Book Summary – The Elephant in the Brain (Hidden Motives in Everyday Life)

Species that compete without restrictions waste precious energy. Redwood trees, for example, don’t need to be as tall as they are, but as a species, they aren’t able among themselves to coordinate a height cap – say, 100 feet – that would benefit all of them. On the other hand, humans have developed social norms and norm enforcement to turn “wasteful competition” into useful cooperation. Humanity uses “collective enforcement” to contain the power of its dominant members. Language produced written laws and rules to enforce them. Institutions evolved to deal with dangerous norm-breaking, like murder. In social interactions, certain norms are more flexible, and deceit and folly are more common, as in “crimes of intent,” when you act warmly toward a friend’s spouse but secretly intend seduction.

The “Meta-Norm” Against Cheating

Your incentives for fitting societal norms include maintaining your reputation and not becoming the subject of gossip. Being gossiped about undermines a person’s reputation; and reputation is valuable in forming and maintaining crucial alliances. Being perceived as someone who doesn’t tolerate cheaters serves almost as well as stopping a cheater in the act. Society condemns those who let others get away with norm-breaking behavior, thus providing a meta-norm giving those who behave well an advantage over norm-breakers.

“So what, exactly, is the elephant in the brain, this thing we’re reluctant to talk and think about? In a word, it’s selfishness – the selfish parts of our psyches.”

Everyone cheats, at least in small ways, because cheating is beneficial. Simple cheating evolved so people could avoid being seen as norm breakers. The brain adapted by developing mechanisms to detect cheating. Forms of cheating include offering ready-made fake excuses, conspiring in secret, partially violating a norm to avoid prosecution and using veiled insults to incite bad behavior in others. A modicum of discretion can disguise more overt norm-breaking, such as drinking in public. Everyone might know someone who drinks too much, but they also know that everyone else knows that they know. The fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” depicts the idea of “common knowledge”: When one innocent person declares what everyone already implicitly knows, it leads to deceit being exposed and punished.


Humans constantly deceive themselves. As part of a complex self-defense strategy, they distort or ignore crucial information – even at the risk of their health and safety. The brain may withhold information from some of its parts to assist self-deception. Sigmund Freud postulated that humans developed defense mechanisms to preserve their “self-esteem.” The human ego is too fragile to deal with troubling information, so it lies to itself to reduce anxiety. But why didn’t the brain evolve better self-esteem mechanisms? Research in psychology is trying to find answers to such questions.

“Our ancestors got smart primarily in order to compete against each other in a variety of social and political scenarios.”

Telling an outright lie is difficult due to the fear of getting caught. The best way to convince others you believe something is to believe it yourself. Exposing lies is difficult when the person telling them believes them. And, if you pretend to be a certain way long enough, you become the person you’re pretending to be.

“Counterfeit Reasons” and the “Press Secretary”

The brain’s ability to rationalize is so strong that it makes up stories without intending to deceive. When someone gives false information to win social acceptance, that person has internally accepted those counterfeit reasons. The brain has an “interpreter module” that manipulates information to benefit the mind’s preferred version of reality. Like a government press secretary, this part of your brain can do a better job of convincing other people of lies or near lies if it remains less than fully informed of your darker motives. For example, when answering the question “why?”, your brain comes up with any number of rationalizations – some highly suspect, some not. The trick is to get past the gatekeeper so you see the motive for what it really is.

“Hidden Motives in Everyday Life”

Actions always speak louder than words. This “honest signaling” conveys a lot about the signaler’s intentions – often inadvertently and unconsciously. For example, to demonstrate higher status, a leader will control eye contact, adopt a louder tone of voice and take a more open posture in front of subordinates. Showing a lack of fear indicates strength. Laughter is another nonverbal way of reacting to sensitive situations without risking censure because it is involuntary and, more importantly, deniable. People laugh without always knowing why, which makes laughing at people in distress, for example, not entirely unacceptable.

“No matter how fast the economy grows, there remains a limited supply of sex and social status – and earning and spending money is still a good way to compete for it.”

