Notes from “The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life”
Oxford University Press
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Part I Why We Hide Our Motives
Knowledge suppression is useful only when two conditions are met: (1) when others have partial visibility into your mind; and (2) when they’re judging you, and meting out rewards or punishments, based on what they “see” in your mind.
Just as camouflage is useful when facing an adversary with eyes, self-deception can be useful when facing an adversary with mind-reading powers
We earn prestige not just by being rich, beautiful, and good at sports, but also by being funny, artistic, smart, well-spoken, charming, and kind.
In our friends and associates, we want those who have skills, resources, and compatible personalities—and the more loyal they are to us, the better. And we’re looki
for similar qualities in our political allies, since they’re basically friends chosen for a specific purpose
At the same time, in order to attract partners, we need to advertise our own traits—the same ones we’re looking for in others. By displaying, accentuating, and even exaggerating these desirable traits, we raise our own value, helping to ensure that we’ll be chosen by more and/or higher-quality mates, more and/or higher-status friends, and better coalitions.
Deception allows an agent to reap benefits without incurring costs.
In the human social realm, honest signaling and the handicap principle are best reflected in the dictum, “Actions speak louder than words.” 29 The problem with words is that they cost almost nothing; talk is usually too cheap. Which is a more honest signal of your value to a company: being told “great job!” or getting a raise?
But most norms—especially of the bottom-up, grassroots variety—are beneficial; they’re one of the main ways we suppress competition and promote cooperation. In other words, we hold ourselves back, collectively, for our own good.
But gossip is important and useful even when it doesn’t lead to formal sanctions, because it can substantially damage the reputation of whomever is being gossiped about. It’s the threat of such reputational damage that provides an important check on bad behavior, especially in cases when direct punishment is too difficult or costly to enforce.
Part of our thesis is that these weaker norms, the ones that regulate our intentions, are harder to notice, especially when we violate them ourselves, because we’ve developed that blind spot—the elephant in the brain. For this reason, it pays to dwell on a few of them, to remind ourselves that there’s a lot of social pressure to conform to these norms, but that we would benefit from violati
these norms freely, if only we could get away with it.
But note that there remains a strong incentive to brag and show off. We need people to notice our good qualities, skills, and achievements; how else will they know to choose us as friends, mates, and teammates? We want people to notice our charitable contributions, our political connectedness, and our prowess in art, sport, and school
Selfish Motives Perhaps the most comprehensive norm of all—a catch-all that includes bragging, currying favor, and political behavior, but extends to everything else that we’re supposed to do for prosocial reasons—is the norm against selfish motives. It’s also the linchpin of our thesis. Consider how awkward it is to answer certain questions by appealing to selfish motives. Why did you break up with your girlfriend? “I’m hoping to find
someone better.” Why do you want to be a doctor? “It’s a prestigious job with great pay.” Why do you draw cartoons for the school paper? “I want people to like me.” There’s truth in all these answers, but we systematically avoid giving them, preferring instead to accentuate our higher, purer motives.
Why do we cheat? It’s simple: cheating lets us reap benefits without incurring the typical costs.
Our ancestors did a lot of cheating. How do we know? One source of evidence is the fact that our brains have special-purpose adaptations for detecting cheaters. 3 When abstract logic puzzles are framed as cheating scenarios, for example, we’re a lot better at solving them.
For a piece of information to be “common knowledge” within a group of people, it’s not enough simply for everyone to know it. Everyone must also know that everyone else knows it, and know that they know that they know it, and so on.
Common knowledge is the difference between privately telling an individual and making a big public announcement; between a lesbian who’s still in the closet (although everyone suspects her of being a lesbian), and one who’s fully open about her sexuality; between an awkward moment that everyone
tries to pretend didn’t happen and one that everyone acknowledges (and can hopefully laugh about). Common knowledge is information that’s fully “on the record,” available for everyone to see and discuss openly.
And as we’ve seen, a pretext doesn’t need to fool everyone—it simply needs to be plausible enough to make people worry that other people might believe it.
When a hotel invites its guests to “consider the environment” before leaving their used towels out to be washed, its primary
concern isn’t the environment but its bottom line. But to impose on guests merely to save money violates norms of hospitality—hence the pretext. 16
In communicating discreetly with each other, what are the nobles hoping to achieve? First, they’re hoping not to be noticed at all. If they are noticed whispering together, they hope their voices aren’t overheard. If their voices are overheard, they hope their words can’t be made out. If their words can be made out, they hope the meaning is unclear. And finally, even if their meaning is clear to individual eavesdroppers, they hope their plans can remain closeted
knowledge rather than becoming common knowledge.
Imagine two guards patrolling the castle together who happen to have overheard the nobles. Both guards might individually suspect a plot, but they might also be secretly happy about it. (Maybe the king has mistreated them.) Neither could openly admit to endorsing treason, but because the nobles were whispering, each guard can pretend not to have heard. If, instead, the nobles had been speaking loudly and openly, the plot would become common knowledge between the guards, and they would feel compelled to arrest the conspirators. As a rule of thumb, whenever communication is discreet—
ubtle, cryptic, or ambiguous—it’s a fair bet that the speaker is trying to get away with something by preventing the message from becoming common knowledge. Examples include
Body language . A nod, a glance, a knowing smile, a quick roll of the eyes, or a friendly touch on the arm. In general, body language is discreet in a way that words aren’t, because they are harder to interpret and quote to third parties. “The meaning of a wink,” says Michael Chwe in Rational Ritual , “depends on it not being common knowledge.” 17 We’ll take a closer look at body language in Chapter 7.
