The Elephant in the Brain

What it’s about:  There are the reasons we say we’re doing something and then there are the real reasons.

Interesting book bits and my thoughts:

  • The invention of weapons altered the path to success for early hominids from physical strength to coalition building.
  • “Common knowledge” (something everyone knows and everyone knows that everyone knows it) allows for a certain amount of conspiring and norm pushing. For example, everyone knows what’s in the brown paper bag that guy is drinking from, but it’s in the bag and so we can all look the other way. Also, Seinfeld can do an episode about being the master of your domain so long as nobody overtly says what is being mastered.
  • Using self-deception can help a marathon runner finish the race, but it can also be self-defeating when trying to preserve self-esteem. “It would be like trying to warm yourself during winter by aiming a blow-dryer at the thermostat.” I work in public education. The number of hair dryers pointed at thermostats is significant.
  • Strategic ignorance is a type of self-deception that can work in certain situations. Maybe this is what Trump is doing?
  • The Chinese parable of Zhao Gao is worth understanding in these times. “The truth is a poor litmus test of loyalty.” Again, Trump.
  • Laughter is way of playing around with, and occasionally subverting, norms. “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.” (Oscar Wilde)
  • Too often, conversation is an exercise in showing off. By way of example, think about how scientists compete to give presentations at conferences but that listening only costs the registration fee.
  • The Prius is the best-selling hybrid because it looks like a hybrid. It’s called signaling.
  • BMW and other luxury brands advertise as much to those who cannot afford their products as to those who can. It’s called signaling.
  • Much of the mystique of higher education comes from the zero-sum admissions competition. It’s called signaling. This example reminds me of something Scott Galloway wrote in The Four. Selective colleges bragging about admissions rates is like a food pantry bragging about how many starving people it turned away.
  •  It’s hard to underestimate the importance of loyalty signaling. It is on display in churches, sports stadiums, and politics. It’s not socially acceptable to use race as a loyalty metric, but it is okay to use political identity. Again, Trump and other political demagogues.

Let’s finish with a quote:

“In the end, our motives were less important than what we managed to achieve by them. We may be competitive social animals, self-interested and self-deceived, but we cooperated our way to the god-damned moon.”