Nonverbal strategies convey information and disguise motives. For example, deciding not to state your intentions overtly helps shield you from direct scrutiny. Language developed primarily to share information, but all behavior has a cost–benefit structure. Listening “costs” less than speaking. Humans talk more than they listen because speaking demonstrates wit, comprehension, intelligence and status. Conversation allows both parties to assess each other’s value as an ally. Knowledge itself isn’t the most valuable asset. Facility with new information and knowing what is relevant garners more prestige.


Conspicuous consumption is a well-known competitive signal designed to earn status and respect. Purchases show off people’s wealth, rank and desirable personality traits. For example, travel indicates a sense of adventure. Advertising targets the way people perceive what their peers want. This “third-person effect” makes consumption into a social activity in that people purchase products to advertise their most desirable qualities to their peers.


Art making and art appreciation are costly behaviors that have been around for more than 100,000 years, so they must serve an evolutionary purpose. Art is evident in every culture on Earth, whether people make music, write poetry, style their hair, decorate their bodies or decorate their homes. Most evolutionary thinkers see art as an “adaptation” that contributes to species development, rather than as a “by-product” of development. Art impresses potential mates and allies because the effort it takes indicates a person’s capacity to waste valuable time and energy as well as other resources in order to compete.


Giving to charity appears altruistic but, in fact, charitable donors are mostly signaling their virtue to others. If people gave only to the most effective charities, not the most visible ones, GiveWell’s three most effective charities would receive the most donations. In 2015, that list included the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which helps secure treatment for people suffering with a specific parasitic worm. But givers don’t scale their donations based on their impact on the recipients. Instead, they seek positive social reinforcement from their peers by giving to higher profile groups, like the United Way or Make-A-Wish. Showing empathy is a valuable asset in society; it offers the empathetic person opportunities to attract allies and mates.


Educational institutions advertise their curricula to demonstrate their overt motive of providing learning to students. Their real motive is to grade, rank and credential students to benefit employers. School performance supposedly predicts future work performance and therefore certifies the student’s value to society. School serves other social functions as well, such as offering young adults networking, new experiences and help in finding mates. Education also has less worthy motives: to “indoctrinate” young people with state-endorsed patriotic sentiment and to “domesticate” them into following the rigid schedules, rules and expectations that the workplace demands.


Medical care costs more than it should because receiving it isn’t a simple supply and demand transaction. Doctors replace the role of mothers in providing “conspicuous care” to earn a patient’s loyalty. Even people who care for family members want others to see that they care about their loved ones. For example, bringing home-cooked food to an ailing relation is better than bringing store-bought food, because you made the extra effort. That’s why palliative care is so elaborate; no one wants to appear not to be doing everything possible to alleviate a loved one’s suffering, even if it doesn’t improve his or her quality of life. Most medical interventions don’t improve outcomes, and they sometimes cause new problems. Preventive care is a better strategy, but it lacks the element of conspicuous care.


The common assumption about religious beliefs is based on cause and effect: People believe in God and, therefore, practice their religion. But what if they did so without belief? While religious belief does satisfy many inward longings, it is nonetheless socially beneficial to show fellow believers that you believe. Sharing communal practices and beliefs and sacrificing narrow self-interest for the good of the community rewards the participant with a sense of belonging, trust and alliances. It is always beneficial not only to appear to believe, but to actually believe, in order to persuade others of your belief.


When it comes to political engagement, most people want to think of themselves as a “do-right” who focuses earnestly on what’s best for their country. Statistics show that many voters don’t vote based on knowledge of the issues. Instead, they cast their ballots more in response to social pressures from their community, which rewards emotional attachment to ideology more than it rewards reasoned debate.

Learning from the Elephant in Your Brain

With improved “situational awareness,” you can identify hidden motives in yourself and in others. While being selfish is natural, it isn’t necessarily good. Still, it’s biologically impossible to “rise above” one’s impulses. Acknowledging difficult truths demonstrates honesty, intelligence and even courage. No one can be wholly good. Actions do speak louder than words, and people judge you more on what you do than on what they perceive you secretly want. Ultimately, doing good for others will benefit you – like many actions people take based on such “enlightened self-interest” – will also improve society. With regard to institutions, probing the hidden motives of education and medicine may identify waste and improve services. For all of humanity’s selfishness, people demonstrate a tremendous capacity to cooperate and help one another. Evolution favors ethical decision making for human survival and enrichment.