Cryptic communication . Using words or phrases whose meaning is obscure, but which are more easily understood by one’s target audience than by hostile eavesdroppers. This is one reason we develop and use so much slang for bad, questionable, or illegal behavior. Terms like “hooking up” (sex), “420” (marijuana), and “gaming” (gambling) all proliferate partly in order to stay half a step ahead of the authorities (be they parents, police, or judgmental peers). 18 • Subtlety and subtext . Indirection, hints, and innuendo. Such tactics allow us to convey meaning while retaining enough semantic
elbow room to deny the message later, if need be. Examples include veiled threats (“It would be a shame if something happened to that pretty face of yours”) and broaching bad behavior such as prostitution (“You looking to have a good time?”) or drugs (“Do you like to party?”). • Symbolism . In her novel Ethan Frome , Edith Wharton cleverly symbolizes the sexual relationships between her main characters using two uncanny dinner items: pickles and donuts. More seriously, symbols can be used to rally resistance against a corrupt regime. If a resistance movement becomes
associated with a particular color, people can wear that color to support the resistance without making themselves as vulnerable to attack by the ruling regime. • Informal speech . In general, the more formal your speech, the more the message is quotable and “on the record.” And vice versa: less formal speech is typically “off the record.”
These techniques can be useful even when there are only two people involved. Consider a man propositioning a woman for sex after a couple dates. 19 If he asks openly—”Would you like to have sex tonight?”—it puts both of their “faces” on the line; everything becomes less
deniable. The solution is a little euphemism: “Want to come up and see my etchings?” Both parties have a pretty clear idea of what’s being suggested, but crucially their knowledge doesn’t rise to the status of common knowledge. He doesn’t know that she knows that he was offering sex—at least not with certainty.
One study, for example, gave patients a cholesterol test, then followed up to see what they remembered months later. Patients with the worst test results—who were judged the most at-risk of cholesterol-related health problems—were most likely to misremember their test results, and they remembered their results as better (i.e., healthier) than they actually were. 7 Smokers, but not nonsmokers, choose not to hear about the dangerous effects of smoking
Otto Fenichel in the mid-20th century, reinterpreted the purpose of defense mechanisms as preserving one’s self-esteem . 13 This has become the polite, common-sense explanation—that we deceive ourselves because we can’t handle the truth. Our egos and self-esteem are fragile and need to be shielded from distressing information, like the fact that we probably won’t win the upcoming competition, or the fact that we may be sick with some lurking cance
In contrast, using self-deception to preserve self-esteem or reduce anxiety is a sloppy hack and ultimately self-defeating. It would be like trying to warm yourself during winter by aiming a blow-dryer at the thermostat. The temperature reading will rise, but it won’t reflect a properly heated house, and it won’t stop you from shivering. 16 Alternatively, imagine you’re the general in charge of a large army. You’re outnumbered and surrounded by the enemy with no clear line of escape. As you contemplate your next move on a large paper map, you realize how easy it would be to erase the mountain range that’s blocking your troops, or to draw a pas
through the mountains where none actually exists. Having an escape route would certainly be a relief! But the map isn’t the territory; you can’t erase the actual mountains. Whatever you do to the map, the enemy will still have you surrounded. And by lying about reality, you’re setting yourself up to make bad decisions that will lead to even worse outcomes. A general who made a habit of indulging in such flights of fancy would quickly lose the war to one who didn’t. And the same is true for our minds. We therefore need a better reason for deceiving ourselves than mere psychic comfort.
Opening oneself up to future punishment . “Among the legal privileges of corporations,” writes Schelling, “two that are mentioned in textbooks are the right to sue and the ‘right’ to be sued. Who wants to be sued! But the right to be sued is the power to make a promise: to borrow money, to enter a contract, to do business with someone who might be damaged. If suit does arise, the ‘right’ seems a liability in retrospect; beforehand it was a prerequisite to doing business.” 19
Ignoring information , also known as strategic ignorance . If you’re kidnapped, for example, you might prefer not
to see your kidnapper’s face or learn his name. Why? Because if he knows you can identify him later (to the police), he’ll be less likely to let you go. In some cases, knowledge can be a serious liability.
Classical decision theory has it right: there’s no value in sabotaging yourself per se. The value lies in convincing other players that you’ve sabotaged yourself.
In the game of chicken, you don’t win because you’re unable to steer, but because your opponent believes you’re unable to steer. Similarly, as a kidnapping victim, you don’t suffer because you’ve seen your kidnapper’s face; you suffer when the kidnapper thinks you’ve seen his face.
If you could
somehow see his face without giving him any idea that you’d done so, you’d probably be better off.
When a hurricane is roaring toward you, it’s no use trying to ignore it; the hurricane couldn’t care less whether or not you know it’s coming. Sabotaging yourself works only when you’re playing against an opponent with a theory-of-mind.
Typically these opponents will be other humans, but it could theoretically extend to some of the smarter animals, as well as hypothetical future robots or aliens. Corporations and nation-states also use some of these self-sabotaging tactics vis-à-vis each other and the public at large. Self-deception, then, is a tactic that’s useful only to social creatures in social situations.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of what Schelling, Trivers, Kurzban, and others are arguing. Their conclusion is that we, humans, must self-deceive. Those who refuse to play such mind games will be at a game-theoretic disadvantage relative to others who play along. Thus we are often wise to ignore seemingly critical information and to believe easily refuted falsehoods—and then to prominently advertise our distorted thinking—because these are winning moves . As Trivers puts it, “We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others.” 21
Similarly, often the best way to convince others that we believe something is to actually believe it.
