Lecture – The Elephant In The Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Robin Hanson,

Release Date
September 4, 2017



Your brain is hiding your real motives from you. Prof. Robin Hanson explains how we evolved to deceive ourselves about politics, education, medicine, and even laughter.

    1. The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life (book): If you enjoyed this lecture and want to learn more about our unconscious motives, check out Prof. Hanson’s book. 
    2. Myth of the Rational Voter (lecture): Prof. Bryan Caplan discusses his book Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Policies and explains the four biases voters have when it comes to economic policy. 
    3. Why Are Voters So Uninformed? (video): Prof. Diana Thomas explains why it’s actually rational for voters to be uninformed. 

Robin Hanson: Who among you has seen the movie Manchurian Candidate? How about They Live? How about The Matrix? These are all movies with a common theme of something hidden behind the scenes that’s different than on the surface and there’s some ulterior motive behind it that makes it mysterious and sinister. A lot of people are attracted to those sorts of ideas as illustrated by the fact that 54% of people today, apparently, think the government isn’t telling everything it knows about 9/11, and 50% that’s true for JFK’s murder, and 42 for aliens. So clearly, this idea that there’s something behind the scenes, like some conspiracy where they have a different motive behind the scenes than they present on the surface is a compelling idea to a lot of people.
I’m here going to tell you that you are basically a conspiracy to yourself. That is in the same way one of this hypothetical conspiracies is hiding inside some hidden motives and on the surface pertaining to be something else. That’s exactly what you are to everybody else and to yourself. So, to convince you that, I’m going to go through these sections of this talk. First, going to do outline theoretically it might even be possible or plausible that that could be true. Why would humans be the sort of creatures who might not know what they do things because that’s kind of strange. Secondly, and for the bulk of this talk, I’m going to go area by area and try to convince you that in a lot of areas, specifically this is plausible. Not just it’s a hypothetical thing that could happen some time somewhere, but over and over again among the familiar, important things, you are just wrong about why you do things. You are just wrong about your motives. Then last, we’ll discuss about what does this all mean and likely to do with it.
So, start the at the beginning, you are all animals and animals compete. Social animals, such as you are, compete socially. So, your ancestors competed socially, tried to get more sex, more status, more allies. Being social animals, what mattered was other animals of your type nearby, that mattered more than the environment did because you had complicated environment. Like chimpanzees who have politics, your ancestors had politics and that mattered a lot. I’m going to give two examples of other kinds of animals who have complicated social lives and what I’m going to say is like these two examples.
So, one example is primates do a lot of grooming. That is they turn one of them around and the others will pick at their skin, picking off things from their fur to clean their fur. On the surface, the purpose of that activity looks obvious, right? It’s to get clean. But in fact, they do it a lot more than they need to to get clean. The amount of time primates spend grooming is not proportional to say body size, which it might be if you need to clean off bigger bodies that’s proportional to size of the group. Bigger groups do more grooming and apparently, grooming is mainly a political activity of forming alliances and bonds and it’s less about cleaning off.
Another animal example I’m going to give you is called the babbler. It’s a little bird and it’s in a social group and this social group have somewhat of a status hierarchy. Some of the babbler birds will go out of their way to stand up high and watch out for predators, putting themselves at risk, and calling attention to the rest of the group if that happens and they also go out of their way to get food and give it to other members of their group. All sounding very altruistic and generous. It turns out they will fight for these positions. So, the dominant, highest status bird will fight and push down this less status bird in order to take the highest position on the branch to look for predators, and they will stuff food down the throats of the lower status birds to show them that I am higher status than you. So, what looks like a generous behavior is status ranking behavior among these birds. But on the surface it looks like they’re being generous and helpful just like the primates look generous and helpful by grooming each other.
We’re going to find a lot of human behaviors like this. So, humans compete and we have big brains and that means it makes sense to manage large politics, but compared to other primates, we invent, have language and weapons and this allowed us to have norms, social norms. Norms are rules about you’re supposed to do or supposedly not supposed to do and we had norms about a variety of things, mostly about not being too selfish, about many specific things. You’re not supposed to brag. You’re supposed to share your food. You’re not supposed to hit people. We’re supposed to talk about things together when we do things together.
