Elephant in the Brain

An incredibly useful and engaging book that applies to all aspects of life, this talks about understanding the hidden motivations of your daily life, and the reasons why we do what we do.

The phrase elephant in the room pertains to an important issue that people are reluctant to address, or it can often be a social taboo. Meanwhile, the phrase “elephant in the brain” talks about introspective taboo, an essential, yet ignored feature of how our minds work.

Often, patients are content with what appears to be excellent medical care, yet show surprisingly little interest in looking beneath the surface. They neglect to seek a second opinion or ask for more information from their physicians or health care providers. People who have free access to healthcare take more medicine (compared with a control group with no funding), yet they aren’t much healthier.

  • People somehow manage to spend more on end-of-life miracle treatment than on cheaper palliative care, even though it’s just as effective at extending life and even preserving it.
  • Expensive medical care may do wonders for our health, but at the same time, it’s a costly version of slapping a band-aid on a childhood wound. In this case, the patient is assured of social support, while those who provide the support hope to buy a little bit of loyalty from the patient.

As a species, human beings are designed to be capable of acting on their hidden motives.

The brain is wired to act in our self-interest while at the same time attempting not to appear selfish to others. Our brains often keep our conscious minds in the dark to throw them off the trail. The less we know about our ugly motives, the easier it is to keep them hidden from others.

Deceiving ourselves is therefore strategic, a strategy our brains use to appear good while doing the opposite.

Education is more than just about learning, it’s generally about getting grades, being ranked, getting our credentials, and gaining the stamp of approval for our future employers. Religion isn’t solely about personal belief in God or the afterlife, but also about public proclamations of a belief that brings a group together. Our hidden agendas often explain the majority of our behavior in each of these areas. When it comes to making decisions, we often base our decisions on our hidden agendas over anything else.

Thoughts to ponder:

  1. People constantly judge us. They want to know whether we will be loyal friends, good allies, lovers, or leaders. In addition to our motives, they also evaluate our actions. Is there a reason for our behavior? Were we acting with others' best interests in mind, or were we purely selfish?
  2. We’re eager to look good because others are judging us. As a result, we emphasize our good motives and downplay our bad ones. This isn’t exactly a lie, but it’s also not truthful.
  3. In addition to our words, this applies to our thoughts, which might seem weird. Can’t we be honest with ourselves? Our thoughts aren’t as private as we think they are. Often, conscious thought is a rehearsal of how we will speak.
  4. Some areas of life, such as politics, are polarized enough that we are quick to point out when others' motives are more selfish than they claim they are. In other areas, such as medicine, we prefer to believe that almost everyone has pretty motives. In these cases, we can be all quite wrong, collectively, about what motivates our behavior**.**

Hiding Our Motives

Animal Behavior

Individual primates are capable of grooming themselves (but only about half of their bodies) and do so occasionally, but they have difficulty grooming their backs, faces, and heads. Therefore, they rely on their friends to keep them clean, this is often referred to as social grooming.

Social grooming isn’t all about hygiene, it’s also about politics. While grooming, primates forge alliances that can help them out in the future.

Additionally, grooming time is correlated with the size of the social group across species, not with the amount of fur. Larger groups are more complex politically, so alliances are more important and more difficult to maintain.

A series of “credits” are built up among altruistic babblers—what Zahavi calls prestige status. The males with greater prestige are rewarded with at least two advantages, one of which is more opportunities for mating with females of the group. For example, an alpha may take all mating opportunities for himself.

A high prestige level also means less chance of being kicked out. The alpha is less likely to evict the beta if the beta has gained prestige for its usefulness to the group.

For knowledge suppression to work it must meet two conditions: (1) other people can see your mind partially; and (2) they are judging you and doling out rewards or punishments based on what they “see."


Due to the bias of archaeology toward objects that can survive, we have a fairly good idea of our ancestors' skeletons, stone tools, and body paint (red ochre). The only problem is that we cannot retrieve their brain tissue, vocals, or body language.

