group X ignores well-known truth from field Y” spin, but perhaps that also means there are intellectual arbitrage gains to be had from studying such works.

1 Paraguayan January 11, 2018 at 10:51 am

This is what happens when noble sentiment retires from the field, and leaves everything to the cynics and the hypocrites.


2 Troll Me January 11, 2018 at 1:35 pm

There are those with extreme persistence who endeavour to make that happen faster.

I suspect that the intend to make calculated use of the principle that concentrated interests can organize more easily than diffuse interests.

I.e., people with much money and/or power who intend to broadly screw the rest of us would have a ginormous interest to do so.

Of course, if people’s hypocrisy means that policy analysis is wrong, then this should be recognized so that policy analysis will be done better.


3 derek January 11, 2018 at 10:53 am

Hypocrisy isn’t the right word. (it is far over used, like racism and has lost it’s meaning and edge). It is self interest.

Policy experts also have an interest. They want to control something without getting their hands dirty. That is the attraction of statistical analysis. The further away you are to the actual events, the better your analysis.


4 nick January 11, 2018 at 11:18 am

>>> “Policy experts… want to control something without getting their hands dirty.”


…of course policy analysis & analysts are unnecessary without “policy”.
Policy is a polite, deceptive term for arbitrary, coercive action by government actors. Persons attentive to policy are statists.
Same old story of the individual versus the collective.


5 Paraguayan January 11, 2018 at 11:23 am

The power of soap hypocrites combined with the coercive power of the state!



6 Pshrnk January 11, 2018 at 12:23 pm

Frome the link: “Though sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol concentration are effective in removing bacteria, they are not sufficient in removing heavily soiled hands.”

Heavily soiled or not, I prefer not removing my hands!


7 Troll Me January 11, 2018 at 1:39 pm

That might have more to do with corporate America buying Congress one word and line of legislation at a time.

The people who crunch numbers, review theories and offer proposals, whether from a think tank or government, are not involved in any such “coercive action by government actors” as you refer to.

It does, however, remain the case that if you claim that police or intelligence are harassing you, but refuse to divulge possible reasons to a quack, that you will be effectively incarcerated without due process.

You worry about the wrong people for the right reasons.


8 FE January 11, 2018 at 10:53 am

I haven’t read Hanson despite the many recommendations in these parts, because I don’t understand what, if anything, we are supposed to do with his conclusion that we are all terrible hypocrites. Take today’s post. What should a policy analyst “studying ways . . . hospitals could help people get healthier” do differently, armed with the knowledge that producers and consumers have hypocritical motives? I promise to buy the book if someone can explain!


9 Robin Hanson January 11, 2018 at 11:05 am

Our book does have a conclusion chapter on this topic. One obvious response is that once you realize that you don’t understand familiar institutions as well as you thought, you might do less to subsidize and promote them.


10 Sam the Sham January 11, 2018 at 11:15 am

Chesterton’s Fence:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Although I might agree that subsidizing an institution is merely a novel way of destroying them.


11 Troll Me January 11, 2018 at 1:45 pm

Recognizing that one does not understand a familiar situation would be important.

However, as a mindset, it introduces the risk that if people will be more easily deterred from considering an idea, after being subjected to misinformation geared precisely to sow uncertainty.

This has been extensively deployed on climate policy questions, where for many years the basic physics definition of a “greenhouse gas” was the object of such misinformation and quasi-brainwashing that it was nearly impossible to discuss whether the policy proposals would be effective in achieving objectives.


12 Paraguayan January 11, 2018 at 11:06 am

If a doctor suggests hand washing to reduce infection, he must have an interest in a soap company. That’s just science.


13 Anonymous January 11, 2018 at 2:10 pm

That straw-man sure is saying a lot of unreasonable things. Thanks for calling him out.


14 Alan Crowe January 12, 2018 at 7:14 am

I’m going to attempt an explanation by colliding two of Paraguayan’s comments. I’ve set my idea-collider to “infection control is not about infection control.”

One comment is full of snark: “If a doctor suggests hand washing to reduce infection, he must have an interest in a soap company. That’s just science.”. Notice the suggestion: hand washing.

