The Elephant in the Brain

Long-time contributor and editor-at-large Kevin Simler has a great new book out, The Elephant in the Brainco-authored with Robin Hanson. A bunch of us over here in the refactoring lair have been reading it of course, so you can expect to see the ideas in the book seeping into future posts. There’s a couple of excellent reviews out already if you want to get oriented in the snowballing conversation around the book (the book website has a running compilation) .

The book tackles our blindspots regarding our own motives:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains are therefore designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means.

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 talk — or even think — about the extent of our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain,” an introspective blind spot that makes it hard to think clearly about ourselves and the explanations for our behavior.

Kevin of course needs no introduction for long-time readers, but for those who came in late, he’s the author of past hits like Minimum Viable Superorganisms and Anthropology of Mid-Size Startups. His home blog, Melting Asphalt, has been one of our oldest blogosphere neighbors (some of my favorite posts there include Neurons Gone Wild and Personhood).

So go grab the book. It’ll be required reading around these parts. And while you’re at it, go poke around in Kevin’s other writing. You’ll thank me later.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. And then, just a magnified version of the personal blindspots are the “community” blindspots.

    Communities are mirror-magnifiers, they reflect and enlarge (their members though, as in the case of laypeople’s contempt of “politics”, ignore this reality. Of course, they have to and do ignore it.)

    As for “selfishness”, it’s the myth of the day (and of fate knows how many years to come.
    In the sense that, due to technological progress and other chiefly socio-cultural agents, most of the world’s people (and unquestionably nearly all Westerners) are more free than they ever were.
    This means, as pertains “selfishness”, a plain fact: that they can more than ever previously be… what they really are. Act in tune with their real nature. Which plainly means, they are acting more selfishly than ever.
    As always in such cases (in the human mind, thereby in every human culture) what is at the centre of the thoughts and interestes and drives, what’s linked to the most essential aspects and dynamics of the psyche, is what must be repressed into the unconscious before anything else.
    What’s thought-of and longer-for (or feared) the most, must be left unsaid, “unseen” and unheard (consciously) the most.

    That’s what they meant a couple centuries ago where they said “see no evil hear no evil speak no evil.”
    “Evil” was the real self.
    As strong as the inner repression (and suppression) was, consequently, the need to spot it outside of the subject.
    The more something is confined to the subconscious, the more it will be seen in the external reality as an event (thing, person).

    Naturally, it would be spotted in the misaligned. After all, it’s always about letting out the basest and wildest (personal and collective) urges and the right choice can never not be the misaligned or outlier or “enemy”.

    So the newest fangle is “selfishness.” All lines of behaviour aligned enough to the real needs and urges of singles and groups must be good — therefore “unselfish”. All the socially approved selfish behaviour, and selfish behaviours that don’t upset any egos, are unselfish. Everything else is selfish.

    One of 2 fiancées feels the need to spend 1 hour a day together, while the other one only 30, or 58, minutes? The latter will say that his/her darling is “selfish”.

    So, the more evidently the contractual/transactional/selfish nature of every relation/relationships turns out, the more selfishness is bound to be a feature the witches that are to be hunted never lack.