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The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  4,143 ratings  ·  452 reviews
Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains, therefore, are designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to help us get ahead socially, often via deception and self-deception. But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our own ugly motives, the better - and thus we don't like to t ...more
ebook, 408 pages
Published December 2017 by Oxford University Press
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Thore Husfeldt
Dec 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Maybe you think you know this already. You probably don’t. The world would be slightly better if you did, so: read it this book. It’s surprising and accessible.

The thesis is that our everyday actions are (1) motivated by social signalling and (2) hidden from ourselves and others. The important word is “social,” and the insight is that it is not “selfish.”

Self-deception (You may already know this part)

Maybe you already know about self-deception. I benefit from lying, and the most efficient way fo
Kevin Gomez
Mar 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My Ulterior Review

I don't care for reviewing this book. I only care that you, the person reading this review, know that I read this book. I'm virtue signalling like crazy.

It's enjoyable. I'm pretty much on board. The world is different now.
Patrik Lindenfors
Feb 16, 2018 rated it did not like it
This was a surprisingly disappointing book. As a practicing researcher in evolutionary biology, I hate to see my subject mistreated like this.

Pro tip: if you want to write about a subject - read up on it from other sources than best selling popular science accounts. For some examples, (1) Franz de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics is fun, but basically an exercise in anthropomorphizing, (2) Robin Dunbar's hypotheses of a "Dunbar number" limiting human group size has a badly thought through mechanism (m
Jun 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: waiting
The best book I've read in 2019 so far. Quite similar to "Nudge", "Freakonomics" and "Thinking Fast and Slow". Full of original thoughts and unique point of view. ...more
Apr 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
I almost rated this book a 3 because if you've read Khaneman, Cowen, Haidt, etc..., a lot of what's in here doesn't come as too much of a shock. However, there were enough individual nuggets in here (usually in the chapters that relate signaling theory to specific domains of human behavior like art or religion) that made me go, "Wow, I've never thought of it like that," that I felt compelled to bump it up to a 4. The playful writing style (there are like three literal winking emojis in the text) ...more
Mar 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Half way through the book, I was really liking it and very excited about the style and the content. It's hard to find a book in this area these days that says anything new or interesting, but this one seemed to be doing just that. Then, I soured on the book. A few things--they got some of the science wrong--especially the parts on sexual selection and art. There's a lot of new data on this saying that it's not just about signaling extra resources, but that we can just have a predilection for bea ...more
J & J
Nov 10, 2018 rated it liked it
Critique of the "authors" is that they mostly compiled other writers' or researchers' evidence (as shown by the copious amount of citations in the back of the book) although, in praise, at least they included research. Also- the book, in a good hearted attempt to show evidence, went awry with too many examples and interruptions. I enjoyed the graphs, data, statistics, etc but there were too many and they felt like a bombardment of information without allowing me time to let the information to
Mar 13, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: evolution
These authors identify some of the most interesting oddities about human behavior. They ask questions about why we do so much story telling and they do this...... by engaging in lots of story telling themselves. They did a great job of identifying the elephant in the brain, which is probably why this book received so many 5 star reviews. The problem is, while they were successful at identifying the elephant, and successful in creating more satisfying stories about the elephant, the methods they ...more
Sep 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I can only hope this book sees the attention and success it deserves. Disclaimer up front: I requested and received an advanced copy of the book. That said, my opinion is genuine.

You simply are not going to find another book that both describes how fundamental self-deception is to the workings of our minds and how this trait is writ large in society.

The first section of the book does a good job explaining how and why people deceive themselves, skirting, sometimes breaking, norms of behavior set
Jan 22, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: psychology
Put simply - this is a book that would only be surprising to economists. Boldly fighting a battle against a 'rational' model of human behavior that has already largely been debunked, even by economists, this book suggests that people's motives are often not what they claim, even to themselves. The Elephant in the Brain in this case refers to the human capacity for self-deception. The authors suggest this impacts a wide variety of human behavior, from how we interact with others to why we send ou ...more
Oct 13, 2018 rated it liked it
We don't go to art museums to see art. We go to art museums to signal our cultured intelligence to increase the supply of sexual partners. Because our culture has a lot of hangups, we prefer to obfuscate the true motive. For Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, a cigar is neither a cigar nor a phallic symbol, but it is a signal of something because all of us are caught up in a web of primal "signalling."