Humans have a bunch of these norms and we have the meta norm that you’re supposed to punish people who violate the norms. Via these norms, humans were able to be much more egalitarian. They were able to manage much larger groups and if these norms have been enforced well, we wouldn’t have needed big brains so much anymore. They just needed to be big enough to manage the weapons and the language. But we have the biggest brains of all, so there’s something that doesn’t quite make sense there.
With these norms, immediately we have the temptation to cheat on the norms. The temptation to appear to or pretend to follow the norms when we’re actually not and because one of our norms is to punish people who violate the norms, when we violate the norms, we don’t have to make it so an objective neutral party would decide that we haven’t violated the norms. We just have to give enough of a fig leaf so that other people who are supposed to enforce the norm don’t want to bother to call us out on it. For example, the classic example of somebody who is drinking alcohol on the street, putting it in a paper bag. The police know what you’re doing there, but it’s enough an excuse they don’t have to arrest you. So, there’s a norm, a rule and you can evade the rule by just putting a bit of a fig leaf off the paper bag around the bottle because other people around you are not really that eager to enforce the norm. They’re just supposed to, but they’ve got any sort of excuse, they want to use it and get away with it.
So, given that we have these excuses, we use ways. We whisper or talk quieter so that other people could pretend they didn’t hear something if we’re going to say something that would violate a norm so they wouldn’t have to enforce it. We have a number of ways that we use to evade norms and plausibly, this is why we have such big brains. If we just well enforce the norms, then we wouldn’t need big brains anymore. But if we need big brains all the more to evade the norms that we have, then big brains make more sense.
Now, one of the things that we do evade norms, many of the norms are expressed in terms of motives, i.e. why you did something. So, one way we evade norms is to pretend our motives are pure and one way we do that because we leak our motives is to actually be wrong about our motives in our head. In our head, when we look [in-self 00:07:27] and say, “Why did I do this,” there’s this little slot and it says this is why I did that, and that little slot has such a nice little reason why we did it that we say, “But this is why I did it.”
So, we try to evade norms about doing things for the wrong motives by not being aware of our motives. This is self-deception. There’s a whole range of self-deception and there’s something we’re going to call self-discretion, which is things that part of you is aware but it whispers inside your brain. Just like if you and I were having a conspiracy, we might whisper to the sides so that other people might not hear or if they did, they could pretend they didn’t. Inside our head we whisper to each other, to ourselves so that we don’t quite acknowledge some things that we know.
So, one of the main things we are wrong about is our motives and that we have good reasons to be wrong about your motives, but you aren’t very aware of that and there’s a standard description that helps you understand it, which is you are not the CEO of your mind. You are not the one guy in-charge who makes all the decisions. That’s not you. You are the press secretary. You are the person off to the side who is supposed to explain what the CEO is doing to wider public and you aren’t always told what they’re doing. That helps you pretend, at least, to put on a good spin on it.
So, the president’s press secretary, their job is whatever they’re asked about to put the best positive spin they can on it, and that’s what PR departments for firms do, and that’s what you are. That is the person who’s listening to me, who would talk back to me. You are not the CEO. You are the press secretary and this is why you don’t actually know what’s going on in your head. Your job is to put a good spin on it, not to actually make the decisions. You don’t make the decisions. Some other part of your head is making those decisions, but not the person that I’m talking to.
Alright, so this is the basic story. This is why you might not know why you do a lot of things. It’s probably a plausible story. Nevertheless, you don’t know just how far it goes. So, we’re going to talk about how deep the rabbit hole goes and go through many examples. Some of these examples, to some of you, will seem obvious. Why am I belaboring that? Of course you know that on one hand, we pretend to do it one way and this is what we’re really doing, but some of the other ones you might be shocked or defensive. We all have something that’s precious to us and likely in that area of something that’s precious to us, we’re lying to ourselves about it and you’ll find which one of those you are.