Other people aren’t stupid. They’re aware that we often have an incentive to lie to them, so they’re watching us, eagle-eyed, for any signs of deception.
They’re analyzing our words (often comparing them to things we said days, weeks, or months ago), scrutinizing our facial expressions, and observing our
behaviors to make sure they conform to our stated motives.
The point is, our minds aren’t as private as we like to imagine. Other people have partial visibility into what we’re thinking. Faced with the translucency of our own minds, then, self-deception is often the most robust way to mislead others. It’s not technically a lie (because it’s not conscious or deliberate), but it has a similar effect. “We hide reality from our conscious minds,” says Trivers, “the better to hide it from onlookers.” 25 Modeling the world accurately isn’t the be-all and end-all of the human brain. Brains evolved to help our bodies, and ultimately our genes, get along and get
ahead in the world—a world that includes not just rocks and squirrels and hurricanes, but also other human beings. And if we spend a significant fraction of our lives interacting with others (which we do), trying to convince them of certain things (which we do), why shouldn’t our brains adopt socially useful beliefs as first-class citizens, alongside world-modeling beliefs?
Wear a mask long enough and it becomes your face. 26 Play a role long enough and it becomes who you are. Spend enough time pretending something is true and you might as well believe it. 27
In many ways, belief is a political act. This is why we’re typically keen to believe a friend’s version of a story—about a breakup, say, or a dispute at work—even when we know there’s another side of the story that may be equally compelling.
Similarly, it doesn’t demonstrate loyalty to believe the truth, which we have every incentive to believe anyway. It only demonstrates loyalty to believe something that we wouldn’t have reason to believe unless we were loyal.
This was how Zhao Gao flushed out his enemies. Soon after, he murdered all the officials who refused to call the deer a horse. 31 Zhao Gao’s ploy wouldn’t have worked if he had called the deer a deer. The truth is a poor litmus test of loyalty.
The goal of cheerleading, then, is to change other people’s beliefs. And the more fervently we believe something, the easier it is to convince others that it’s true. The politician who’s confident she’s going to win no matter what will have an easier time rallying supporters than one who projects a more honest assessment of her chances. The startup founder who’s brimming with confidence, though it may be entirely unearned, will often attract more investors and recruit more employees than someone with an accurat
assessment of his own abilities. When we deceive ourselves about personal health, whether by avoiding information entirely or by distorting information we’ve already received, it feels like we’re trying to protect ourselves from distressing information. But the reason our egos need to be shielded—the reason we evolved to feel pain when our egos are threatened—is to help us maintain a positive social impression. We don’t personally benefit from misunderstanding our current state of health, but we benefit when others mistakenly believe we’re healthy. And the first step to convincing others is often to convince ourselves. As Bill Atkinson, a colleague of Ste
In deceiving ourselves, then, we’re often acting to deceive and manipulate others. We might be hoping to intimidate them (like the Madman), earn their trust (like the Loyalist), change their beliefs (like the Cheerleader), or throw them off our trail (like the Cheater).
The benefit of self-deception is that it can, in some scenarios, help us mislead others
We can know and remain ignorant, as long as it’s in separate parts of the brain. 43
Picture the mind as a society of little modules, systems, and subselves chattering away among themselves. This chatter is largely what constitutes our inner mental life, both conscious and unconscious. Self-discretion, then, consists of discretion among different brain parts . When part of the brain has to process a sensitive piece of information—wanting to get the upper hand in a particular interaction, for example—it doesn’t necessarily make a big conscious fuss about it. Instead, we might just feel vaguely uneasy until we’ve gained the upper hand, whereupon we’ll feel comfortable ending the
conversation. At no point does the motive “Get the upper hand” rise to full conscious attention, but the same result is accomplished discreetly.
In summary, our minds are built to sabotage information in order to come out ahead in social games. When big parts of our minds are unaware of how we
try to violate social norms, it’s more difficult for others to detect and prosecute those violations. This also makes it harder for us to calculate optimal behaviors, but overall, the trade-off is worth it. Of all the things we might be self-deceived about, the most important are our own motives . It’s this special form of self-deception that we turn to in the next chapter.
We deceive ourselves,” as Robert Trivers says, “the better to deceive others”—in particular, to make it harder for others to catch and prosecute us for behaving badly.
No surprises here. But then the researchers asked the patient to explain why he had chosen the shovel. Explanations, and speech generally, are functions of the
left hemisphere, and thus the researchers were putting the left hemisphere in an awkward position. The right hemisphere alone had seen the snowy field, and it was the right hemisphere’s unilateral decision to point to the shovel. The left hemisphere , meanwhile, had been left completely out of the loop, but was being asked to justify a decision it took no part in and wasn’t privy to. From the point of view of the left hemisphere, the only legitimate answer would have been, “I don’t know.” But that’s not the answer it gave. Instead, the left hemisphere said it had chosen the shovel because shovels are used for “cleaning out the chicken coop.” In other
words, the left hemisphere, lacking a real reason to give, made up a reason on the spot . It pretended that it had acted on its own—that it had chosen the shovel because of the chicken picture. And it delivered this answer casually and matter-of-factly, fully expecting to be believed, because it had no idea it was making up a story. The left hemisphere, says Gazzaniga, “did not offer its suggestion in a guessing vein but rather as a statement of fact.” 6
But few things seem as easy for us to rationalize as our own motives. When we make up stories about things outside our minds, we open ourselves up to fact-checking. People can argue with us: “Actually, that’s not what happened.” But when we make up stories about our own motives, it’s much harder for
others to question us—outside of a psychology lab, at least. And as we saw in Chapter 3, we have strong incentives to portray our motives in a flattering light, especially when they’re the subject of norm enforcement
Rationalization is a kind of epistemic forgery, if you will. When others ask us to give reasons for our behavior, they’re asking about our true, underlying motives. So when we rationalize or confabulate, we’re handing out counterfeit reasons (see Box 5). We’re presenting them as an honest account of our mental machinations, when in fact they’re made up from scratch.