If you took this idea and ran with it, you would probably come up with the idea of Hand Inspectors. They come round, swab employees hands and check for bacteria. Employing a Hand Inspector and his medical technician (who incubates the bacteria and counts the colonies (we probably care about identifying the bacteria, some are more dangerous to human health than others)) is expensive. The Hand Inspector Calls is a play about a rare event. Hand Inspection is rare and so not very visible; it works poorly for showing that we care.

The other comment has an interesting link: https://www.signs.com/blog/handwashing-laws-for-all-50-states/

Notice the suggestion: signage. If you take this idea and run with it, you come up with the idea of a Sign Inspector. Not a Hand Inspector. And signage is very visible. It is great for showing that you care. Also we all have experience of tuning out the signs that we see every day. It is a poor infection control measure.

The pre-Hansonian policy analyst gets asked by his congressman for analysis of a Handwashing Law that mandates signage. The pre-Hansonian policy analyst raises his eye-brow. Are hospital employees really that different from every-body else? Will hospital employees really pay attention to signs that every-bode else tunes out. But he lacks the intellectual tools to understand. The law appears to push in the right direction. He approves it.

The post-Hansonian policy analyst knows that “infection control isn’t about infection control” and he knows a little more: it is likely about showing that you care. His congressman ask about a Handwasing Law that mandates signage. The post-Hansonian policy analyst knows what he is trying to guard against: Hi Vis ineffectiveness. A law mandating signage? Bingo! Red flag! The post-Hansonian policy analyst has the intellectual tools to recognize when he needs to turn his skepticism up to eleven.


15 Paraguayan January 12, 2018 at 8:32 am
16 NPW January 11, 2018 at 10:57 am

Would it be better to have a society that thumbed the status scale according to Tyler/Robin or one that paid less attention to status?

Since we are wishing for unicorns that bring me bacon either way and the later is far more useful, I’m going to suggest disarmament rather than MAD.

I find it interesting that redistribution directed by the whims of the elite is the solution proposed to both status and income equality.


17 Robin Hanson January 11, 2018 at 11:06 am
18 clockwork_prior January 11, 2018 at 11:42 am

Oh happy referers.


19 Transnational Pants Machine January 11, 2018 at 1:00 pm

Rooting for the little guy, eh? Good on you, Robin, didn’t know you were a Trump voter.


20 Anonymous January 11, 2018 at 2:20 pm

Hard to tell if this comment is satire or not.


21 Paraguayan January 11, 2018 at 4:56 pm

When you think about it, Trump’s big themes have been anti-compassionate, from his Mexican rapists speech to the current day.

Trump attacks protections for immigrants from ‘shithole’ countries in Oval Office meeting

If Trump has sympathy for the little guy, it is a very specific and non-universal little guy.


22 Anon7 January 11, 2018 at 7:46 pm

You only realized that now? He didn’t run on universal “compassion” (which, as Burke rightly noted, “has no idea in it of restraint” and leads men to “snatch the worst criminals from justice”) or even “compassionate conservatism.” He ran on the “Forgotten Man,” that basket of deplorables who have the audacity to resist the Progressive social doctors.


23 Paraguayan January 11, 2018 at 7:54 pm

The Two Pillars for Secular Ethics, per the Dali Lama:

“The first principle is the recognition of our shared humanity and our shared aspiration to happiness and the avoidance of suffering; the second is the understanding of interdependence as a key feature of human reality, including our biological reality as of social animals. Together, I believe, they constitute an adequate basis for establishing ethical awareness and the cultivation of inner values. It is through such values that we gain a sense of connection to with others, and it is by moving beyond narrow self-interest that we find meaning, purpose, and satisfaction in life.”

24 Paraguayan January 11, 2018 at 7:58 pm

That “as of” social animals was my transcription error. Similarly “to with” others.

25 Anonymous January 11, 2018 at 8:46 pm

Trump 2020!