So, let’s get started. Let’s start with body language. You take years of school to learn how to write and to speak words and almost no education in how to use your body to communicate, but you’re really good at that and you’re very unaware. So, as you may know, when we interact with almost everybody, we end up doing a lot of movements and body motions of eyes, and tone of voice, and expression that communicate a lot of things that other people don’t know that you aren’t aware of. For example, we flirt through our eyes and other expressions and we also have what’s called status moves where we negotiate relative status.
Most of you, when you’re talking to a friend or an apparent equal, you think you’re treating each other’s equals but you’re not. You actually have negotiated a relative status where one of you is higher status than the other and you can see this if you pay attention to body language. A higher status person will have a more open posture. They will be more visible. They will be able to look more directly at others. When they’re moving or talking together, they will set the rhythm and this happens all the time, but you don’t know about it and you aren’t aware of it and plausibly, that’s because these various things you’re doing and communicating are things you wouldn’t want to admit to because you’re not supposed to have a relative status with your friend. You’re not supposed to be flirting. So, you are just blissfully unaware.
Second, laughter. Why do we laugh? It turns out people are just crazy wrong about why they laugh. They’re just wrong at it in so many different ways. So, I’m going to give you some examples. We laugh 30 times more often, as a percentage, when we’re with other people than when we’re alone. Only 20% of our laughs are in response to anything that’s remotely like a joke. It’s not about jokes. When somebody is talking and other people are listening, the person talking laughs 50% more often than the people listening. When the boss laughs, everybody laughs. Babies laugh more with their mothers than with others.
So, what is laughter? You don’t know is the first thing to notice. Why don’t you know? It’s a very common behavior, it’s very familiar, and people actually really love to laugh in the sense that really they look for … I fell in love with him because he made me laugh, sort of story. So, people really crave laughter, but they don’t know why. Apparently, laughter is a play signal. So, all mammals and many other kinds of species have a mode of play and in the play mode, you’re practicing. In the play mode, you need to keep communicating that you’re in play mode by saying, “Everything is okay. We’re safe.”
So, you play act like chasing, you play act fighting and social animals like us, we play act various sort of social fighting and social conflict, but when we play it, we are doing it in pretend mode under the presumption that everybody is okay with it and everybody is having a good time. Laughter is the way we keep communicating that we’re okay with it and we’re still in play mode. So, we laugh in response to something that somebody might interpret as a threat or something hostile and we are laughing to show that we are not feeling hostile. So, plausibly, that’s what laughter is. But if that’s what laughter is, again, why don’t we know? Why wouldn’t you be aware of that? Isn’t that a useful thing to be aware of?
Well, we reveal many embarrassing things via our laughter. For example, if you laugh at the joke of don’t pick up the soap in the prison shower, you are showing that you don’t care about prison rape. Those people don’t matter to you. You are laughing showing that this is all fun and comfortable to you because those people are elsewhere in your world. You laugh at many sorts of insults and other ways in which we are socially hostile to other people and your laughter reveals who you like better, who you feel comfortable with, et cetera, and you’re less comfortable admitting those things.
That was body language and then laughter. Conversation. People talk a lot, you might have noticed, and sometimes it’s useful, but even when we don’t have anything useful to be talking about, we just kept talking, right? Just on, and on, and on. So, what are we doing when we’re talking? If you ask people for an explanation, the sort of explanation they would like to give is we’re sharing information. I have information, you have an information. I’ll give you some of mine, you’ll give me some of yours, and we will all be better off by sharing information by talking.
This theory is plausible, but it doesn’t explain a whole bunch of particulars about conversation. If this is what we’re going on, we’d be keeping track of who owes you how much. You’ve given them information, they owe you so much. Come on, give it up. We would be more eager to listen than to talk, but we are actually more eager to talk than to listen. Most conversations actually don’t go to the most useful topics there would be to talk about. We talk about pretty trivial things and we seem to have this norm of just following a conversation topic around and not jumping too far away from it. None of these make that much sense from the point of view of this exchange of information theory.