If you want to see post hoc reasoning [i.e., rationalization] in action, just watch the press secretary of a president or prime minister take questions from reporters. No matter how bad the policy, the secretary will find some way to praise or defend it. Reporters then challenge assertions and bring up contradictory quotes from the politician, or even quotes straight from the press secretary on previous days. Sometimes you’ll hear an awkward pause as the secretary searches for the right words, but what you’ll never hear is: “Hey, that’s a great point! Maybe we should rethink this policy.”
But the conclusion from the past 40 years of social psychology is that the self acts less like an autocrat and more like a press secretary. In many ways, its job— our job—isn’t to make decisions, but simply to defend them. “You are not the king of your brain,” says Steven Kaas. “You are the creepy guy
standing next to the king going, ‘A most judicious choice, sire.’ “
In one classic study, researchers sent subjects home with boxes of three “different” laundry detergents, and asked them to evaluate which worked best on delicate clothes. 16 All three detergents were identical, though the subjects had no idea. Crucially, however, the three boxes were different. One was a plain yellow, another blue, and the third was blue with “splashes of yellow.” In their evaluations, subjects
expressed concerns about the first two detergents and showed a distinct preference for the third. They said that the detergent in the yellow box was “too strong” and that it ruined their clothes. The detergent in the blue box, meanwhile, left their clothes looking dirty. The detergent in the third box (blue with yellow splashes), however, had a “fine” and “wonderful” effect on their delicate clothes. Here again, as in the split-brain experiments, we (third parties with privileged information) know what’s really going on. The subjects simply preferred the blue-and-yellow box . But because they were asked to evaluate the detergents , and because they thought the
detergents were actually different, their Press Secretaries were tricked into making up counterfeit explanations.
In each case, the Press Secretary makes up reasons it thinks are legitimate: “Oh, this wine is a lot sweeter,” or “ These pantyhose are so smooth.” But since the products are identical, we know the reasons must b
In an even more deceptive experiment, researchers showed male subjects pairs of photos of female faces. For each pair, the subjects were asked to point to the face they found more attractive. What the subjects didn’t realize is that, after they pointed to their chosen photograph, the researcher used sleight of hand to slip them the other photograph, the one they didn’t choose. The subjects were then asked to explain their “choice.” Not only did a clear majority of participants fail to notice the switch, but after being given the wrong photograph, they often proceeded to give concrete and specific reasons for their
“choice.” “She looks like an aunt of mine I think, and she seems nicer than the other one.” Or “She’s radiant. I would rather have approached her at a bar than the other one. I like earrings!” (The other woman, the subject’s actual choice, was not wearing earrings.) Even under the best conditions—unlimited time to make the choice, pairs of women with different hair colors or styles—the subjects realized they had been deceived only about a third of the time. In most trials, the subject’s Press Secretary was perfectly happy to rationalize a decision the subject didn’t actually make. 19
Subjects were split into two groups. Each group watched a short video of a teacher with a foreign accent, then rated the teacher’s overall likability as well as his appearance, mannerisms, and accent. The only difference between the two groups was the way the teacher related to his students. In one group, he was
warm and friendly; in the other group, cold and hostile. Otherwise his appearance, mannerisms, and accent were the same. Subjects in the warm condition obviously liked the teacher more—and, because of the halo effect, they also rated his other attributes higher. But when subjects were asked whether the teacher’s overall likability had influenced their judgments about his other attributes, they strongly denied it. In fact, many of them said it was the other way around—that it was the teacher’s appearance, mannerisms, and accent that determined whether they liked him. In other words, subjects couldn’t “see” that it was
actually the teacher’s behavior that had influenced their judgments, and so instead many of them made up bogus explanations for how they had formed their opinions. 20
We, your two coauthors, can also give examples from our own lives. Robin, for example, has often said his main goal in academic life is to get his ideas “out there” in the name of intellectual progress. But then he began to realize that whenever he spotted his ideas “out there” without proper attribution, he had mixed feelings. In part, he felt annoyed and cheated. If his main goal was actually to advance the world’s knowledge, he shou
have been celebrating the wider circulation of his ideas, whether or not he got credit for them. But the more honest conclusion is that he wants individual prestige just as much as, if not more than, impersonal intellectual progress. Shortly after his 23rd birthday, Kevin was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. For a while he was extremely reluctant to talk about it (except among family and close friends), a reluctance he rationalized by telling himself that he’s simply a “private person” who doesn’t like sharing private medical details with the world. Later he started following a very strict diet to treat his disease—a diet that eliminates processed foods and refined
carbohydrates. Eating so healthy quickly became a point of pride, and suddenly Kevin found himself perfectly happy to share his diagnosis, since it also gave him an opportunity to brag about his diet. Being a “private person” about medical details went right out the window—and now, look, here he is sharing his diagnosis (and diet!) with perfect strangers in this book.
These two examples illustrate one of the most effective ways to rationalize, which is telling half-truths. In other words, we cherry-pick our most acceptable, prosocial reasons while concealing the uglier ones. Robin really does want to get his ideas out there, and Kevin really is a private person. But these two
explanations aren’t the full story
People who download
copyrighted material—songs, movies, books—often rationalize their actions by saying, “Faceless corporations take most of the profits from artists anyway.” The fact that most of these people wouldn’t dream of stealing CDs or DVDs from Best Buy (an equally faceless corporate entity) attests to a different explanation for their behavior, which is that online, they feel anonymous and are less afraid of getting caught.