They had to keep predators away, hunt big game, domesticate fire, find new food sources, and adapt rapidly to new climates. Humans are pitted against their environment in these activities, but there are also opportunities for cooperation. Social challenges, including rivalry for mates, status jockeying, alliances, politics, in-group violence, dishonesty, and deception. Activities like these pit humans against each other and are therefore destructive and competitive. Sometimes a species' greatest rival is itself.

According to the literature, this is called the social brain hypothesis or the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis. The idea that our ancestors learned to be smart to compete against each other in different social and political situations.

Evolution emphasizes mating over survival from the perspective of evolution.

There is good evidence to suggest, for example, that we are very adept at visual art, music, storytelling, and humor because they are used as elaborate mating displays, very much like the peacock’s tail.

Humans have two kinds of social status: dominance and prestige. On the dominant side, we achieve status by intimidating others (think of Joseph Stalin), while on the low-status side, we are fearful and seek to avoid others. Prestige, however, is when we are appreciated for our outstanding nature (think of Meryl Streep), and it is governed by admiration and other factors.

All of us strive to increase our value by expanding our skills, acquiring more and better tools, and polishing our charms to make themselves more attractive to others. Oftentimes, our competition for prestige produces positive outcomes, such as the advancement of science and technology, and appreciation for the arts. Nevertheless, prestige-seeking itself is more or less a zero-sum game, explaining why we can feel jealous whenever we see a close friend succeed.

Human politics is seen as ruthless and amoral in Machiavelli’s view, while Castiglione emphasizes the softer, more humane side.

They both outline strategies that are useful for achieving success in politics. Despite Castiglione’s less overtly competitive methods, he nevertheless is motivated by similar incentives. Every courtier can’t be the king’s favorite; one man’s success is the setback of his rival. In other words, both the scheming sociopath and the charming courtier are driven by the same desire to win at life’s various challenges.

Furthermore, both games require complementary skills: being able to evaluate potential partners and attract good ones. In sex, we are looking for mates. In terms of social status, we want friends and associates. In politics, we seek allies and people to join forces with.

Evolutionary biologists define a signal as any form of communication or information transfer. A healthy organism would have unblemished skin or fur; compare an award-winning beagle to a stray dog. Growling is a signal of aggression, with a deeper growl indicating the creature’s size.

Therefore, the most honest signals are the most expensive. To be more precise, they are differentially expensive: costly to produce, yet much more costly to fake.

Consider the difference between blue jeans and dress pants as a non-biological example. Dress pants are more formal because they require more maintenance, whereas jeans are more durable and don’t need to be washed every day.

What is a more honest way of evaluating your value to a company: being told, “Great job!” or receiving a promotion?


Anthropologists and sociologists call conventions, such as queuing, norms. It’s the code of conduct established by a community.

Foragers, despite experiencing occasional hardships, enjoy plenty of leisure time, more so than farmers. They spend that time interacting with others, enjoying life, and creating art.

Unlike the chimpanzee lifestyle and our modern way of life, the nomadic foraging lifestyle stands out for its fierce egalitarianism. In a community, the main political actors, depending on the culture, usually include adult men and women who regard themselves as peers and equals.

Collective enforcement can then be considered the essence of norms. This is what facilitates the egalitarian political order so characteristic of the forager lifestyle.

It is not the norm to be afraid of retaliation from a dangerous regime when speaking out against it. However, if you are worried that your neighbors might disapprove of you or band together to punish you, then you are most likely dealing with a norm. People are unique in their ability to enforce rules collectively as a third party.

There are two other tricks humans employ to incentivize norm-following behavior: gossip and reputation. A meta-norm emphasizes the importance of creating an incentive for good citizens to punish wrong-doers. It makes no difference whether the incentive comes from the stick or the carrot. To Axelrod, indifference to offenders is punishable in itself because it is akin to not standing up to them. A group may fare just as well by rewarding people who help to punish violators.

The problem arises when people become too self-centered. This is part of the tendency of foragers to avoid dominance since bragging is a way to augment influence and power within communities.