An alternative theory is that what we’re doing in ordinary conversation is we’re showing off our mental backpack. Our mental backpack is full of tools and whatever comes up in conversation we’re going to impress you by pulling something out that’s relevant to that thing. Oh, they got something there on this thing and here’s another thing. You want access to my backpack because, in a sense, when I’m with you as an ally, anything I can do I can help you with and we’re basically showing off our various mental skills and connections through conversations that and then following the norm of whatever comes up, following that.
Now, news media conversations and even policy conversations tend to follow this norm as do academic conversations. So, this might explain a lot of the world you live in of people not necessarily talking about what’s most important policy-wise or most useful, but talking about whatever is the current news topic and then they’re often talking somewhat randomly about it and showing off in various ways what they can say about it because this is who we do most conversation. This is the nature of human conversation when we’re not very practically oriented.
Consumption, buying stuff. As you may have known, Veblen is famous in 1899 for talking about conspicuous consumption. When you look at somebody in a store or online now and you ask them, “What are you doing? Why are you buying that thing,” they will usually point to the many functional features of the products they are buying. This heater will heat more hot water so I will have a hotter shower or this car will be more reliable and get me there or this TV has more pixels so I can see more or whatever the rationale is. But Veblen argued plausibly that a lot of consumption was just to show that you could spend the money and that you were showing off that you could spend the money by spending it and that was a hidden agenda that you don’t usually admit to when you’re buying things.
Now today, we can show a lot more things than just our wealth or what you buy. When you buy [inaudible 00:17:12] you might show your dedication to the environment. If you buy a trip to a foreign country you might show your openness to travel and other cultures. We show off many features of ourselves through what we buy. Advertising fits in here because often, in order to show off various features of ourselves, we need in the minds of other people for there to be a mapping between what we are and the products we buy. So, for example, the Corona beer ad might just show a picture of somebody on the beach drinking Corona beer.
You might ask, you could drink anything on the beach. How does that show me that I want to buy that beer? But if you want to show to the people around you that you’re the sort of person who would like to hang out on the beach, how do you do that? You could wear a beach towel around, but that doesn’t work so well, or you could drink a Corona beer and then in other people’s mind will be this association and that will help you show off the kind of person you are by the kind of beer you drink because other people saw this ad. So, a lot of ads are not necessarily targeted for you. They’re targeted to your audience of who you want to show your product to. So, you notice a lot of rich products like expensive watches or BMW cars, they’re showing ads that everybody sees. They’re not just targeted to the people who are going to afford those things.
Plausibly because the people who buy those things want to know and believe that other people will have a certain association with those products and those ads are targeted to everybody so that everybody gets the connection between what a BMW person is or what a Corona beer person is so that when you buy these things you can then show the kind of person that you are. So again, some of these things are more obvious to some of you, some of them may be more surprising. But clearly, you know that in the moment of buying each product, these are not what you’re usually thinking about. This is not at the top of your head as your motives for buying things, nevertheless, this is a plausible [account 00:18:57].
Art. Art by which we mean things made special. Usually made extra expensive, less useful, perhaps pretty. There’s a bird called the bowerbird, famous because the males spend a lot fraction of their time building large, artistic sculptures whose only purpose is to impress the females, who then must be discerning enough to tell which ones are hard and which ones are not. So, the bowerbirds have evolved both the ability to create difficult, impressive sculptures and the ability to discern which ones are more impressive as a way to show off and to distinguish the more impressive birds from the less.
This is plausibly an explanation for much of our taste for things that we call art. You might say no, “No, I just like the experience of the art,” but there’s a number of features of art that are implausible or hard to understand for that point of view. First of all, we tend to prefer our art not to be functional and practical. We go out of our way to make sure it’s less useful. We care about extrinsic features of the art. So, if it were just about how the art would sit in your room or in your body or in your life, then it wouldn’t matter how it was made or who made it.
