Notes from The Elephant in the Brain

1/ Reading @robinhanson and @kevinsimler new book ‘Elephant in the brain’. Here are my notes on big ideas from the book.

via official book website

2/ Human intelligence evolved as a result of arms race of getting ahead in social situations where two contrasting incentives always existed: to co-operate or to compete.

3/ Unlike chimps where hierarchy is strictly from alpha male to least powerful individuals, language allowed humans to form coalitions and keep most aggressive individuals in check. These coalitions are where laws and norms come from

4/ Since norms cannot be exactly specified, human brains evolved to find subtle ways to work around them (lying) and to detect others working their ways around them (detecting lying)

5/ Since humans have to co-operate but others suspect that our intentions are not true, we evolved honest signals such as body language, shame, guilt, etc.

6/ Since other humans can detect our dishonest intentions, lying to others is difficult but we still have to find ways to take opportunities to exploit social situations to get ahead – to get sex, status, power.

7/ Our brains evolved to lie to themselves in order to give honest signals in social situations. That is why in order to blend in a social society, it’s not just enough to lie that you believe in god, you have to actually believe that (taking help from all sorts of cognitive biases)

8/ Since we act and verbalize conscious thoughts in social situations, our brains give censored version of reality to consciousness that mostly contains info that makes us feel good about ourselves (such that others mistake us for actually being that good)

9/ This last idea is radical. This means all our conscious thoughts (and ideas about ourselves) are hopelessly twisted and disjoint from reality

10/ A wrong but confident person can get ahead in social conditions while right but self doubting person makes no progress

11/ This also explains why you find strong opinions on social media. Nobody retweets uncertain, heavily caveated opinions.

12/ Our conscious selves are less CEO more like PR teams. The ‘conscious self’ doesn’t decide as much as it defends what has been decided. It’s amazing how even we don’t have privileged info on what’s going on in our brains

13/ Since PR team has to spin everything into a positive light, while talking about ourselves we always cherry pick (unconsciously) our positive, noble traits while conveniently leave our selfish reasons.

14/ Body language evolved to send honest signals – it’s hard to fake because body signals are functionally related to messages they signals. Comfort signaled by being open is hard to fake because you invite attack from potential enemies (so you only signal comfort when you mean it)

15/ Social status: dominance is status we get from being able to intimidate. Prestige is status we get when others want to mimic us / be around us

16/ Body language doesn’t register in our conscious because when asked to explain our body language – we have plausible deniability. We can say we were merely being friendly when we were flirting. Things hidden from our consciousness could be a feature not a bug.

17/ Laughter is a signal to others that situation isn’t serious and that we’re just playing. It’s a signal that our actions or threats shouldn’t be perceived as serious (even through they might seem aggressive)

18/ We play to practice and explore norms of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed in social environment capable of in a safe environment

19/ Laughter allows us to explore boundaries of what cannot be said openly because if confronted we can always deny later that we were serious about it

20/ Speaking has costs associated: sharing of information you could have used personally and the cost of acquiring info. On the surface, it would seem we should listen a lot more (to acquire info for free) than speak. But that’s not what happens

21/ reason is that by speaking, we are essentially showing off by giving important info and hence raising social status (to win potential allies for our causes)

22/ we feel attracted to confident individuals because we take their confidence for a signal towards a hidden strength. Confident people walk fast and hence take risk of attracting competition/attack, hence confident is taken as honest signal of strength

23/ Function of news isn’t to know the truth (if it was people would put effort to weed out fake news). Function of news is to know things you can talk about to others that they may be interested in (hence elevating your status)

24/ Academics isn’t driven by finding the truth. It’s driven by elevating the prestige by attending prestigious institutes, studying under prestigious professors, going to prestigious conferences and speaking there. This is why research in non-hot areas remains hidden for so long.

25/ Academic sponsors also want to associate themselves with prestigious issues and researchers, and not necessarily optimise for most impact on humanity per dollar

26/ Even though technology rises productivity, we still work as hard as our grandfathers because there a limited number of sex and status going around. This causes us to competitively work harder than our neighbours, and no amount of automation will reduce our working hours

27/ When people buy expensive environmentally friendly products, they are signalling that they are willing to forgo luxury/money for being a good person

28/ If we are happy, we want to share it with others because we want to signal: associating with us can bring happiness to us (hence elevating our status)

29/ The value people derive from products and services is not just their own consumption value but also signalling value: what will others who know I’m consuming this think about me. Does this elevate my status amongst the tribe we want to belong?

30/ Advertising either targets us individually (information: Colgate cleans teeth) or our perception of how other people think. The latter – lifestyle advertising – is used by lots of brands.

31/ Like when we see an ad of BMW that says driving pleasure, we may believe that other people know BMW’s drivers are having fun. So if you want to be seen as having fun, you prefer BMW.

