The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson

Hidden Motives with Robin Hanson

The following quote from Robin Hanson is from Hidden Motives, an episode of the Waking Up podcast with Sam Harris. The topic is primarily Hanson’s new book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, co-written with Kevin Simler.

Our usual institutions let us pretend to be trying to get the thing we pretend to want while actually – under the surface – giving us the things we actually want.

Policy analysts typically try to analyze how to give policy reforms that would give us more of the things we pretend to want. And we’re usually uninterested in that because we know we don’t actually want more of the things we pretend we want.

If you could design a policy reform that let us continue to pretend to get the things we pretend to want while actually getting more of the things we actually want, we’d like that. But we can’t admit it. If we stumble into it, we’ll stay there.

But if the policy analysts were just to out loud say “Well this is a system that will give you more of this thing that’s what you actually want. But admit it.” We don’t want to admit it. And then we won’t want to embrace that.

So yes, what we want to do is pay for the appearance of the thing we’re pretending to want and we’re often paying a lot for that appearance.

– Robin Hanson

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives

The Elephant in the Brain Hidden Motives in Everyday LifeGreat quote from Robin Hanson about how we’re often not honest with ourselves about our hidden motives and what that means for our policies regarding education, guns, healthcare, immigration, inequality, capitalism, and corporatism.

Hanson’s accessible book focuses on motives and norms but also covers selfishness, hypocrisy, norm violation, cheating, deception, self-deception, signaling, counter-signaling, social status (separated into dominance and prestige), power, money, and loyalty.

My 3 biggest takeaways from Hanson’s conversation with Harris were:

  1. How frequently we are dishonest with ourselves about our motives
  2. When it comes to what people want, you’re better off watching their actions than taking their word
  3. It’s okay to be agnostic on things you haven’t looked into deeply – you’ll probably be happier too.

Finally, Hanson is also known for his work in predictive markets and forecasting. If that’s also of interest to you, check out: Why are we so so so bad at finishing projects on time?