I mostly liked this book. For starters, the cover, a Rorschach elephant, is fantastic (unless it's
It's true. Humans are...just awful.
If you've ever wondered why nothing in society makes any damn sense, read this book immediately. So many things go unspoken, unacknowledged. You wonder how it is that people can come to believe their own lies. This is how. And we all do it. Much of what we call rationality is just the rationalizing we do in retrospect. “We deceive ourselves to better deceive others.”

It's rare that a book is this enlightening but also this accessible. (As it happens, the chapte
Vivek Aithal
Feb 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The Elephant in the Brain (TEitB) is one of the most remarkable books I've read in a long, long time. Before I jump into a long review, I want to reiterate what a joy it was to read this fun and insightful book (with over 100 pages of references). The crux of the book is this - In any (partially) mind-reading species such as humans, self deception is a feature and not a bug. Now say that out loud and listen to yourself carefully.

Reasons why you should read this book :
TEitB tries to answer some
Mar 19, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, 2019
2.5 stars rounded up. I'm rather disappointed by this book because it's basically right up my alley in terms of subject matter. Fundamentally, this book takes the position that people are rational, and if they are motivated to do things that aren't seemingly rational, then there are less evident motivations at play (that may or may not be known to the individual). My counter-position to this idea is that people aren't really all that rational, and even if they act in ways that don't mesh with ho ...more
Sreejith Puthanpurayil
Feb 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books I've read. It covers a lot of broad areas and tries to explore the multi-layered complexity of our interactions and institutions. ...more
Aug 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone prepared for hard introspection
The Elephant in the Brain is at times an uncomfortable read, but well-worth it for anyone willing to undertake its introspective incursion. Programmer Kevin Simler (of the fascinating Melting Asphalt blog) and economist Robin Hanson explore why we are prone to self-deception about our motives, and how this deception can shed light on otherwise inexplicable individual behaviours, as well as institutional inefficiencies. The titular elephant comes from the fact that nobody wants to discuss hid ...more
Farha Crystal
Dec 16, 2018 rated it liked it
We are evolved to be a social animal and we often brag about our intelligence based on cooperation skill from the viewpoint of wide and quick information processing skills than other animals.
The reason is evolved as a medium for connection between groups.

I have seen people who like sharing quotes. I have also seen people who get irritated about seeing people sharing quotes. There is subgroup inside this second group, who puts their reason( as an act of explanation for the former act) into an alt
Feb 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I liked this book within a few moments of starting it. Either I have really good taste, or the authors of this book have such a deep understanding of my hidden motives that they effectively manipulated me into thoroughly enjoying their book from the very start to the very end, which would also mean I have great taste.

That, of course, is the main purpose of this review: to tell you that I have great taste in books and that I am capable of understanding them. Also, that I can demonstrate these fa
Hatim Qa
Mar 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This books, as it's clear from the title, explores a lot of the psychology behind a lot of the decisions we take in our lives that we might not be willing to admit. How one might say that he wants to be a doctor because he wants to help people but he actually wants the prestige and the high pay that comes with being a doctor (not that there's anything wrong with it). How we claim that religion is making us better people when, for a lot of people, religion is something that we practice because th ...more
Siddarth Gore
Jul 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
For a nonbiological example, consider the difference between blue jeans and dress pants. Jeans are durable and don’t need to be washed every day, whereas dress pants demand a bit more in terms of upkeep—which is precisely why they’re considered more formal attire.