But in fact, we care a lot about how original it is, about what techniques were used. If it was handmade, that’s very impressive now. Once upon a time that was less impressive. What expensive materials you used to make it and even how many artists contribute. We are more impressed by a thing that one person made than a thing that a team of people made even if it’s exactly the same thing. These various features of our demand for art suggests that it’s not just about the experience that we gain from being in the present or using the art. It’s about admiring the artist and we are using art as a way to both associate with people who are admirable and to show our discernment and our ability to distinguish between those who are more admirable and capable than those who are not.
Charity. Why do we do charity? If you ask anybody in the process of being involved and giving money or time, their obvious answer would be to help. That’s why they’re involved in charity. But there is a recent movement called Effective Altruism, which highlights the fact that altruist are going out of their way to try and find effective charities. They are finding that most charities are not very interested in helping them out and most people aren’t very interested in participating and donating to effective charities. So, they use randomized trials, et cetera, to try to judge the effectiveness and there’s very people actually interested in that.
So, most of the recipients of charities aren’t actually in that much of need. There’s a lot that goes to church or to supporting groups. We actually prefer a lot of variety in our charity, but if we were trying to help the most, we would just give to a single best charity. We give more to charity when people are watching us or when we’re thinking about mating or when people ask us to. Those are all things that suggest that what charity is more about is showing the people around us that we are generous, i.e. wealthy, altruistic or pro-social, and even empathetic. That is when there’s the picture of the starving child, we can’t but help, but give. That just show the kind of nice person that we are. So, if you were ever involved with me and you would look pathetic, I might help you too because I just couldn’t help helping pathetic-looking people. It’s not about helping the world in general, it’s by showing this capacity that I have to want to help other people.
So, this overall explains some missing forms of charity that would otherwise be useful. One is called marginal charity, i.e. when you slightly adjust decisions that help people, that actually turns out to be a very cost-effective form of charity people are not interested in and also helping the far future. As you know, rates of return on investment are usually higher than gross rates, which means that if you waited and helped the future, you could have a lot more resources to do, but people are very quite uninterested in doing that.
School. For this, I’m going to [crib 00:23:08] mostly on my colleague Bryan Caplan’s upcoming excellent book, The Case Against Education. But as you may know, the usual story about what people are doing in school is learning the material and the usual story about why they would want to learn the material is that might be useful someday later or at least it might be fun or at least growth producing in some way. As you may know, there’s a lot of things that are hard to explain from this point of view.
For example, for many years, I lived near Stanford University in Silicon Valley and I enjoyed simply going to Stanford classes, sitting in and learning without registering or paying or anything else. They don’t police that sort of thing because they don’t expect that to be a problem. They don’t expect anybody to do that. You can get the best education available by just showing up and sitting in on the classes as long as you don’t want the degree. What’s with that is if it was about learning? There’s other puzzles and that employers seem to pay a lot for degrees that are never used or the thing they learn in the degree was never used. Employers pay a lot more for the last year of high school and the last year of college compared to other years. Most students don’t actually remember most of what they’re taught and the few things they do remember aren’t very useful. So, what’s going on?
Plausibly, school has a number or functions, but some of the main functions is to just show off your intelligence, your conscientiousness, your conformity. In addition, schools babysit people. They bring people together to form friends, and networks, and date. Governments can use them to indoctrinate people and they can train you in the habits that modern workplaces will use so that you become acculturated to how the world will be later. This are all plausible functions of school that almost never get mentioned in graduation ceremonies. When we talk explicitly about school or about applying to school or statements of purpose, we talk about learning the material and how usefully that will be and we very rarely talk about any of these other plausible functions that are possibly more important, that matter more.
Medicine. Why do people go to the doctor? The obvious answer is to get well or to not get sick. That’s the standard on the top of the head explanation for going to the doctor. Seems obvious, right? But it doesn’t explain a lot of puzzles about medicine. Medicine is really quite puzzling. I’m going to suggest that it’s more like a parent kissing the child’s booboo when they scrape their knee, say. Why bother with kissing the booboo? Is that medically helpful? No, but it’s comforting to know that they were there for you, they care, they’re willing to do something, to do some sacrifice to show that they care about you.
