hanson simler

Outline of the new Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler book

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, and here is the opening bit of the summary:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains were designed not just to gather and hunt, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means. The problem is that we like to pretend otherwise; we’re afraid to acknowledge the extent of our own selfishness. And this makes it hard for us to think clearly about ourselves and our behavior.

The Elephant in the Brain aims to fix this introspective blind spot by blasting floodlights into the dark corners of our minds. Only when everything is out in the open can we really begin to understand ourselves: Why do humans laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do people brag about travel? Why do we so often prefer to speak rather than listen?

Like all psychology books, The Elephant in the Brain examines many quirks of human cognition. But this book also ventures where others fear to tread: into social critique. The authors show how hidden selfish motives lie at the very heart of venerated institutions like Art, Education, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion.

Acknowledging these hidden motives has the potential to upend the usual political debates and cast fatal doubt on many polite fictions. You won’t see yourself — or the world — the same after confronting the elephant in the brain.

Due out January 1, 2018, of course this is essential reading.

My Conversation with Robin Hanson

I am honored to have been able to do this, here is the podcast and transcript.  The topics we covered included…the ideas of Robin, most of all: “With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?”

Here is one exchange:

COWEN: Let’s say I’m an introvert, which by definition is someone who’s not so much out there. Why is that signaling? Isn’t that the opposite of signaling? If you’re enough of an introvert, it doesn’t even seem like countersignaling. There’s no one noticing you’re not there.

HANSON: I’ve sometimes been tempted to classify people as egg people and onion people. Onion people have layer after layer after layer. You peel it back, and there’s still more layers. You don’t really know what’s underneath. Whereas egg people, there’s a shell, and you get through it, and you see what’s on the inside.

In some sense, I think of introverts as going for the egg people strategy. They’re trying to show you, “This is who I am. There’s not much more hidden, and you get past my shell, and you can know me and trust me. And there’s a sense in which we can form a stronger bond because I’m not hiding that much more.”


COWEN: Here’s another response to the notion that everything’s about signaling. You could say, “Well, that’s what people actually enjoy.” If signaling is 90 percent of whatever, surely it’s evolved into being parts of our utility functions. It makes us happy to signal. So signaling isn’t just wasteful resources.

What we really want to do is set up a world that caters to the elephant in our brain, so to speak. We just want all policies to pander to signaling as much as possible. Maybe make signals cheaper, but just signals everywhere now and forever. What says you?

HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes—they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

And of course I asked:

COWEN: What offends you deep down? You see it out there. What offends you?

And why exactly does it work to invite your date up to “see my etchings”?  And where is “The Great Filter”?  And how much will we identify with our “Em” copies of ourselves?  There is also quantum computing, Robin on movies, and the limits of Effective Altruism.  On top of all that, the first audience question comes from Bryan Caplan.

You should all buy and read Robin’s new book, with Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

Best non-fiction books of 2018

First let me start with three books from my immediate cohort, which I will keep separate from the rest:

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education.

Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.

All of those are wonderful, but Stubborn Attachments is the best of the three.  Otherwise, we have the following, noting that the link often contains my longer review.  These are in the order I read them, not by any other kind of priority.  Here goes:

Varun Sivaram’s Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet.

Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game.

Charles C. Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.

Cecilia Heyes, Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking.

David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here.

Nick Chater, The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind.

Allen C. Guelzo, Reconstruction: A Concise History.

Emily Dufton, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.

Philip Dwyer, Napoleon: Passion, Death, and Resurrection, 1815-1849.

David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History.

David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History.

Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.

W.J. Rorabaugh, Prohibition: A Concise History.

Victor Sebestyen, Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror.

Porochista Khakpour, Sick: A Memoir.

M. Mitchell Waldrop, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the revolution that made computing personal.

David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.

There are also books which I think very likely deserve to make this list, but I have not had time to read much of them.  Most notably, those include the new biographies of Alain Locke, Thomas Cromwell, Gandhi, and Winston Churchill.

Overall I thought this was a remarkably strong year for intelligent non-fiction.  And as always, I have forgotten some splendid books — usually it is yours.  Sorry!

Friday assorted links

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

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.

*The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life*

The authors are Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, and now it is out!

Robin reports:

On press coverage, back in July Publishers Weekly had a paragraph on it, the Boston Globe did an interview of me back then that they just released, Vice interviewed me recently so I expect that out soon, and I’m told that a Wall Street Journal review is forthcoming. Amazon now has 5 reviews, Goodreads has 7, and 2 reviews have appeared on blogs.

I am pleased to be doing a Conversation with Robin about the book, and other matters too.  But don’t forget — conversations aren’t about talking!

Additions to my best books of the year list

Since my longer, full list (and for fiction), more has come out, or I have become aware of some omissions, listed here:

The Valmiki Ramayana, translated by Bibek Debroy.  I have only browsed this so far, but it is definitely worthy of mention.

Peter Guardino, Dead March: History of the Mexican-American War.  The link brings you to my commentary.

Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream: A Novel, [Distancia de Rescate].

Navid Kermani, Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity.  My review is behind the link.

Claire Tomalin, A Life of My Own.  Ditto, a real favorite.

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.  At first this was slated for my 2018 list, but it turns out the Kindle edition is out now, so it gets to make both lists.

The New Testament, translated by David Bentley Hart.

Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson.  I haven’t read this yet, but it is getting consistently rave reviews.

Karl Sigmund, Exact Thinking in Demented Times.  Again, a review is behind the link.