32/ This is why advertising slots on Super Bowl is so expensive – companies are not just paying for reaching 50m people not that each one of them knows that 50m people have seen the same ad

33/ Sports and Art are used to signals things: athletics and dance to show genetic fitness, visual arts to show affordance of wasting time and energy to attract mates, masks be so visible in the wild to show that you can defend yourself well when attacked

34/ ‘Showing off’ is one of the important motives for making art. When people marvel at a famous abstract art (say Mondrian) in a gallery, they aren’t appreciating straight lines but the fact that the artist managed to convince everyone that these straight lines are worth putting in a gallery and charging money for

35/ Our appreciation for art depends more on what it says about the artist and less about inherent ‘look and feel’ of art. When we look at Mona Lisa, we appreciate Leonardo for creating world’s most famous paining and less the smiling lady

36/ Similarly, when we stand in queue for hours to see the original Mona Lisa at the Louvre, we do it so we can tell people we saw the original one. We we really wanted to see Mona Lisa for individual pleasure, buying a perfect replica for $10 usd would have done the job

37/ We enjoy arts not in spite of constraints – such as rhyming in poems – but because of them (since constraints show artists’ abilities/fitness)

38/ our aesthetic taste changes in accordance to availability of stuff in our environment: lobsters were so abundant in 1800s that they were considered cheap and reviled food (like rat meat), today they are scarcer and hence became luxury food item.

39/ Similarly, in pre-industrialised world realism was a valued aesthetic but post-industrialised world, hand-crafted and ‘raw’ became more expensive. (Also by paying dearly for ‘handcrafted’ or ‘luxury’s we are signaling that we have so much money that can afford to waste it)

40/ Ostentatious behaviours – like wearing expensive items, drinking expensive wine – signal abundance (of money and time). People without abundance have no choice but to be functional – so efficiency signals non-abundance.

41/ We donate not to make a change but to be happy from the act of donation. That’s why we don’t care how efficient our donation is or what results came out of it – our motives are fulfilled as soon as we’re done writing the cheque or handing our spare change

42/ charities know our hidden motives for donation – to be seen as generous, that’s why they name buildings after donor names or give plaques. This is why Anonymous donations are rare – only 1% of all donations

43/ Charities are also a manifestation of abundance-display behaviour. We essentially want to show that we have so many resources that we are willing to give some of them away



44/ Education in schools and colleges is less about learning – how much you retain what you learned anyway? And most employers have to also train from scratch. Rather a degree is a signal to Employers that the person can work hard and conform to expectations.

46/ What an ‘A’ grade signifies isn’t necessarily general mastery in that subject but the capacity of a person to work hard and integrate concepts into getting an ‘A’ grade

47/ Schools don’t necessarily impart qualities as much as they give credible way for students to advertise the qualities they already have

48/ Schools also serve higher order systems purpose: a) propaganda towards nationalism (remember pledges when you were in school that you have no idea why were you doing); b) Domestication (sitting through long boring hours and asking for permission that’s needed in workplace)

49/ Unschooled citizens are hard to control in society so schooling teaches them to be obedient to authority. That has positives (prevents anarchy and keeps society running) and negatives (kills the soul and free spirit

50/ Doctors and caretakers are incentivised to overmedicate because if they prescribe ‘do nothing’ and rest, we and society will think they don’t care (while in reality ‘do nothing’ could indeed be right advice)

51/ To avoid law suits negligence and for profits, most doctors and hospitals will prescribe more medicines and tests than needed

52/ Most medical interventions (even by our near ones) is to show they care rather than to actually help us heal.

53/ We want to be seen as taking and getting care from well reputable places (and not necessarily best performing ones): When government published risk-adjusted hospital death rates, hospitals with high death rate saw only 0.8% reduction in admission while a single high profile mishandling at a hospital resulted in 9% reduction.

54/ Our beliefs don’t always (usually?) determine our actions. Rather they are symptoms of underlying incentives that are frequently social (acceptance, dominance, prestige, loyalty)

55/ For example, religions are less about beliefs and more about shared beliefs that bind a community and give a security and belonging to participants. If it was merely about beliefs, we shouldn’t have fanatic sport fans, Apple fans or even zeal that was seen in atheistic Nazi/Communist movements

56/ Rituals are proof of work (through investment of time and money) to get social benefits of belonging in a community. These indicate to other members that I’m a co-operator, not an exploiter

57/ God is a placeholder for society or community. By doing things for god, members are really doing things for the community

58/ The reason sacrifice (wasting food at altars, celibacy, fasting, literal sacrifice) is important because they’re honest signals that sacrificing individuals are vested in the group. Sacrifice is their skin in the game

59/ Sermons make a code of conduct public, and by listening to them people get confidence that other people they see will also behave similarly to them

60/ Visible symbols like turbans, five times a day praying, clothes serve as a identifiers of who’s in my community (and shares my values) and who’s outside of it

61/ Belief in super natural god who punishes bad deeds and knows our innermost thoughts is helpful to bind a community together as when they believe these things, they’ll actually co-operate more and be nice to each other

62/ Why do we take effort to vote when our odds of tilting election results in our favour is one in many million? And when we vote, why do we care so less about truth or track record of candidates? We go by personality or charisma .

63/ This is because we vote not to take action but to express loyalty to one group. All pre election discussion is about which group do you belong to (that’s why the actual matters less but what matters is differentiating positions). By signaling loyalty or disloyalty to local communities or friend circles using political spectrum , we are getting social value

64/ The book closes with this beautiful quote: ‘Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise’. @robinhanson offers advice: ‘what offers overwhelmingly true or right is often suspiciously self serving’. Watch out for that

65/ Why am I writing all this? To signal how smart I am and how I care about other people getting smarter. In short, the elephant in my brain is ‘I tweet cool things not out of kindness but because I want more followers’ of course I won’t say that aloud 🙂

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