So, our distant [forger 00:26:06] ancestors, our ancestors from long ago, when they got sick they didn’t really have that much in the way of useful of medicine, but what they needed when they got sick was somebody to come and feed them, to protect them from predators, and to show that somebody have their backs or the other people weren’t trying to poach their spouse or whatever it might be, that they have allies. So, a forger is needed to go out of their way to show that they would take care of an ally in order to show that that ally was cared for and that was a very potent signal of loyalty because that’s when you really needed it the most and if somebody is going to betray you and leave you, that is the opportune and time when you were injured and out of commission for perhaps weeks.
So, this is plausibly what happened. This can explain some of the puzzles we have which are, for example, that when we look at regions that spend more in medicine, they don’t actually seem to be any healthier. When we’ve done randomized experiments where we’ve given some people lower prices for medicine and then they consume more, they weren’t healthier. So, that’s actually puzzling from the usual point of view that people are using medicine to get healthier. We tend to prefer medicine that has visible sacrifices, that’s complicated and technical. We spend more in medicine when we live in an area where other people spend more in medicine. We are not very interested in getting healthy via exercise, sleep, diet, all these very practical things which studies clearly show are very useful in being healthy and medicine has very little relation to health, but we are obsessed about access the medicines or we’re obsessed with dealing with rare crisis instead of the usual case of just being more or less healthy.
We are very uninterested in private signals about the quality of medicine. That is for many other products we are willing to look at private signals of quality and act on them, but in medicine we are much less interested in that. We might be very responsive to a common signal about everybody’s talking about how that hospital is bad, but when we offer private information about the quality of the hospital or a doctor, we find almost nobody’s interested in paying much for it and they if [get 00:28:08] it, they don’t act on it. That plausibly makes sense when medicine is a gift because for gifts, you mainly want to pay attention to common signals about quality.
If I give you a box of chocolates for Valentine’s, you care less about what you privately think about the quality and I care on what I privately think. I care more about the common signal. What do we commonly perceive to be the higher quality? I don’t want to give you as much chocolate as you’re hungry for. I need to give you as much chocolate as shows that somebody who didn’t care as much as me wouldn’t give you as much. So, that’s plausibly why we do we lots of too extra medicine much more than as useful because we need to do more to show that we care and prefer to give medicine communally through families, through firms, through nations rather than buying it individually.
Religion. What is religion for? If you talk to people involved in religion and ask, “What are you doing,” they will talk about various abstract things like gods, and spirits, and the nature of the universe, et cetera, or things deep inside themselves. People often try to explain religion by appealing to beliefs. They say well, they have these beliefs and those beliefs induce these actions, but in fact, most religions in the world in history haven’t had much to do with belief. Belief hasn’t been very important in most religion. It’s been action and what you do that has mattered.
We need to understand why consistently in all the studies we do, religious people just come out better on everything. Better educated, better income, better happiness, better families, less crime, less drugs. Whatever it is, religious people are just better consistently. So, religion is doing something well for people. How is it that having strange beliefs, or whatever it is, is doing that? Well, there’s a whole standard literature in social science of religion that suggest that religion is about bonding to a group, committing to a community. That is when a community has some rituals and demands on people or even strange beliefs and things you do, if you’re willing to do those things, you are showing you’re willing to pay a price to be part of that community and distinguishing yourself from other communities. If you aren’t willing to do those things, you’re less likely to be willing to sacrifice for the community.
Communities can rely more. So, stronger religions that demand more from people actually are able to help each other more and you are able to rely on them more to get help inside those sorts of religious communities. So, religious communities function effectively, apparently, to separate out the people who don’t care enough to devote to the community from the people who do and create stronger communities. Sermons, which everybody acknowledges that they appeal to the norms and when you enforce the norms, and badges that show you’re a part of it, and rituals of synchrony where we do things together to help us bond together, this all makes sense as part of a community bonding effort. But of course again, the puzzle is why don’t we just say that then? Why do we make up all this other stuff about why we do religion? Plausibly, of course it makes sense to believe in powerful gods who will punish you for violating the norms. If you seem to believe that, that does make you more plausibly someone who will follow the norms, which makes you more plausibly someone we can rely on as part of our community.