The difference between privately telling an individual and making a big public announcement is called Common knowledge. Consider, for example, the difference between an awkward moment everyone tries to ignore and one that everyone openly acknowledges (and hopefully laughs about).

In keeping a secret, there are two aspects: how widely it is known and how openly or commonly it is known. The sexuality of a closeted lesbian, say, or the fact that the emperor is naked are examples of secrets widely known despite not being openly divulged.

The police officer who turns a blind eye to conspicuous public drinking will face much more criticism than the officer who ignores discreet public drinking. It doesn’t fool the police officers themselves, but it’s just enough to cover for them to protect themselves from criticism from their constituents.

Why do big brains still matter to us when norms are supposed to discourage competition? It is plausible that our norms are only partially enforced, so to cheat we need big brains. Both norm-evaders and norm-enforcers are locked in a competitive arms race for mental superiority-a game of cat and mouse.


According to a study, those who were more likely to deceive themselves performed better during the contest. For those who wish to win, Schelling offers these suggestions. When you’re facing your opponent, rev your engine and remove the steering wheel from your car. So, he’ll know you’re committed - irrevocably driven forward, regardless of the consequences. So at this point, your opponent has no choice but to swerve first or die, and you will win.

In mixed-motive games, perverse incentives can lead to behavior that seems irrational, but is strategic, such as option-limiting.

  • Degrading or closing a communication channel. You might purposely turn your phone off, for example, if you know someone is going to call you to ask for a favor, or you may want to have your difficult conversation by email rather than in person.
  • Strategic ignorance refers to ignoring information. In the case of kidnapping, for example, you might want to avoid seeing your kidnapper’s face or finding out his name. Why? Because the likelihood of him letting you go decreases if he knows you can identify him to the police. Knowledge can pose serious risks in some instances.
  • Intentionally believing a lie. Even if the odds are against him, a confident general can intimidate his opponent into backtracking down.

According to classic decision theory, it is pointless to sabotage yourself.** Convincing others that you have sabotaged yourself is a valuable strategy.**

It is often best to believe something before we can convince others of its truth.

In mixed-motivation scenarios, self-deception can help us come out ahead in four ways. Our archetypes are the Madman, the Loyalist, the Cheerleader, and the Cheater.

I call it the Madman Theory. North Vietnam needs to believe I might do anything to end the war. Our ruse is to inform them that Nixon is obsessed with communism, and we can’t restrain him when he’s angry, and he’s eying the nuclear button.

Hence, the Loyalist offers his commitment and solicits trust by offering to go along with his beliefs.

The Cheerleader says, “Let’s believe it"My intentions were pure.” together!” This kind of self-deception is a form of propaganda. Kurzban writes that “It can be beneficial to be wrong in such a way that, if everyone else believed what you believe, you would be better off strategically.”

Often, a startup founder with a lot of confidence will attract more investors and attract more employees than someone with a realistic assessment of his abilities.

When accused, the Cheater says, “I don’t know what you mean.”. “My motives were pure.”

As with the general who erases the mountain range from the map then drives his troops to a dead-end through false information, deceivers also put themselves in danger of acting on false or incorrect information. Although we deceive ourselves, we don’t have to experience the full consequences. Our brain continues to be aware of the truth, at least to a certain extent. In other words, inconsistency is our saving grace.

The brain can maintain relatively accurate beliefs about potential actions while keeping these beliefs hidden from systems (such as consciousness) involved in managing social impressions.

For example, a person is still going to be terrified of death, no matter how much they believe in Heaven.

Counterfeit Reasons

The patient got out of his chair because the researchers asked him to via his right hemisphere. However, the patient’s left hemisphere was unaware of this information. As opposed to expressing the truth by saying, “I don’t know why I stood up,” it fabricated a reason and presented it as fact: “I wanted to get something.”

We are speaking of the underlying causes of our behavior when we use the term “motives,” regardless of whether we are conscious of them. “Reasons” are the explanations we give for our behavior. Reasons can either be true or false.