26 Per Kurowski January 11, 2018 at 11:07 am

I am right now reading The Elephant in the Brain trying to see if I can find the motive for the regulators not wanting to answer: Why do you want banks to hold more capital against what has been made innocous by being perceived risky, than against what is dangerous because it is perceived safe? ☺


27 rayward January 11, 2018 at 11:19 am

Is this supposed to be the explanation for today’s polarization: people esteem those who agree with them and ignore those who don’t. I suppose that’s true when it comes to public policy, but is it true when it comes to fixing a leaky faucet. Of course, the problem is that public policy more often than not doesn’t involve fixing a leaky faucet. But public policy doesn’t have to be polarized: if the two (or many) sides can agree on a goal, then the correct policy becomes a function of which policy gets one there the most efficiently through trial and error. On the other hand, if one (or many) sides refuse to engage in trial and error (for any or no reason), then consensus is impossible. In debates over public policy, there is the side that rejects the entire premise of public policy as a way to accomplish an agreed upon goal. Two sides can’t cross the finish line if one refuses to leave the starting line. Thus, the debate isn’t actually about goals or policies to achieve agreed upon goals, but about the premise. Consider gender (since it keeps coming up): the premise for gender equality is that gender is irrelevant to achieving the agreed upon goal. It’s clear from comments at this blog that many readers don’t agree with the premise, so how can the sides agree on the best policy for achieving gender equality. Or substitute race, ethnicity, or any number of markers. I appreciate the argument that public policy should stick to fixing leaky faucets, but then the we face the same premise. For example, a financial crisis is like a leaky faucet, and like a leaky faucet, it needs to be fixed or everyone will drown. How to fix the leaky faucet becomes a debate not only who can do it but whether it should be fixed at all. Don’t believe me? You need to get better acquainted with our Austrian friends at Mercatus.


28 Edward Burke January 11, 2018 at 11:19 am

It is distinctly odd that, even with two macro-narratives still competing to account sufficiently for human animality (viz., the opening chapters of Genesis and “scientific” accounts of evolutionary biology), neither one elicits much credence at this end of modernity.

Our reluctance to own to our status as mere animals prepares us perhaps for other phenomenal careers: half of us might embark on careers as vegetables, the other half might opt for mineral status (even prior to cremation or entombment), and any that remain might want to pursue “reverse evolution” strategies that could return us to the heady realm dominated by octopi and cuttlefish.


29 Sam the Sham January 11, 2018 at 11:42 am

Most religions have had humans as the place where the fallen angel meets the rising ape. There is such a thing as human nature (tabula rasa does not fit well within traditionalist thought), that human nature is flawed, not inherently evil but in need of direction. Too much focus on the animal nature of humans, you get a mindless creature of appetites, and too much focus on the spirit and you get a cruel bureaucrat, creating famines because the theory of Lysenkoism must triumph over mere physicality.

I do hope that modernity and science catches up to bronze age religion someday soon.


30 john byrne January 11, 2018 at 11:42 am

so much for ‘nudging’
ave atque val, Cassius Sunstein.


31 Paraguayan January 11, 2018 at 11:50 am

In all seriousness, I accept the old rubric that “the brain is not a truth engine, it is a survival engine.” Anyone who looks at the brain as a truth processor will rapidly find “anomalies,” some accidental but some no doubt designed in by millions of years of tribal living.

That humans have Bounded Rationality is not really news. We have Philosophies, some going back thousands of years, to grapple with our limitations, and to reach toward what we have long called “higher truths.”

A lot of people are working now to merge old philosophy with new brain biology, but as a thumbnail:

I don’t think you go far wrong with the Dali Lama.


32 AL January 11, 2018 at 11:54 am

I’m about halfway through the book. It seems to me it is offering a very powerful insight into understanding human behavior (one I particularly wish I’d had when I was in junior high and high school). But it also seems like a terribly incomplete explanation, devoid (thus far) of any sense of the possibility of transcendence. If you’re unaware of Elephant’s ideas, you’re probably unaware of a great deal of what’s happening under the hood in not just others’ lives but also your own.

But if Elephant was the only tool in your kit to understand humanity, I think you’d basically be in the same position as Skinner, arguing there is no person, just behavior. Book is well worth reading and I’m looking forward to finishing it…


33 Hoosier January 11, 2018 at 1:17 pm

That’s what I was afraid of reading the blurb. TC implies the cynics come out ahead in this book, but then what? Like you say, if we’re all just behavior, what’s the point?