Part II Hidden Motives in Everyday Life
Our egos—Press Secretaries—could easily arrange to become better informed about what’s going on, even if only after the fact. Indeed, this is exactly what happens to those who study body language professionally, like actors and police interrogators
Isadora Duncan 1
Body language, however, is mostly not arbitrary. 14 Instead, nonverbal behaviors are meaningfully, functionally related to the messages they’re conveying. We show emotional excitement, for example, by being physically excited: making noise, waving our arms, dancing up and down. 15 Or we show interest by widening our eyes and looking toward the thing we’re interested in, the better to take in visual information. Unlike words, which vary from language to language, most of these signals are shared across cultures. 16 No society arbitrarily
decides to convey interest by closing their eyes, for example, because the very meaning of interest implies a desire to pay attention and learn more. 17 By the same principle, closing one’s eyes or looking away tends to convey some kind of aversion, like boredom or disgust.
And owing to these consequences, body language is inherently more honest than verbal language. It’s easy to talk the talk, but harder to walk the walk.
Signals need to be expensive so they’re hard to fake. More precisely, they need to be differentially expensive —more difficult to fake than to produce by honest means. 19
Willingness and ability to pay is a perfect signal of demand. People who actually do pay is a perfect signal of willingness and ability to.
Back in the human realm, we find honest signals underlying much of our body language. An open posture makes a person vulnerable, for example, which is more dangerous (i.e., costly) for people in tense situations than for people in calm situations. An open posture is therefore an honest signal of comfort. Similarly, it’s dangerous to hug someone when you feel threatened by them, ensuring that a hug remains an
honest signal of trust and friendship.
And so it’s this quality—honesty—that makes body language an ideal medium for coordinating some of our most important activities. It’s simply too easy, too tempting, to lie with words. So in matters of life, death, and finding mates, we’re often wise to shut up and let our bodies do the talking.
To begin with, eye contact. Few behaviors convey the message “I’m attracted to you” as convincingly as a lingering come-hither stare. The more intense and prolonged the eye contact, the more it signals that both partners are interested in each other—and comfortable enough to advertise their interest, at least to each other. (Note that eye behaviors are especially hard for third parties to notice, making them ideal for use as discreet signals.) Eye contact will be complemented by body language that says, “I’
open to further interaction.” Alison, for example, may uncross her arms, smile invitingly, and turn her body toward Ben. 23
As they develop a rapport, they’ll begin to mirror each other’s posture. They’ll lean in and broach the bubble of personal space that mere strangers are reluctant to violate. 2
They’ll even begin to touch each other, perhaps starting with light contact on the back, shoulder, or elbow, then moving to areas reserved for greater intimacy: hands, legs, neck. At some point they may head out to the dance floor
much of the thrill and drama of courtship lies in struggling to decipher the other’s mixed signals
Meanwhile, gay men preferred the sweat of other gay men to the sweat of straight men. 32
But we also pat, pet, cuddle, hug, shake hands, clasp shoulders, and kiss each other affectionately on the cheek. Boys may wrestle playfully, while girls play “patty cake.” The logic here is the same that underlies social grooming in other primates. When we feel comfortable around others, we touch them and allow ourselves to be touched. When we sense hostility, however, we’re much more skittish about these violations of personal space.
We offer one final example of nonverbal political behavior. Imagine yourself out to dinner with a close friend. At some point, the conversation may turn to gossip—discussing and judging the behavior of those who aren’t present. But before your friend makes a negative remark about someone, he’s liable to glance over his shoulder, lean in, and lower his voice. These are nonverbal cues that what he’s about to say requires discretion. He’s letting
you know that he trusts you with information that could, if word got out, come back to bite him.
When two people differ in status, both have to modify their behavior. 45 Typically the higher-status
person will take up more space, hold eye contact for longer periods of time (more on this in just a moment), speak with fewer pauses, interrupt more frequently, and generally set the pace and tenor of interaction. 46 The lower-status person, meanwhile, will typically defer to the higher-status person in each of these areas, granting him or her more leeway, both physically and socially. In order to walk together, for example, the lower-status person must accommodate to match the gait of the higher-status person.
Most of the time, these unconscious status negotiations proceed smoothly. But when people disagree about their relative status, nonverbal
coordination breaks down—a result we perceive as social awkwardness (and sometimes physical awkwardness as well). Most of us have had these uncomfortable experiences, as, for example, when sitting across from a rival colleague, not quite knowing how to position your limbs, whether it’s your turn to talk, or how and when to end the interaction.
In this way, humor is like opening a safe. There’s a sequence of steps that have to be performed in the right order and with a good deal of precision. First you need to get two or more people together. 35 Then you must set the mood dial to “play.” Then you need to jostle things, carefully, so that the dial feints in the direction of “serious,” but quickly falls back to “play.” And only then will the safe come open, releasing the precious laugher locked inside. 36
The shifting political landscape can neuter what was once a deadly serious accusation (“Commie!”), turning it into a playful insult. Tech innovations, such as the cell phone, turn old norms upside down and force new ones to come into being. Only some of these norms are ever written down—and when they are, they’re often obsolete as soon as the ink is dry. They vary widely across different communities and contexts. And sometimes, as with sexual norms, they’re uncomfortable to discuss in precise terms or in serious settings
What our brains choose to laugh at, then, reveals a lot about our true feelings i
morally charged situations. It says, “I realize something is supposedly considered ‘wrong’ here, but I’m not taking it seriously.” If we laugh at cartoon drawings of Muhammad, our brains reveal that we’re only weakly committed to the norm in question. What seems like a mere cartoon is actually a proxy for much deeper issues.