Those who suffer from disability denial, a disorder occasionally caused by a stroke occurring in the right hemisphere, exhibit even more dramatic examples of rationalization. The stroke usually leaves the patient’s left arm paralyzed, but –and here’s the weird part – he’ll deny that anything has happened to his arm, and will manufacture various (fake) reasons as to why it’s living dead and limp.

Steven Kaas says, “You are not the king of your brain.”. “You are that creepy guy standing next to the king and saying with a smile, ‘A most judicious choice, sire.’”

Thus, when we give a reason, there is a risk that we are simply making up things.

Telling half-truths is the most effective way to rationalize, as shown in these two examples. Thus, we cherry-pick our most acceptable, prosocial reasons while concealing the uglier ones. Kevin is a very private person, whereas Robin wants to get his ideas out there. However, these two explanations aren’t the whole story.

Children’s bedtimes are often enforced by parents “for their good,” but the parents' motive might just be to have some peace without the kids for an hour or two before going up to bed themselves.

People exaggerate minor obstacles to avoid social encounters: “I’m not feeling well today,” for example, as an excuse not to attend work, or “I’m too busy,” to refuse to attend a meeting. Often these reasons are true, but they are exaggerated, while other reasons (for example, “I simply don’t want to”) are conveniently omitted.

Although our behaviors can be attributed to a wide range of reasons, we tend to overemphasize and exaggerate our good, prosocial motives and minimize our bad, selfish motives.

Body Language

Body language reveals our ugly, selfish, and competitive motives, so we tend to ignore it.

Similarly, cues convey information, but they only benefit the receiver. Cues, therefore, reveal information the sender may wish to keep secret. Sometimes we refer to cues in the human world as “tells”-when a person involuntarily does something to give his secret away. Other tells include sweaty palms (indicating nervousness), shortness of breath (indicating windedness), or pacifying behaviors like rubbing one’s neck (indicating anxiety).

Human body language contains many honest signals. For example, an open posture makes a person vulnerable, which is more dangerous in an intense situation than in calm situations.

Courtship is filled with excitement and drama as each person tries to decipher the other’s mixed signals. The tendency for women to “play coy” often causes men to put in more effort if they wish to court them.

Couples out on a date, for instance, signal their romantic connection to their partner by often holding hands, putting one arm around each other to signal a connection with their partner. Signals are intended not only for each other but also for third parties who may be potential rivals.

As was observed when women were asked to smell T-shirts worn by various men, those with complementary immune systems (which would benefit their potential children) were more attractive to women. Meanwhile, gay men preferred the sweat of other gay men to that of straight men.

When we feel comfortable around others, we allow them to touch us, and we reciprocate when they do so. However, in the presence of hostility, these violations of privacy make us much more cautious.

In my experience, and according to Joe Navarro, a former FBI interrogator, and expert in body language, presidents go to Camp David to accomplish in polo shirts something they can’t seem to do in business suits at the White House forty miles away. Through the removal of their coats, they are saying, ‘I’m open to you.’

The wearing of headdresses, collars, and elaborate up-dos, alongside swaggering down the street with a blaring boombox, implies one thing: “I’m not afraid of being noticed, because I’m powerful.”

Eye contact is usually considered aggressive in dominant contexts.

The act of looking at someone is considered a gift in contexts dominated by prestige: the act of looking at someone elevates that person.

By maintaining eye contact for the same amount of time while speaking and listening, your visual dominance ratio will be 1.0, indicating high dominance. In contrast, if you make little eye contact when talking, you will have a ratio below 1.0 (usually around 0.6), which indicates low dominance.


According to Provine, we laugh 30 times more often when we’re around others than when we’re alone. Secondly, laughter is a vocalization, a sound, and in the animal kingdom, sounds play an important role in active communication.

During Provine’s study of 1,200 laughter episodes overheard in public settings, his biggest surprise was learning that speakers laugh 50 percent more than listeners. The reasoning becomes clearer when we remember that laughter is a form of active communication, rather than a passive reflex.