This book sounds remarkably similar to “Why Buddhism is True” and it’s explanation for the brain and how we think. The exact bit about the brain not being a CEO but a PR person is in that book also.

This is all well and good, but people need a reason to go forward, or at least I do!


34 Paraguayan January 11, 2018 at 2:04 pm

I have that book out, recommended above.

I find it to be the best answer for me, that compassion can bring both internal peace and greater external justice.

(In the Acknowledgements, the Dali Lama says:

“If the reader finds anything written here to be of benefit then our endeavors have been well rewarded. A reader who finds no such benefit should not feel any awkwardness about setting the book aside.”)

Now I just have to work on my practice.


35 AL January 11, 2018 at 11:03 pm

Thank you for the reference. I’m going to have to check that one out.


36 byomtov January 11, 2018 at 12:52 pm

most experts in concrete policy analysis.. spend their time studying ways that schools could help people to learn more material, hospitals could help people get healthier, charities could better assist people in need, and so on. They thus implicitly accept the usual claims people make about what they are trying to achieve via schools, hospitals, charities, etc. And so the practice of policy experts disagrees a lot with our claims that people actually care more about other ends, and that this is why most people show so little interest in reforms proposed by policy experts.

I think this is a vast oversimplification, and assumes, incorrectly, that policy analysts are by and large fools. The notion that they don’t take human behavior into account is silly. I’m sure it’s easy to come with cases where unrealistic assumptions were made, leading to poor outcomes, but so what? People make mistakes, and as matter of fact, when it comes to unrealistic assumptions about human behavior economists, especially strongly ideological ones, are very near the front of the pack.


37 daniel January 11, 2018 at 1:05 pm

Maybe if such books were marketed as ‘The TRUTH Group X Doesn’t Want You To Know!!!” , they would be more successful.


38 Sam the Sham January 11, 2018 at 1:08 pm




39 Troll Me January 11, 2018 at 1:31 pm

I can use an electronic device or software the day I buy it.

Even if I spend years studying or advocating for a social policy, it is far from certain that anything will come to pass.


40 zztop January 11, 2018 at 1:35 pm

Well-trodden trail, a la Nisbett/Kahnemen/Sapolsky/Gladwell/et al.


41 Robin Hanson January 11, 2018 at 1:43 pm

Show me where any of those authors say that standard policy analysis is broken from mistaken assumptions about the main functions of common social institutions.


42 zztop January 11, 2018 at 4:33 pm



43 Anonymous January 11, 2018 at 2:17 pm

It’s one thing to say that other people are acting irrationally, it’s another to be more rational than the rest, Gladwell and Kahnemen fail in that category, not sure about Sapolsky or Nisbett.


44 zztop January 11, 2018 at 4:44 pm

cf. Gigerenzer


45 Millian January 11, 2018 at 1:44 pm

Disprove H_0: The policy analysts are right, and discrediting them / advocating Stoicism is the false consciousness industry.


46 Mulp January 11, 2018 at 1:53 pm

OK, I further downgrade the status of Robin and Kevin, as Robin hopes for their policy analysis.


47 Tom Warner January 11, 2018 at 3:44 pm

This looks like a very interesting book, the sort of thing that perhaps many of us have thought but probably none of us has bothered to explicate. I really should get around to it when I have more time. I have to say it bugs me when smart people make slapdash sweeping claims about ancient history, eg that paleolithic people were nomadic and egalitarian. I hope that isn’t important to their argument.


48 Tom Warner January 11, 2018 at 4:28 pm

The correct way (which I would think more in line with the thesis) to sum up paleolithic people would be that they were incredibly adaptable. Yes they were all hunter-gatherers, but they adapted very diverse residential and political customs while adapting to various climates and resources – while retaining the universal potential to re-adapt. Between around 100kya and 15kya they spread from Africa to all corners of the globe. I doubt any other species has spread so widely so fast (not counting our pets and parasites).


49 Paul January 11, 2018 at 4:03 pm

So many examples come to mind.

