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You Should Read Simler and Hanson’s *Elephant in the Brain*

Summary:
Book/Article Reviews In case you haven’t heard, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson have published a remarkable book with Oxford University Press: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.  Here is my blurb on the back cover: “If you want to know what makes people tick, read The Elephant in the Brain. Simler and Hanson have created the most comprehensive, powerful, unified explanation of human nature and behavior to date.” —Jason Brennan, Professor of Business, Georgetown University I was one of the referees for the book for Oxford, and I’ll share some of my referee comments now: This is without a doubt the most fascinating and interesting of the 30 or so books I’ve refereed in my

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Book/Article Reviews

In case you haven’t heard, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson have published a remarkable book with Oxford University Press: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. 

Here is my blurb on the back cover:

“If you want to know what makes people tick, read The Elephant in the Brain. Simler and Hanson have created the most comprehensive, powerful, unified explanation of human nature and behavior to date.” —Jason Brennan, Professor of Business, Georgetown University

I was one of the referees for the book for Oxford, and I’ll share some of my referee comments now:

This is without a doubt the most fascinating and interesting of the 30 or so books I’ve refereed in my career.

Bottom line: This is a fantastic book and I highly recommend publication. It  manages to do what an academic book needs to do, but is written in way that can be understood by a wide audience, and further, thanks to both the style and content, is likely to be widely read.

What makes people tick? If you want to know the answer, this is the book. The authors give us the best, most comprehensive, most powerful theory of human nature so far, an account that rigorously explains almost everything.

What’s especially powerful about this is how well it integrates everything we know in psychology. A major problem with psychology, as a field, is that while psychologists sometimes replicate certain findings and thus discover certain quirks and biases, they don’t have anything like a unified theory of human behavior. While economists can ultimately put everything in terms of supply and demand curves, or chemists can describe bonding and chemistry in terms of electron potentials, psychologists just seem to have a mess of disparate phenomena. This book provides a unifying theory. What’s more, it does so by making sense of biological pressures and thus integrates psychology with biology.

Style-wise, this book is fantastic, and I expect it will be a big seller. It has the level of argumentative rigor needed to satisfy most academics, though one might imagine the authors including technical appendices and the like if that were their primary concern. It reminds me a great deal of Dan Ariely’s and Jonathan Haidt’s books (and to a lesser extent, Ridley, or the Freakonomics books), in that it does a great job of introducing a wide range of background ideas to a popular audience. It’s eminently readable. But while Ariely, Haidt, and the others I mentioned are just popularizing previously existing academic research (including their own), this book does more; it’s adding to our knowledge because it integrates this research to produce a compelling theory of human nature. It’s making a new argument, or, more precisely, making the argument better. It’s not just explaining what the authors already know but adding to our knowledge.

Phil Magness and I summarize one of their chapters in our forthcoming book on higher education. (We have a chapter on how academics use moral language as a cover for the pursuit of their self interest, e.g., the adjuncts’ right movement, professors’ arguments for tenure, and the new wave of campus protests):

Our brains are funny. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson show, in their fascinating book The Elephant in the Brain, we humans are evolved to engage in self-deception about our own motivations. Our brains trick us into believing we have better motives than we in fact have.

The reason behind this is simple: We all benefit from living with people who generally play by public-spirited moral rules. We’ve evolved in general to play along with such rules. But we also can benefit from cheating those rules on the margins and taking advantage of others’ generosity, fair play, and good will. However, other people are at the same time have evolved to punish rule-breakers. Further, they’ve evolved to read our minds; people are good at discerning our conscious motives. Accordingly, our brains have evolved a defense mechanism: we often subconsciously pursue our self-interest, but at the same time consciously and sincerely believe we are motivated by altruism. Your brain pursues selfish behaviors but hides your own motives from you. You think you mean well, so others think you mean well, but really you’re out for number one.

This is true even of charity. Even charity isn’t about helping. Rather, charity is about conspicuous caring. It’s about signaling to other people—potential business partners, co-workers, neighbors, and mates—that we are successful, have a pro-social orientation, are trustworthy, and have empathy. Just as wearing a Rolex screams, “I’ve made it!,” altruistic giving is mostly about signaling to others, “Deal with me! Partner with me! Have sex with me! I’m good!”[i]

How do we know that? Simler and Hanson suggest we look for the best explanation of their behavior. For instance, it turns out that when people give away money to charity, almost none of them do any homework to determine how much good they’re doing. The amount and rates at which they give turns out to be insensitive to the amount of good the charity does. Fewer than 3% of people will actually change their intended donations in order to do measurably more good. Instead, numerous experiments and studies find that the following factors determine when and how much we give:

  • Visibility. We give more when we’re being watched or when others will know how much we give.
  • Peer pressure. We give more when pressured to give, especially by people we know, or who have high status, or who are in our network.
  • Mating motive. We’re give more when we are primed to think about sex or mating opportunities; we give more if the solicitor is sexually attractive.[ii]

In short, giving is explained more by status-seeking and coalition-building, and not so much by the good charity does. But of course, they say, it doesn’t feel like that’s what we’re aiming for; we genuinely believe we want to help.

            Simler and Hanson aren’t saying we’re perfectly selfish. If we were all sociopaths, none of this signaling would work. Rather, a better way to think of it is that we’re mostly selfish, but most of us (except sociopaths) have some genuinely moral motives. We can benefit from tricking others into thinking we have stronger moral motives that we in fact have, but in order to trick them, we first trick ourselves.

If even charitable behavior—that is, giving to others—is better explained by self-interest than by genuine attempts to help others, it sure would be surprising if politics—contests for monopoly rights on coercive and redistributive power—were any different. If charity’s this bad, it’s not surprising politics would be worse.

[i] Simler and Hanson 2018, pp. xxx-xxx.

[ii] Simler and Hanson 2018, xxx.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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