Laughter is also observed in animal species, and it is specifically found in all five of the “great apes”—orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees, and humans, although not in any other primates.

In this case, laughter is inextricably linked to play. The same stimulus will elicit a scream in a serious mood, but a laugh in a playful mood. Apparently, “We’re just playing” is such an important message that many species have developed their language for it. Dogs, for example, use their “play bows,” in which their forearms are extended, their heads are down, and their hindquarters are flung into the air, to initiate play.

We laugh at our actions to show our playmates that our intentions are playful (even if they may seem aggressive). It’s the kind of laugh that a young child might give after hitting an adult or another child, or the kind of laugh adults give when teasing someone.

We laugh when we perceive someone else’s actions, not because of their intentions. This is reactive laughter, the kind elicited when the participant responds to the speaker. This explains why the element of danger is so crucial to getting a laugh. The danger isn’t a requirement-we sometimes laugh at harmless wordplay, for instance. Puns are funnier when they’re sexual double-entendres told in the presence of unknowing children.

Laughter is like opening a safe. The process has to be done in a precise and orderly fashion. To start, you need two or more people together and then you need to set the mood to “play.” When you are done, deliberately jostle the mood in a direction that will hint at “serious,” but quickly return to “play.” However, danger also presents play opportunities. Our physiological funny bone is tickled by the physical danger of a roller coaster, and our social funny bone is tickled by flirting with social risk.

The danger of laughter lies in the fact that we don’t all share the same norms. Something sacred to one person may be regarded as mere play by another. If someone gets hurt, a humane response is to change from a playful mood to a serious mood, to make sure they’re okay. Maggie’s suffering, then, is not taken too seriously by the girls who continue to laugh.

Oscar Wilde once said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise they will kill you.”


When speakers give away little informational “gifts” in every conversation, what do they get back? If exchanging information was the purpose of a conversation, then people would be greedy listeners and sparse speakers.

By consistently delivering impressive remarks, speakers aim to impress their audiences. Hence, it appears that speakers aren’t compensated in-kind for the costs of speaking as previously discussed: they’re rewarded not by receiving information in return, but by adding social value in the eyes (and ears) of their listeners. In Miller’s theory, speakers mainly aim to impress potential mates, whereas Dessalles focuses on potential allies.

You’re likely to make a good teammate If you’re a reliable source of new information, especially when the team faces unforeseeable situations in the future.


What motivates us to keep working so hard? As most people realize, we’re stuck in a rat race, or as we’ve been saying throughout the book, we’re locked in a game of competitive signaling. Even as the economy grows, sex and social status remain in limited supply-and earning and spending money is still a good way to compete for them.

As subjects are primed with a status motive, they are more likely to choose green products when shopping in public, and less likely to choose green products when shopping online. Their motivation goes beyond simply being Eco-friendly but also being seen as helpful.

Why change both the engine and the body at the same time? A distinctive body makes the car more noticeable. On the road or parked in a driveway, a Prius is easily recognizable. Fewer people would notice the Prius if it looked like a Camry.

The stigma surrounding wearing uniforms today is primarily related to the suppression of individuality. However, the very notion of “individuality” is just a different way of indicating the same thing.

Similar to Pavlov’s training of his dogs to associate a ringing bell with food, lifestyle ads train consumers to link brands and products with positive emotions, like the promise of relaxation with Corona or a rugged, manly spirit with Marlboro. The ad might change people’s perception of Corona, so buying it might make sense to them, even if they know that beer is just a beverage, not a lifestyle. In general, the easier it is to judge someone based on the product, the more it will be advertised with culture-specific images and lifestyle associations.


Miller argues that while ecological selection abhors waste, sexual selection often promotes it.

Building a tower is difficult, but that’s the point, because if it was easy, then every man could do it; fit males demonstrate their fitness only by doing things that unfit males cannot do.

Replicas are cheaper than seeing the originals in Paris, London, Venice, and New York. We’ll pay less for a much wider variety of art in the convenience of our hometowns, rather than visit around the world. Replica museums don’t exist, and the idea makes us laugh, but that’s exactly the point. Art is usually used for something other than triggering senses or thinking, and we disdain replicas for this reason.