Politics is my last section before conclusion here. This is something more familiar to you, I presume, just like conversation was. What’s on the surface of people’s minds, what’s the thing people say that politics is about if you ask them, “What are you doing in politics? What are you bothering with that? Why did you vote? Why did you go to that rally? Why are you reading this stuff? Why are you arguing? What’s the point of any of it?” The usual story is that if I’m involved in politics, I am what I’m going to call a do-right. Dudley Do-Right, perhaps. I am trying to help. I want my community, my nation, my world to be better and by getting involved in politics I’m going to make it all better. I’ll do my little part and that’s of course why I’m being involved in politics.
There is some degree which that makes some sense, but it has trouble explaining a number of features about people’s involvement in politics. We are actually remarkably uninformed relative to achieving that goal. You might think we want to learn a little more. When we bother to try to participate, like say via voting, we are remarkably insensitive to how decisive our vote is, which you would think would matter a lot of if we were trying to influence the outcome. We have suspiciously strong emotions compared to somebody who’s just being an analyst. An alternative view is that we are what are called apparatchiks. We are a loyal bureaucrats or not bureaucrats but loyal members of our community.
So, a famous example in the Soviet Union long ago, Stalin was giving a speech and at the end of the speech everybody stood up and started clapping and then they just kept clapping and it went on for like 10 minutes because everybody was saying, “Well, if I sit down first I will look like I’m less loyal than everybody else.” Finally, one person sat down first, and then everybody else sat down, and then that person was sent off to the gulag because that’s how it worked.
So, the ideas that in politics, what we are mostly concerned about is showing our loyalty to our various sides. This plausibly explains a number of things. We very much prefer to marry, to work with, to date, to have friends people who share our political views so in that way, politics does matter in our lives because those incentives are real relative to the incentives of say voting one way or another. This helps explain why we tend to vote with group interest much less with personal interest. We tend to care more about taking positions than actually influencing outcomes. We don’t actually care if our politicians are very effective, we just care about what positions they take. Go out of our way to sacrifice to participate.
We allow ourselves, like with religion, to believe other implausible claims. We are not very tolerant of compromise. You would think somebody who wanted to get something done to make the world better would be eager for compromise, effective, useful compromise, but we are much more willing to tell you what we would do if we were king with no compromise and quite reluctant to talk about where we would make trades and deals in order to get something in the middle. It helps understand why we tend up coming up with this one-dimensional political spectrum consistently across societies even though that one dimension sits in different directions the process by which we form alliances would predict that we would form a one-dimensional alliance and then we make up excuses why there’s really just one fundamental dimension in politics be it some ideological concepts, which varies enormously over who you talk to, but we still believe there’s this one thing.
So far, I’ve told you that you are a conspiracy. You are the press secretary of your head whose job it is to make up excuses and to make yourself sound like you have good motives for everything you do. I outlined the story of human evolution and human nature that have that make sense how humans have norms that we enforce, that we try to evade, often expressed in terms of motives, and that we self-deceive about our motives in order to deceive others about what we’re doing to evade norms and that this is plausibly why you’re unaware of a lot of why you do things.
Then I went through a whole bunch of areas one at a time, specifically telling you and here’s, on the one hand, the usual story people say about their motives and, on the other hand, here’s a better, more plausible account of typical behavior looking at the typical correlates of how people do those specific things. So, we went through body language, laughter, conversation, consumption, art, charity, education, medicine, religion, and politics. I could have done more, but we thought that was enough for one book. Maybe if there’s a huge demand we’ll do more, but the point here was to try to convince you that this is a widespread phenomena, that it grows across lots of areas.