When two people laugh at the same joke for the same reasons, it brings them closer together. But when we laugh at another person’s sacred cow, it ceases to be all fun and games.
The dialogue is careful to dance around the actual word “masturbate,” but you weren’t born yesterday; you know what they’re talking about. And the fact that masturbation is played for laughs tells you most of what you need to know about the
topic: first, that it’s a taboo, not something you’ll want to discuss in front of grandma; and second, that it’s commonplace and more or less acceptable, at least in the eyes of mainstream TV-watching Americans. Society may not fully condone it, but it won’t get you labeled a deviant. It’s a norm violation, but also benign
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When you think about people two or three rungs above you on the social ladder, especially the nouveau riche, it’s easy to question the utility of their ostentatious purchases. Does anyone really need a 10,000-square-foot house, a $30,000 Patek Philippe watch, or a $500,000 Porsche Carrera GT? Of course not, but the same logic applies to much of your own “luxurious” lifestyle—it’s just harder for you to see. 5 Consider taking the perspective of a mother of six from the slums of Kolkata. To her, your spending habits are
just as flashy and grotesque as those of a Saudi prince are to you. Do you really need to spend $20(!!) at Olive Garden to have a team of chefs, servers, bussers, and dishwashers cater to your every whim? Twenty dollars may be more than the family in Kolkata spends on food in an entire week. Of course, it doesn’t feel , to you, like conspicuous consumption. But when a friend invites you out to dinner, it’s nice being able to say yes. (If you had to decline because you couldn’t afford to eat out, you might feel a twinge of shame.) And at the end of the meal, when you leave two uneaten breadsticks on the table, it doesn’t feel at all like conspicuous waste. You’re ju
thinking, “Why bother?” In fact, you might feel silly asking the waiter to pack them up for you, those two measly pieces of bread. One way or another, we’re all conspicuous consumers. But it’s a lot more than wealth and class that we’re trying to show off with our purchases.
Subjects in the control group, who were simply asked which product they’d rather buy, expressed a distinct preference for the luxurious (non-green) product. But subjects in the experimental group were asked for their choice only after bein
primed with a status-seeking motive. 7 As a result, experimental subjects expressed significantly more interest in the green version of each product.
In his book The Mating Mind, the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller gives a promising answer. Miller argues that while ecological selection (the pressure to survive) abhors waste, sexual selection often favors it. The logic, as you may recall from Chapter 2, is that we prefer mates who can afford to waste time, energy, and other resources (see Box 14). What’s valuable isn’t the waste itself, but what the waste says about the survival surplus—health, wealth, energy levels, and so forth—of a potential mate.
As if these architectural feats weren’t impressive enough, the male bowerbird takes the incredible further step of decorating his bower. This is where the parallels to human art become especially pronounced. Some species daub the walls of their bowers with a blueish “paint” that they regurgitate through their beaks. Others amass large
collections of rare and visually fascinating objects—round pebbles, snail shells, flower petals, shiny beetles—and spend hours arranging them meticulously around their bowers. Satin bowerbirds have a preference for blue objects: feathers, berries, flowers, and even industrial artifacts like bottle caps and ballpoint pens.
These bowers serve only a single purpose: they’re built by the males to attract females. Crucially, they aren’t used by the females for laying eggs and raising young. After mating with a male, the female flies off to build her own (much smaller) cup-shaped nest up in a tree, and she raises her chicks entirely on her own, without any help from her mate.
From the perspective of the female, then, the male bowerbird exists only to provide his half of the genome. This may seem like a waste. Why doesn’t he help raise his chicks, like the males of so many other bird species? But in fact, the bowerbird male provides more than just cheap sperm; crucially, he provides battle-tested sperm. Sperm that comes with a seal of approval from Mother Nature, certifying that the male in question is physically and (by implication) genetically fit. To construct and decorate a bower, a male must spend most of his free time scouring the forest for materials and arranging them meticulously into place. When his ornaments fade, he must collect new ones. He also needs to defend his bower against attack by his rivals, who are keen to sabotage his structure and steal his more impressive ornament
It’s instructive to consider this behavior from the perspective of both males and females. The male illustrates the virtue of the handicap principle.21 Bower-building is difficult, but that’s precisely the point. If it were easy, every male could do it; fit males demonstrate their fitness only by doing things that unfit males can’t do.
They collect blue objects not in spite of the difficulty, but because of it.
That’s what signalling is: doing hard things not in spite of the difficulty, but because of it
Insofar as we use art for courtship, then, it goes both ways: men impressing women with their art and vice versa.24 This makes perfect sense for a species, like ours, in which even males invest a lot in their offspring and, consequently, need to be choosy about their mates.
But the bigger difference is that human art is more than just a courtship display, that is, an advertisement of the artist’s value as a potential mate. It also functions as a general-purpose fitness display, that is, an advertisement of the artist’s health, energy, vigor, coordination, and overall fitness.25 Fitness displays can be used to woo mates, of course, but they also serve other purposes like attracting allies or intimidating rivals.
Importantly, human artists don’t need to be conscious of this motive.27 Humans, as we’ve seen many times throughout the book, are adept at acting on unconscious motives, especially when the motive in question (e.g., showing off) is antisocial and norm-violating. What’s important isn’t whether we’re aware that we’re using art as a fitness display, but rather the fact that art works as a fitness display. It serves a useful and important purpose, both to artists and consumers, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves endowed with instincts both to make and enjoy art.