Art often lies on the artist’s technique, if an artist happens to find it on a beach, it won’t elicit a bigger response than something out of a 3D printer, or a hand-chiseled marble statue.

According to Miller, “we find fascinating those things that could have been produced only by people who had attractive, high-functioning qualities such as energy, endurance, hand-eye coordination, fine motor control, intelligence, creativity, access to rare materials, and the capabilities to learn difficult skills.”

Live performances, and even more so improvised ones, will not be as technically flawless as prerecorded ones, but it succeeds by showcasing the artists' talents. The limitations that artists put on themselves are not what make us enjoy art, but the fact that they allow their talents to shine through.


Based on one calculation, you can save the lives of more than 50 children (living in sub-Saharan Africa) for that same amount that would have gone toward sending a kid to college in America. Many of us indeed attempt to help people in extreme need, but we also indulge too much in personal indulgences.

Real-world altruism is markedly different from effective altruism. Religious groups and educational institutions are the main recipients of American charity.

The same effect has been demonstrated for other problems, such as cleaning polluted lakes, protecting wilderness areas, reducing road injuries, and even preventing deaths. Although people are willing to help, the amount they’re willing to contribute does not scale in proportion to the impact they’ll have. If $3,500 was donated to the Against Malaria Foundation, it would potentially save one life, whereas it might be completely wasted if it was divided among 100 different charities, not even covering the administrative expense required to process all those individual donations.

Gross inefficiencies do not bother us when we evaluate charity-related behaviors. People with wealth often perform unskilled volunteer work (for which they are commended), even though their time is worth much more.

Highly skilled lawyers, doctors, and their families volunteer to help homeless people or deliver meals to the elderly. Their time may be worth a hundred times more than that of a kitchen worker or delivery driver. Their hourly wage could have paid for other people to serve soup for two weeks for every hour they spend serving soup.

Here are two strategies for giving to charity: (1) set up an automatic monthly payment to the Against Malaria Foundation, or (2) donate small amounts to panhandlers, collection plates, and Girl Scouts. Making automatic donations to a single charity may be the most effective method for improving the lives of others, but giving widely, opportunistically, and in smaller amounts is more likely to produce warm feelings. By diversifying our donations, we can feel good about ourselves more often, we’re more generous when we know we’re being watched.

Up to 95 percent of all donations are given in response to a solicitation. Studies have shown that people, especially men, are more likely to give money if the solicitor is attractive.

Charitable behavior signals to our audiences, “I have more resources than I need to survive; I can give them away without worrying, thus, I am a healthy, productive human specimen.”

Do “calculators” who keep track of their generosity with a spreadsheet make better friends, colleagues, and spouses, or “emoters” who are moved by the need to help others? Because emoters are preferred as allies rather than calculators, our brains are eager to advertise that we are emoters. Although spontaneous generosity may not be the best way to improve human welfare globally, our ancestors used it to find mates and build strong networks of allies.


Even if every citizen attends an extra year of school, only a small increase in productivity would result from the added education. In contrast, if you are an individual student in a nation, staying longer in school can have a significant impact on your salary in the future, not because of what you have learned, but because the additional education helps distinguish you as a more qualified worker.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to franchise the Ivy League if superior instruction explains the value of college? Why not make the benefits available to as many students as possible? Because the top schools in the United States are built on zero-sum competition, it will never happen.

Before the Industrial Revolution, most men were free. Outside of childhood and war, very few men had to take direct orders from other men. Children are supposed to sit still for hours upon hours, control their impulses, do dull, repetitive tasks, move wherever the bell rings, even ask permission before going to the bathroom.

Children are systematically rewarded for behavior that is docile and punished for assertive behavior. The reality is that teachers reward discipline regardless of its contribution to learning, and in ways that limit student creativity.

Additionally, children are taught to accept being judged, graded, and ranked, often in front of others. Typically lasting over a decade, this enterprise is characterized as a systematic human domestication process.