Arguing with a student from Harvard’s Masters in Health Policy program, he was certain that doctors need to managed by society because they have biases don’t you know – they over-treat patients etc. The possibility that he and his classmates might have their own biases was utterly alien to him.

And at the micro level..colleagues in the business school in management who are certain that faculty must be micro-managed via learning outcome assessment processes that have 50 learning outcomes that must be measured even if the class only has 10 students and not to worry because one of their number was just appointed as a full time assessment coordinator…

I don’t call this hypocrisy though just self-interest.


50 Christine January 11, 2018 at 5:57 pm

I don’t get why policy analysis should fall in status. It’s as valuable as ever to try to analyze how to truly make the world a better place, isn’t it? Just because most people find it very, very difficult to put their own self-interest aside in pursuing social betterment goals, why does that mean we shouldn’t even bother to continue to study how to achieve these goals? We just need to draw attention to the difficulties posed by the Elephant in the Brain. It sounds more like Robin is saying we should we just give up. I need to read the book.


51 Robin Hanson January 11, 2018 at 6:14 pm

It is the not the activity that should fall in status but people who have been doing it recently, as they’ve been doing it badly.


52 Euphoniumparakenney January 11, 2018 at 6:12 pm

Are we sure it’s hypocrisy?
Isn’t it more like absurdity and the adaptive ability to recognize and define absurdity.
Wasn’t it delillo in underworld who correctly predicted the 135 dollar paltrow coffee enema and a lotta other stuff more accurately than most predictors. You whack the probability
Enough you lose objectivity


53 Mark Wylie January 11, 2018 at 6:41 pm

So at first glance, The Elephant in the Brain sounds like it’s just warmed-over Jonathan Haidt. Haidt in turn was little more than a regurgitation of Hume’s maxim that “reason is the slave of the passions.” Only Haidt’s metaphor involved us riding elephants instead of having them inside our brains. The way Haidt presents things, there’s no way to say that one side in a debate is right and the other wrong, they’re just “riding different elephants.” Except that he also implicitly claimed that the conservatives have better elephants. Because.


54 Thor January 12, 2018 at 1:41 pm

But, c’mon! Hume’s (in)famous remark was completely under theorized! That is, needed unpacking. This is not a complaint about Hume as such, because the relationship(s) between passion and reason is immensely complicated. But don’t give us this regurgitation malarky, if Hanson (and others) put flesh on bones.


55 Benjamin Cole January 11, 2018 at 7:48 pm

Policy analysts in foreign-policy national-security arena?


56 Glengarry Glen Ross Glendinning January 11, 2018 at 10:30 pm

Dear Robin, Can you and Jonathan Haidt please spend a few hours together, talk about your approaches, record it and podcast it? Tyler, can you set this up and/or participate? Then you should invite me.

I’m a policy analyst (trade policy, private sector, multiple clients including governments). Couldn’t agree more with what’s being said. Every institution, organisation and analyst has their motives and assumptions. (Me included). Sometimes we’ll have clients interested in more liberal trade rules. Sometimes it’s the opposite.

After doing this for more than a decade my indifference to political/institutional/emotional motivations has increased. It is now more akin to working as a wedding DJ, where you’ll bring a standard playlist of analysis tailored slightly for the client with some specific requests, particularly for the conclusion. In other words, you do your job depending on who’s paying, and temporarily take on their motivations.


57 Robin Hanson January 12, 2018 at 7:06 am

I am available to do a podcast with most anyone on our book. My limit is finding folks willing to do podcasts with me.


58 Niroscience January 12, 2018 at 9:34 am

I haven’t read the book (yet) but I plan to, it seems a lot more interesting to me than the previous one.

My question is how does Hanson know that policy analysts don’t know how hypocrtical a lot of stakeholders, political types, themselves are in their signalled motives and their hidden motives?

Policy analysts aren’t the same as the PR/Comms/Political wings, who signal for institutions or governments for a living (they may be even more cynical!).


59 Robin Hanson January 13, 2018 at 3:48 am

We can read what policy analysts say to each other in their books and journals, and hear what they say in meetings and conferences.


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