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The Elephant in the Brain Book Summary – Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler

What you will learn from reading The Elephant in the Brain

– The role of gossip in norm enforcement and how we regulate our social groups

– The role of status and why we are always pursuing it.

– Why charitable giving is essentially an advertisement of our generosity. 

The Elephant in the Brain Book Summary

The Elephant in the Brain Book Summary offers explanations to a huge range of human behaviours. If you want to understand others and what really makes people tick this is a must read. 


The Elephant in the Brain Thesis:

1. People are judging us all the time. They want to know whether well make good friends, allies, lovers, or leaders. And one of the important things they’re judging is our motives. Why do we behave the way we do? Do we have others’ best interests at heart, or are we entirely selfish?

2. Because others are judging us, we’re eager to look good. So we emphasize our pretty motives and downplay our ugly ones. It’s not lying, exactly, but neither is it perfectly honest.

Many other ideas, however, face an uphill battle and may never achieve widespread acceptance. When an idea emphasizes competition and other ugly motives, people are understandably averse to sharing it. It sucks the energy out of the room.


The Landscape for Brain Evolution:

1. Ecological challenges, such as warding off predators, hunting big game, domesticating fire, finding new food sources, and adapting rapidly to new climates. These activities pit humans against their environment and are therefore opportunities for cooperation.

2. Social challenges, such as competition for mates, jockeying for social status, coalition politics (alliances, betrayals, etc.), intragroup violence, cheating, and deception. These activities pit humans against other humans and are therefore competitive and potentially destructive.

Many of us would prefer the keys to our intelligence to be found somewhere in the pleasing light of ecological challenges, implying that our extra grey matter evolved in service of co operation.


Competition and Co-operation:

What’s much harder to acknowledge are the competitions that threaten to drive wedges into otherwise cooperative relationships: sexual jealousy, status rivalry among friends, power struggles within a marriage, the temptation to cheat, politics in the workplace.

In particular, we’re going to look at three of the most important “games” played by our ancestors: sex, social status, and politics.

As Geoffrey Miller argues in The Mating Mind, “Our minds evolved not just as survival machines, but as courtship machines,” and many of our most distinctive behaviors serve reproductive rather than survival ends. There are good reasons to believe, for example, that our capacities for visual art, music, storytelling, and humor function in large part as elaborate mating displays, not unlike the peacock’s tail.

Now, our competitions for prestige often produce positive side effects such as art, science, and technological innovation. But the prestige-seeking itself is more nearly a zero-sum game, which helps explain why we sometimes feel pangs of envy at even a close friend’s success.

Our inner ape: Two-against-one maneuvering is what lends chimpanzee power struggles both their richness and their danger. Coalitions are key. No male can rule by himself, at least not for long.

So it is ultimately the same drive-wanting to win at life’s various competitions-that motivates both the scheming sociopath and the charming courtier.

The other important similarity is that each game requires two complementary skill sets: the ability to evaluate potential partners and the ability to attract good partners. In sex, the partners we’re looking for are mates. In social status, were looking for friends and associates. And in politics, we’re looking for allies, people to team up with.



The temptation to deceive is ubiquitous. Deception allows an agent to reap benefits without incurring costs. That’s why the best signals-the most honest ones-are expensive.” More precisely, they are differentially expensive: costly to produce, but even more costly to fake.

In the human social realm, honest signaling and the handicap principle are best reflected in the dictum, “Actions speak louder than words.” The problem with words is that they cost almost nothing; talk is usually too cheap. Which is a more honest signal of your value to a company: being told “great job!” or getting a raise?

Meanwhile, close friends want to distinguish themselves from casual friends, and one of the ways they can do it is by being unfriendly, at least on the surface.

Thus signals are often arranged into a hierarchy, from non-signals to signals to counter-signals. Outsiders to an interaction may not always be able to distinguish non-signals from counter-signals. But insiders usually know how to interpret them, if only on an intuitive level.


The Impact of Weapons on Politics and Behaviour:

Weapons are a game changer for two reasons. First, they level the playing field between weak and strong members of a group.