In exchange for helping to provide care, each party hopes to earn some loyalty from the patient. As with conspicuous behaviors we’ve seen in previous sections, we’re going to call this the conspicuous caring hypothesis.

When you are sick, it is dangerous to be abandoned, both physically and politically, which explains why sick people welcome support, and why others are eager to provide support. Partly, it’s a quid pro quo: “I’ll help you now, but I’ll help you when the tables turn.” But providing support also advertises to third parties: “See how I support my friends?” I’ll do the same for you if you’re my friend.”

Compared to items you might purchase for yourself, Christmas gifts are usually more expensive and less useful.

On average, patients in higher-spending regions who get more treatment don’t end up healthier than patients in lower-spending regions who get fewer treatments. Variations in income, education, and other variables predicted variations in death rates across the 50 U.S. states, but not variations in medical spending.

In the ICU, patients lived roughly 40 fewer days for each extra day. Study results also showed that spending $1000 more on a patient resulted in somewhere between a gain of 5 days and a loss of 20 days of life, in short, researchers found “no evidence that increased levels of spending result in improved outcomes.”

Yes, vaccines, penicillin, anesthesia, antiseptic techniques, and emergency medicine are all great, but they have little impact on overall health. Better nutrition, sanitation improvements, and safer and easier job opportunities are often mentioned as being more important factors.

You’ll need to spend a lot on medical care if everyone around you does, or you’ll seem uncaring. People often prioritize the prestige of a school or hospital when choosing between doctors instead of the outcome of their cases.

In addition to highway accidents, breast cancer, and AIDS, medical mistakes cause more deaths every year, yet physicians reject reform and the public is apathetic.

Researchers found that people who lived in rural areas lived six years longer than those living in cities, nonsmokers lived three years longer than smokers, and those who exercised heavily lived fifteen years longer than those who didn’t exercise at all. Conversely, most studies that examined how much medicine people consumed found no significant effect.


Because we fear Hell, we pray. The only thing left to explain would be where the beliefs originate. In this model, belief comes first.

Even so, we see that belief doesn’t always determine what happens.** It’s not uncommon for them to be viewed as symptomatic of underlying incentives, which tend to be social rather than psychological.**

This is the religious elephant in the brain: We don’t worship simply because we believe, we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.

The majority of religions are relatively tolerant when it comes to private beliefs, as long as the religion is publicly demonstrated by their followers. Consequently, faith-based religions such as Christianity and Islam stand out rather than the norm.

Greeks and Romans, for example, weren’t concerned with doctrinal propositions like, “Zeus rules the gods on Mount Olympus,” but rather with ritual observances like going out to celebrate public holidays. Muslims facing Mecca for prayer is called “religion,” but every time an American schoolchild chants the Pledge of Allegiance and sings and makes T-shirts for homecoming, that’s called “patriotism” or “school spirit.

**Religion isn’t just a set of propositions about God and the afterlife; it’s an entire social order. **It’s easy to say, “I’m a Muslim,” but that’s not enough to get full credit, you also have to act like a Muslim by answering the 5 calls of prayer or going on the Hajj. Action speaks louder than words, and expensive actions speak loudest.

Less symbolically, many practices also stigmatize practitioners in the eyes of outsiders. As a result of dressing in different clothes or eating on separate plates from others, members of a given sect are losing respect in society (while gaining it within the sect). Though it’s an inaccurate way to know if someone is trustworthy, it’s understandable that you’d be wary of your neighbors who don’t attend church because they aren’t contributing to the community.

Using birth control makes you more likely to delay marriage, earn an advanced degree, and pursue a financially rewarding career. As a result, your neighbors who uphold a traditional approach to life will find it harder. Your lifestyle interferes with theirs (and vice versa), so we create communities to avoid such tensions.

Instead, the real benefit comes from listening together with your entire congregation. As you learn that compassion is a good Christian virtue, everyone is learning it at the same time as you. The sermon generates a common understanding of the community’s norms, and everyone who attends the sermon implicitly agrees to be held to those standards.