There’s no doubt that observing art often induces strong feelings that we deeply crave, such as awe and an appreciation of beauty, and that creating art often gives us a strong sense of accomplishment and connection.
The argument we’re making in this chapter is simply that “showing off” is one of the important motives we have for making art, and that many details of our artistic instincts have been shaped substantially by this motive. Not only do artists want to show off, but consumers simultaneously use art as a means to judge the artist. That’s one of the big reasons people appreciate art, and we can’t understand the full range of phenomena unless we’re willing to look at art as a fitness display.
Intrinsic properties are the qualities that reside “in” the artwork itself, those that a consumer can directly perceive when experiencing a work of art. We might also think of them as perceptual properties. The intrinsic or perceptual properties of a painting, for example, include everything visible on the canvas: the colors, textures, brush strokes and so forth
Extrinsic properties, in contrast, are factors that reside outside of the artwork, those that the consumer can’t perceive directly from the art itself. These properties include who the artist is, which techniques were used, how many hours it took, how “original” it is, how expensive the materials were, and so on. When observing a painting, for example, consumers might care about whether the artist copied the painting from a photograph. This is an extrinsic property insofar as it doesn’t influence our perceptual experience of the painting.
Now we’re ready to understand the most important difference between the conventional view of art (in any of its forms: beauty, communication, etc.) and the fitness-display theory. The difference is that the conventional view locates the vast majority of art’s value in its intrinsic properties, along with the experiences that result from perceiving and contemplating those properties. Beauty, for example, is typically understood as an experience that arises from the artwork itself. According to the conventional view, artists use their technical skills and expressive power to create the final physical product, which is then perceived and enjoyed by the consumer. The extrinsic properties, meanwhile, are mostly an aside or an afterthought; in the conventional view, they aren’t crucial to the transaction.
In contrast, in the fitness-display theory, extrinsic properties are crucial to our experience of art. As a fitness display, art is largely a statement about the artist, a proof of his or her virtuosity. And here it’s often the extrinsic properties that make the difference between art that’s impressive, and which therefore succeeds for both artist and consumer, and art that falls flat. If a work of art is physically (intrinsically) beautiful, but was made too easily (like if a painting was copied from a photograph), we’re likely to judge it as much less valuable than a similar work that required greater skill to produce. One study, for example, found that consumers appreciate the same artwork less when they’re told it was made by multiple artists instead of a single artist—because they’re assessing the work by how much effort went into it, rather than simply by the final result.[29
sorts us all into a hierarchy. Kids at the top enjoy prestige because they’ve defeated everybody else in a competition to reach the schools that proudly exclude the most people. All the hard work at Harvard is done by the admissions officers who anoint an already-proven hypercompetitive elite. If that weren’t true—if superior instruction could explain the value of college—then why not franchise the Ivy League? Why not let more students benefit? It will never happen because the top U.S. colleges draw their mystique from zero-sum competition. 18
vows of poverty and chastity, effectively removing themselves from both the rat race and the gene pool
Nevertheless, we think people can generally intuit what’s good for them, even if they don’t have an analytical understanding of why it’s good for them. In particular, they have a keen sense for their concrete self-interest, for when things are working out in their favor versus when they’re getting a raw dea
So whenever adherents feel trapped or oppressed by their religion, as many do, they’re probably right. 14 But in most times and places, people feel powerfully attracted to religion. They continue to participate, week after week and year after year—not with reluctance but with tremendous zeal. And we’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt that they know wha
good for them. 15
Crucially, rituals of sacrifice are honest signals whose cost makes them hard to fake. It’s easy to say , “I’m a Muslim,” but to get full credit, you also have to act like a Muslim—by answering the daily calls to prayer, for example, or undertaking the Hajj. Actions speak louder than words, and expensive actions speak the loudest.
Personal sacrifices, then, are a way of “paying one’s dues” to a
By setting up barriers to entry and forcing initiates to pay a high cost, groups ensure that only the most devoted and committed are admitted as members.
Time and energy are perhaps
the easiest resources to waste, and we offer them in abundance. Examples include weekly church attendance, sitting shiva, and the Tibetan sand mandalas we saw earlier. This helps explain why people don’t browse the web during church. Yes, you probably have “better things to do” than listen to a sermon, which is precisely why you get loyalty points for listening patiently. In other words, the boredom of sermons may be a feature rather than a bug.
Less symbolically, many practices also serve to stigmatize practitioners in the eyes of outsiders. By wearing “strange” clothes or refusing to eat from the same plates as secular folk, members of a given sect lose standing in broader society (while gaining it within the sect, of course). 35
Some rituals combine many different resources into a single sacrificial act. A pilgrimage like the Hajj is a cornucopic offering of time, energy, money, and sometimes health, all “wasted” for the sake of cementing one’s dedication to Islam. In exchange for these acts of devotion, a pilgrim earns greater trust and higher standing among other Muslims, both back home and around the world.
But note, crucially, that sacrifice isn’t a zero-sum game; there are big benefits that accrue to the entire community. All these sacrifices work to maintain high levels of commitment and trust among community members, which ultimately reduces the need to monitor everyone’s behavior. 38 The net result is the ability to sustain cooperative groups at larger scales and over longer periods of time. 39
An atheist kneels before no one, and for many voters, this is a frightening proposition
After you’ve paid a lot of dues, made a lot of friends, and accumulated a lot of social capital over the years, the threat of being kicked out of a group becomes especially frightening. And this, in turn, reduces the need for expensive monitoring. 43
Even dietary rules and other mandated behaviors, like midday or pre-meal prayers, can function as badges, since they allow others to see who’s a member of which religion.
value of holding certain beliefs comes not from acting on them, but from convincing others that you believe them
The ideal situation would be for the brain to be able to have its cake (convincing others that it fears God’s wrath) and eat it too (go on behaving as if it didn’t fear God at all). But human brains aren’t powerful enough to pull off such perfect hypocrisy, especially when others are constantly probing our beliefs. So the next best thing is often to internalize the belief, while remaining inconsistent enough to occasionally give in to temptation.