Another way weapons alter the balance of power applies to projectile weapons like stones or spears. Such distance weapons make it much easier for a coalition to gang up on a single individual.

So, if Boehm, Bingham, and the others are right, it was learning to use deadly weapons that was the inflection point in the trajectory of our species’ political behavior.


Social Norms and Gossip:

The essence of a norm, lies not in the words we use to describe it, but in which behaviours get punished and what form the punishment takes. 

Norm enforcement involves more than simply detecting the violation, it requires successfully prosecuting the violation. 

One of our norm-evasion adaptations is to be highly attuned to the gaze of others, especially when it’s directed at us. 

Norms we like to skirt include – dress codes, slacking off at work, flirting inappropriately and acting politically in small groups. 

Gossip – talking about people behind their backs, often focusing on their flaws or misdeeds is a big feature of every society ever studied. 

The Utility: Gossip is the way we co ordinate on throwing someone out. 


Social Regulation and Secrets:

We regulate intentions. Example – friendly with a spouse or friendly with romantic intentions. That becomes in appropriate.

This is why we have evolved to hide our intentions, even from ourselves. We lie to ourselves to better lie to others as Robert Trivers says.

Self deception – hoping to intimidate them (the madman), earn their trust (the loyalist), change their beliefs (the cheerleader), or throw them of the trail (the cheater). 


Two dimensions to keeping a secret: 

How widely it’s known.

How openly or commonly it’s known.

A secret can be widely known but not openly known. 

Pre-texts – ready made excuses or reasons. They can be socially acceptable i.e. I’m not drinking because I’m driving. People tend not to question these excuses. 


Self Sabotage and Ignorance as Strategy:

Cryptic communication is used to hide meanings of things so only target audience understands. 

There’s no value in sabotaging yourself per se. The value lies in convincing the other players that you’ve sabotaged yourself.  

When we commit ourselves (or indicate that we have) if often changes the incentives for other players. I.e in chicken. Taking the steering wheel off and subjecting yourself to a head first collision.  

In many ways, belief is a political act. This is why we’re typically keen to believe a friends version of a story. 


Real Definition of Loyalty:

It’s not loyal for a man to stay with his girlfriend if he has no other prospects. Loyalty happens when someone remains committed despite a strong temptation to defect.


We are PR machines not rational Machines:

Confabulation – anytime we give a reason there’s a risk we’re just making things up. Every justification or explanation of a motive is a suspect.

We cherry pick our most acceptable, pro social reasons while concealing the uglier ones.

We have many reasons for our behaviours but we habitually accentuate and exaggerate our pretty, prosocial motives and downplay our ugly selfish ones. 

We’re often rewarded for acting on selfish impulses but less so for acknowledging them. Our brains have responded predictably to those incentives. 

Self-discretion – spending more time and attention on positive, self flattering information and less time on shameful information. 


The Interpreter Brain Module:

Michael Gazzaniga concluded from his years of research, including later work on healthy patients, is that all human brains contain a system he calls the “interpreter module”

The job of this module is to interpret or make sense of our experiences by constructing explanations: stories that integrate information about the past and present, and about oneself and the outside world. This interpreter works to the best of its abilities given the information available to it.

In many ways, its job-our job-isn’t to make decisions, but simply to defend them. “You are not the king of your brain,” says Steven Kaas. “You are the creepy guy standing next to the king going, ‘A most judicious choice, sire.”

Adults, of course, are more cunning about their counterfeit reasons, and it’s commensurately harder to catch them in the act. Adult Press Secretaries are highly trained professionals, their skills honed through years of hard experience; above all, they know how to give rationalizations that are plausible. And thus when we (outsiders) are faced with a suspicious reason, it’s almost impossible to prove that it’s counterfeit.

These two examples illustrate one of the most effective ways to rationalize, which is telling half-truths. In other words, we cherry-pick our most acceptable, prosocial reasons while concealing the uglier ones.


The Role of Status:

Status comes in two varieties: dominance and prestige. 

Our behaviour in prescence of dominance is governed by avoidance instincts: fear, submission and appeasement. 

Our behaviour in presence of prestigious people is governed by approach instincts. We’re attracted to them and want to spend time with them. 