This is without a doubt 5 stars. It gives you an arsenal of things that you can use to judge people. You will find that in every conversation there are people who are adding their voice not to take the conversation forward but to let ot
Anurag Dahal
Apr 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Every self-deceived, selfish and seemingly pro-social humans (I mean everyone) should read this gorgeous flesh of tree.
Mar 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
By far one of the most (almost depressingly) influential books I've read in a while. Operates at an extreme density of insights / reality-check moments on a spectrum of topics from everyday life -- art, charity, politics, education, religion, medicine, etc.

Chapters follow a simple framework -- begin with observations of usual human activities (going to school / voting in elections / taking medicines, etc.), then describe why people think they do what they do (to get educated / to elect effective
Gus Hebblewhite
Jul 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
If you're already familiar with 'The Righteous Mind', 'The Case Against Education', 'The Myth of the Radical Voter', Effective Altruism, the famous panel studies on health insurance and so on, then you'll cover some familiar territory. Even so, it's an original take that ties together many areas I find independently interesting, and manages to soften its inherently cynical claims with a sense of humility and compassion. The chapters on Art, Charity, Politics and Education are all outstanding.

Paul moved to LibraryThing
There is nothing surprising or even taboo in this book. What sheltered lives do the authors lead?

This is one step above a bloke in a pub. An interesting, articulate guy but still not any kind of expert in the field. Scholarly paper - this is not.
Brian Cloutier
Apr 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very worth reading, dense and without any extra pages.

There's a fair amount of overlap with Inadequate Equilibria. Where that book claimed you might be able to do better than civilization when you're aiming in a direction most people's incentives don't point, this book points out plausible candidates for those incentives in a variety of fields.

The main idea is simple (often, we're just trying to get laid) but the real value of this book comes from just how many fields it applies that idea to. T
Debra Robert
Apr 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I joined a non- fiction book club, virtually, because of my time home due to the Coronavirus. I’m glad I did because I hadn’t heard of the book and it is one of self-reflection that I might have put on my “to read” list.

Simler and Hanson wrote in a way that made it easy to understand their points. They reviewed and set the stage. Some points made me think about what I really do things - like drive my Prius. I do care about gas mileage and saving money. My car does have nearly 200,000 miles on i
Gianluca Truda
Sep 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This thing red-pilled the hell out of me!

I'm pretty familiar with Hanson and his blog, as well as the concept of social signalling. However, the examples and nuances in the book truly hammered home how pervasive and powerful signalling and self-deception is in human behaviour. This book is less than 10% fluff and definitely worth the time to read. I was particularly taken by the sections on politics/voting, education, and healthcare — my views on these topics are irrevocably shifted.

I almost re
Kunal Sen
Oct 14, 2020 rated it liked it
We are primarily animals whose brains evolved to deal with the realities of our distant ancestors, surviving in the African savannas. It developed subconscious traits that we still carry, and it is these traits that guide most of our behaviors. However, the brain also evolved ways to hide these from our conscious brain as this obscuring offered some evolutionary advantage. Therefore, to understand our true intentions, we have to peel off layers of conscious virtuous intentions, and look for thes ...more
Tory White
Jan 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I found this book under “biological sciences” but I believe it would be better labelled as “pop sociology”. Many of the themes found in this book are ones I’ve heard in my Sociology classes—from the communal aspect of Religion to the displays of social status in body language. However, even though I am quite familiar with this subject matter, I was still incredibly surprised with how well the authors synthesized the information into a digestible, well-though-out read. I enjoyed this book tremend ...more
Sven Kirsimäe
Jan 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: at-audible, favorites
"Humans are animals. This has been a central theme of this book, but it's a fact we often lose sight fo in everyday life. It's too easy to get caught up in all the ways we're different from other animals: language, reasoning, music, technology, religion. And yet even in our uniqueness, humans were forged by the same processes responsible for all animal behaviors: natural and sexual selection, the relentless imperative to survive and reproduce." (the beginning of Chapter 11).

The book correlates w
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Kevin Simler is a writer and software engineer currently living in Brooklyn, NY. He's worked for ten years as a programmer, product designer, and engineering director, and continues to advise startups about technology, leadership, and recruiting. ...more

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