In this view, voting is seen as providing a psychological reward, like getting to “affirm one’s identity” or “feel a sense of belonging.” But as we’ve seen many times in this book, explanations that are strictly psychological often fall prey to self-deception, and at any rate are often trumped by social explanations. Incentives that begin and end within one’s own head ultimately lead nowhere, whereas external incentives have real consequences, both material and biological.
Loyalty Demands Sacrifice Anyone can act sensibly in their narrow self-interest. In order to demonstrate loyalty, we have to
do things that other, less loyal people wouldn’t do—like cheering 11 minutes for Comrade Stalin. 43 This logic helps shed light on our voting behavior. Apparatchiks don’t mind that voting is less personally rewarding than buying a lottery ticket. In fact, the sacrifice is, in some ways, what actually motivates them to vote. If voting were a straightforward act of self-interest, it would lose much if not all of its value as a loyalty signal.
As we saw in Chapter 5, contexts that reward loyalty are a breeding ground for self-deception and strategic irrationality. For our beliefs to function as loyalty signals, we can’t simply “follow the facts” and “listen to reason.” Instead, we have to believe things that are beyond reason, things that other, less-loyal people wouldn’t
Either way, we should be skeptical that their activism ultimately counts as self-sacrifice, since they stand to gain a lot of credit from their immediate peers.
When meetings at work seem like an unnecessary waste of time, such waste may in fact be the point; costly rituals can serve to keep a team cohesive or help anxious leaders cement control over their subordinates
And if we want to waste less time on such activities, we’ll need to address the root of the problem, or else find other ways to fulfill the same functions.
messages are often targeted at us by way of our peers. We may still choose to go along with the message, but at least we’ll know why. The next time someone at a party exhorts us to visit some great museum or exotic travel destination, it helps to consider that such advice may not actually be for our benefit, even if it’s presented that way. We shouldn’t let other people make us feel inferior—at least, not without our consent.
This kind of self-knowledge is the small gift that Robert Burns pined for in his poem “To a Louse”: to see ourselves as others see us.
Of course, we should realize that, at any one time, we have a limited budget for self-improvement. Some of us might be tempted to swear off hypocrisy all at once, and vow always to act on the ideals we most admire. But this would usually go badly. In all likelihood, our mind’s Press Secretary issued this “zero hypocrisy” edict without sufficient buy-in and support from the rest of our mental organization. Better to start with just one area, like charity, and try to adjust our mixture of motives there in ways that w
can sustain. Once that first area is stable, then we can lather, rinse, and repeat for other areas
Please note, however, that other people may care much less about our motives and more about the consequences of our actions
By the same token, we can’t ignore incentives—for example, by telling people that “good behavior” requires them to abandon their self-interest. The more sacrifice and suffering we demand in the name of virtue, the less rewarding it will be—and taken to an extreme, it means that “bad” people will fare better than “good” ones in our society.
In light of this, we absolutely need ideals—not just as personal goals to strive for, but also as yardsticks by which to judge others and to let ourselves be judged in return. There’s real value to be had in promising to behave well (and in staking our reputation on that promise), in large part because it makes us more attractive as an ally. Such a pledge can’t guarantee our good behavior, of course. We may still cut corners here and there, or cheat when no one’s looking. But it nevertheless incentivizes us to behave better than if we refused to be held to any standard
Then they search for a design that best achieves these goals, given all the constraints that the institution must deal with. This task can be challenging enough, but even when the designers apparently succeed, they’re frequently puzzled and frustrated when others show little interest in adopting their solution. Often this is because they mistook professed motives for real motives, and thus solved the wrong problems.
Savvy institution designers must therefore identify both the surface goals to which peop
give lip service and the hidden goals that people are also trying to achieve. Designers can then search for arrangements that actually achieve the deeper goals while also serving the surface goals—or at least giving the appearance of doing so. Unsurprisingly, this is a much harder design problem. But if we can learn to do it well, our solutions will less often meet the fate of puzzling disinterest.
It’s only by understanding where the resistance is coming from that we have any hope of overcoming it.
The curious task of economics,” wrote Friedrich Hayek, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” 8 In this regard, our approach falls squarely in an economic tradition.
One promising approach to institutional reform is to try to acknowledge people’s need to show off, but to divert their efforts away from wasteful activities and toward those with
bigger benefits and positive externalities. For example, as long as students must show off by learning something at school, we’d rather they learned something useful (like how to handle personal finances) instead of something less useful (like Latin). As long as scholars have a need to impress people with their expertise on some topic, engineering is a more practical domain than the history of poetry. And scholars who show off via intellectual innovation seem more useful than scholars who show off via their command of some static intellectual tradition.
“We set sail on this new sea,” he told the crowd, “because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” Everyone, of course, knew the subtext: “We need to beat the Russians!” In the end, our motives were less important than what we managed to achieve by them. We may be competitive social animals, self-interested and self-deceived, but we cooperated our way to the god-damned moon.
If there were substantive reasons to prefer one team over another—if the Dodgers were more entertaining, say, or gave $100 rewards to anyone caught wearing their apparel—then being a fan would reflect only your narrow individual interests, rather than your loyalty to a particular community.