The Role of Humour:

Laughter is used to gauge and calibrate social boundaries – both behavioural (norms) and gourd membership boundaries (who deserves our empathy) – This calibration is a delicate act. 



Speaking as a function is in part an act of showing off. 

Information acts as a tool. Sharing these tools is a good idea. Therefore people pick others who have a backpack full of tools. 

Every remark made by a speaker contains two messages for listener the text and subtext. The text is the information while the subtext says by the way I’m a person who knows such things. 

Every conversation is like a (mutual) job interview, where each of us is ‘applying’ for the role of friend, lover or leader. 

In order to get credit in the speaking game you have to speak up: you have to show off your tools.

Like news and personal conversations academic conversations are full of people slowing off to impress others. 



Third person effect – as we are too smart to fall for persuasion we are targeted indirectly by peers. If people know this brand is expensive by buying it I show off my wealth.

We think we are a buying something we want for ourselves, not because we’re trying to manage our image or manipulate the impression of our friends. 

Therefore the third person effect preys on your signalling instincts. What will that product tell others about me? 

The fact we often discuss our purchases also explains how we’re able to use services and experiences to advertise our desirable qualities. E.g. I bought this because they were manufactured without child labour. 

A 22-year old woman who spends six months backpacking across Asia sends a powerful message about her curiosity, open-mindedness and even courage. 

When things fit we hardly notice them. But when anything is out of place, it suddenly makes us uncomfortable. When it fits with our social and self images. Thus any deviation is liable to raise eyebrows. The discomfort you may feel is alice to how carefully you’ve constructed your lifestyle to make a particular set of impressions. 


Humans and Art:

Consumers appreciate same artwork less when they’re told it was made by multiple artists instead of a single artist. This is because they’re assessing the work by how much effort went into it, rather than simply the result – show effort…. 

People like the original not a replica.  

The way we approach art – looking beyond objects intrinsic properties in order to evaluate the effort and skill of artist is crucial to experience. Is a seashell from beach? Or chiselled out of marble.

Our standard for art also evolves in response to what we know about the extrinsic factors involved in a given art form.  – how much effort did it take to make that. 

Technological and aesthetic trends combine as new technology forces artists and consumers to choose between difficult “old-fashioned” techniques and easier but more precise new techniques. 


The role of Charity:

5 Factors in Giving: 

Visibility – give more when being watched 

Peer Pressure – giving responds strongly to social influences 

Proximity – We give more locally than globally 

Relatability – Give more to people when identifiable (faces and stories, not facts and numbers) 

Mating motive – more generous when primed with mating motive 

Giving donors ways to signal wealth, pro social orientation and compassion will encourage more donations. 

Charity tends not to be planned, leaning towards a more spontaneous donation, usually in response to solicitation. It’s simply part of our character to help the people infront of us. 

We’re motivated to appear generous not simply to be generous because we get social rewards only for what others notice.  Charity is an advertisement.


The Role of Education:

Traditional view of education is that it raises a student’s value via improvement – by reshaping and polishing. 

Signaling model is that education raises a subjects value by certification – using tests and measurements to make its value clearer to a buyer. 

Peter Thiel – Top US colleges draw their mystique from zero-sum competition. Only allowing the best of the best in. Exclusivity. 

School has become a form of domestication.  

Schools originally set out to modify the habits of bodily hygiene and cleanliness, social and domestic manners, and way of looking at things and judging them.  



Most published medical research is wrong (or at least overstated). Medical journals  are so eager to publish ‘interesting’ new results that they don’t wait for the results to be replicated by others.  


The Role of Religion:

Rituals of sacrifice are honest signals who cost makes them hard to fake. It’s easy to say “I’m a muslim” but to get full credit you also have to act like a muslim. 

By setting up barriers to entry and forcing initiates to pay a high cost, groups ensure that only the most devoted and committed are admitted as members. 



Contexts that reward loyalty are a breeding ground for self-deception and strategic irrationality. For our beliefs to function as loyally symbols we simply can’t ‘follow the facts’ and ‘listen to reason’. Therefore we believe things that are beyond reason, things that other, less loyal people wouldn’t believe.