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The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life – Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson

Summary: In The Elephant in the Brain, Simler and Hanson argue that

In the first part of the book, they support this thesis with examples from psychology, ethology, sociology, and other fields. In the second part of the book, they explore the ramifications of this theory in various parts of society.

Thoughts: This book has had a large impact on my thinking. My biggest takeaway has been that actions can be selfishly motivated, but can also be altruistically motivated, and importantly, these two motivations are not mutually exclusive. Best results are obtained when selfish goals and prosocial goals - the biological imperative to look out for yourself and the sincere human desire to help others - are brought into alignment.

(The notes below are not a summary of the book, but rather raw notes - whatever I thought, at the time, might be worth remembering. With that said, I took more notes than usual on this book, so it should come fairly close to a full summary.)

Simler, Kevin and Robin Hanson. 2018. The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. Oxford UP.


Part I - Why We Hide Our Motives

1 - Animal Behavior

2 - Competition

3 - Norms

4 - Cheating

5 - Self-Deception

6 - Counterfeit Reasons

Part II - Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

7 - Body Language

8 - Laughter

9 - Conversation

10 - Consumption

11 - Art

12 - Charity

13 - Education

14 - Medicine

15 - Religion

16 - Politics

17 - Conclusion


Posted: Dec 24, 2020. Last updated: Aug 31, 2023.