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The Elephant in the Brain

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The Elephant in the Brain

Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Oxford UP,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

What better way to deceive others than to deceive yourself?

Editorial Rating



  • Comprehensive
  • Well Structured
  • Engaging


Kevin Simler, a blogger and software engineer, and Robin Hanson, an economics professor at George Mason University, present this entertaining study of how people act on and express their hidden motives. Like the so-called elephant in the room that no one talks about even though it is obvious, the “elephant in the brain” is human selfishness. The brain evolved not only to allow people to deceive one another, but to allow people to deceive even themselves. Counterintuitively, the less you know about your own hidden motives, the better you can convince others of your good will. With humor and lively prose, the authors probe the uncomfortable truths that motivate altruistic activities, such as voting and giving to charity. Avoiding outright cynicism, they suggest that selfish motives bring a benefit: cooperation on behalf of social welfare. Their insights will serve readers interested in the behavioral sciences or evolution and those seeking self-understanding.


Why People Conceal Their Motives

Humans aren’t much different from their primate relatives. People always compete for a place in the dominance hierarchy. They pursue their self-interests in almost all social interactions. Although candidly admitting your selfish motives isn’t socially acceptable, human behavior is almost never what it seems. And, people constantly judge each other’s actions and motives. Like the so-called elephant in the room that no one talks about, the “elephant in the brain” is human selfishness. People disguise their motives to appear less self-interested than they truly are. They also hide these motives from themselves. The human brain evolved to deceive itself for a strategic reason: The better you hide your motives from yourself, the more successfully you can hide them from everyone else. But, with better awareness and insight, you can confront what really motivates you more honestly.

Competition and Evolution

Humans may have developed big brains because they must cooperate to survive. The less salubrious reason is to navigate “social challenges”: alliances, intergroup...

About the Authors

Kevin Simler worked as an engineer and product designer for Palantir Technologies. Robin Hanson, PhD, is an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University.

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