If I had just spent one talk on education or one talk on medicine, you might have thought, “Well, that’s kind of plausible, but that sure is a weird thesis and maybe that’s just too weird for me to believe.” That might be a reasonable response if you only ever saw weirdness in one area. That’s why I needed to show you weirdness in a lot of areas to convince you that it’s not just one exception, this is almost the usual case that across a wide range of areas that on the one hand, there’s a usual story, and on the other hand, there’s what’s really going on.
So, who cares, you might say. But of course, at the beginning I talked about how obsessed people are with conspiracies and here you are at the center of a conspiracy. Each of you finds that you are not what you thought you were, like you find yourself that you popped out of the Matrix and you are in the Matrix or that you are the Manchurian Candidate who has been brainwashed. You are not who you thought you were. You actually follow other motives than you have been telling yourself, not on the face that it should be interesting and it should be disturbing if you’ve been making decisions on the basis of these various assumptions you have about why you’re doing things, you could just be really wrong and you may need to reconsider some of those things.
Okay, so at one level, you can just use this to understand human behavior. If you are a social scientist, a student of human behavior, this is the sort of thing you need in your toolkit to understand. You need to understand the ways in which people are wrong about what they do to understand other people’s behavior. You could see this as a form of courage and honesty, embracing this and admitting to it even if other people don’t. You could try to reform yourself, perhaps, if you see that there’s a difference between your ideals and your actions. You could try to bring one closer to the other. Bring your actions closer to your ideals or your ideals closer to your actions to accept your actions, perhaps, in some way.
If you think about institutional reform or policy reform, then you have to realize that this is where I started here, which is to realize that was trying to design institutional reforms to achieve the purposes people said they had, which I started in medicine, in school, et cetera, and then when you realize that they are actually pursuing different goals, it means you have to change how you do reform. Instead of trying to design an institution that better gives people the things they say they want, which will usually get the response who cares, go away, because they don’t actually want what they say they want. You have to figure out how to design an institution that will continue to appear to give them the thing they say they want while actually giving them the thing they really want. Now, that’s a harder design problem, but it’s a design problem that maybe if you could solve it, you have a better chance of getting people to adopt whatever proposal you make because now, you’re actually giving them what they really want and not just appearing to give them what they appear to want.
Finally, notice this seems like a downer in the sense that hey, we’ve all been telling this grand high story about how great we are and it turns out we’re not so great as the story we’ve been told. But if you look, pause, and just set that aside and say, “Look, compared to all the other animal species on earth, we are spectacular. We are spectacularly capable, spectacularly cooperative, spectacularly nice to each other, and useful. We coordinate and achieve spectacular, phenomenal things.” The fact that we aren’t the angels that we pretend doesn’t mean we have to be down on people. You could still think people are spectacular and wonderful even if they aren’t the things they say or think they are.
So, I and Kevin are still great fans of humans and it’s not obvious that everybody should know this. Clearly, our ignorance evolved for a reason. Clearly, we are unaware of these motives because, at least in many common cases, being aware of these motives is a disadvantage. It makes us less able to pretend to the high motives that we’d like to pretend. So, I and Kevin don’t argue that everybody must know this and it must be taught in second grade schools everywhere. Instead we’d argue, look, somebody ought to know this and especially, people who are making decisions about society that depend on whether this is right or wrong. So, if you are making policy recommendations, if you are making institutional design choices, then this matters a lot.
If you’re trying to reform medicine under the assumption that people are trying to get healthy and frustrated that people do not seem to be interested in your reforms that would seem to obviously make them healthier, you should pause and think, “Well, maybe they’re not trying to get healthy.” Maybe that’s why they’re not interested in your reforms. You try to reform school to help people learn better and in fact, we know a lot of ways and have known for many decades a lot of ways to make schools teach people, learn faster and they just sit on themselves because people are not interested in all of these ways. We figured out how to make people learn faster because plausibly, we aren’t that interested in actually learning more at school. Because we mostly don’t learn very much, that’s not what it’s for. So, if you want to reform school you have to take that seriously and think about what it’s really for and whether you can come up with something that better achieves that while still pretending to teach people a material.
All right, that’s my talk. Thank you very much and I look forward to hearing comments and questions.