  1. People who believe that disobeying God results in punishment are more likely to behave well than those who do not.
  2. This motivates everyone to convince others that they believe in God and the dangers of disobeying him.
  3. In Chapter 5, we saw that one of the best ways to persuade others about one’s belief is to believe it

These examples demonstrate how instincts that are adaptive in one context can lead us astray in another. However, we should not assume that instincts are necessarily maladaptive or that people who act on them are hopelessly deluded or foolish. Like the rest of us, they’re just chasing their highs.


Voters rarely vote for their material self-interest, which is to vote for policies or candidates that benefit them personally.** Instead of focusing on issues that hinge on facts, like trade agreements or net neutrality, we prefer to debate hot-button identity issues, like gay marriage or immigration and **when it comes to electing our representatives, we observe a similar bias.

Another clue that we’re not being entirely honest intellectually is the fact that we attach strong emotions to our political views. As we take a pragmatic, outcome-driven approach to a given domain, we tend to view new information dispassionately. Our lives are filled with moments like this every day, like when we buy groceries, pack for a trip, or plan a party. In these practical domains, we feel much less pride in what we believe, anger when our beliefs are challenged, and shame when we change our minds in response to new information. Emotions are useful to protect beliefs from criticism when they serve non-pragmatic functions.

When comparing the quality of their publications, Republican academics (compared to Democrats) hold jobs at significantly lower-tier colleges. Women’s discrimination in academic jobs appears to be greater than that of men.

As a result of our desire to signal loyalty, we don’t always vote for policies and candidates which would be in our best interests (i.e., for which we would benefit most personally). Rather, we tend to vote for the interests of our groups.

When we show support for a cause-of-the-month in the physical world by putting up lawn signs and bumper stickers, we do the same on social media by using politically charged hashtags or by changing our profile pictures. In addition, we accept slogans like “Black lives matter” and “Guns don’t kill, people, do.” As arguments, these slogans are radically oversimplified, but as badges, they are incredibly effective.

It isn’t enough to merely “follow the facts” and listen to reason. We need to also believe beyond reason, things others might not believe.

The desire to appear loyal to our political coalitions motivates us more than civic virtue. If politics is a performance, our audience is mostly made up of those around us like friends and family, coworkers and bosses, churchmates and romance prospects, and anyone who might follow us on social media.


In Part I, we learned that ignoring the elephant is strategic.** By deceiving ourselves, we can act selfishly without being viewed as selfish.**

The first benefit is a better, deeper understanding of the social world of humans. People are always selling us stories about their motives, but like a magician’s magic trick, these stories are often misleading.

Even when meetings seem to be a waste of time, such waste can serve an important purpose; rituals can be used by anxious leaders to cement control over their subordinates.

We all have a blind spot right at the core of our introspective vision. We shouldn’t give ourselves an easy pass if we’re going to second-guess our coworkers and friends. We should be even more careful pointing the finger at others if we are aware of our blind spots.

Acknowledging uncomfortable truths and discussing them objectively can show honesty, intellectual ability, and perhaps even courage (or at least thick skin).

Identifying our hidden motivations also provides us with the option of mitigating or counteracting them if we so choose. So, if, for example, we discover that the desire to appear good motivates our charitable giving, leading us to donate to less-helpful (but more visible) causes, we can choose to deliberately subvert our not-so-secret agenda.

It’s also a good idea to place ourselves in situations where our hiding motives better match up with our ideal motives. We might begin betting on our beliefs if we wish to express sincere yet accurate beliefs.

A promising approach to institutional reform is to acknowledge people’s need to show off but to redirect their efforts away from wasteful activities and toward activities with greater benefits and externalities. Since students are obligated to show off by learning something at school, we prefer students learn something useful (such as how to manage personal finances) rather than something less useful (such as Latin).

We achieved more by our motives than by our intentions in the end. Despite being self-interested, self-deceiving, competitive social animals, we subsisted on cooperative efforts to reach the moon.