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Ideas | David Scharfenberg

You’re probably a jerk. We all are

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

We’ve all got an angel on one shoulder, and we’d like to think it’s in charge.

But that’s a delusion, say George Mason University economist Robin Hanson and software engineer Kevin Simler in their forthcoming book, “The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.” It’s the devil that’s running the show.

We may think we’re acting selflessly when we take mom to the doctor or give to charity after a natural disaster, but we’re not. Selfish motives are driving all that — even if we’re not fully aware of it.

And if hidden motives are dictating our personal behavior, the authors argue, they’re also shaping our most important institutions. Medicine, art, politics — none of it is quite what it seems.


Ideas recently caught up with Hanson to talk about the elephant in the brain — the selfishness we all know is there, but can’t quite acknowledge. The interview is edited and condensed.

Q: So we’re all selfish bastards.

A: Given what we know about animals and the biological processes that produced us, it shouldn’t be surprising that we’re selfish bastards. But we’re also social creatures. We want to appear to have good motivations — prosocial, helpful motivations.

So, the way that evolution solved that conflict was to have our conscious mind believe our prosocial stories about our motivations and, somewhat behind the scenes, have the details of our actions shaped more by our selfish motives.

Q: Let’s talk about medicine. Most people would say we seek out the best doctors and most cutting-edge care for ourselves, our friends, and our loved ones for health reasons. But you say we’re doing it, in no small part, for selfish reasons — to show that we care and to improve our social standing. The result, you argue, is that we end up spending lots of money on unnecessary care and driving up costs.

A: It’s analogous to a child scraping their knee and crying and having a parent kiss the boo-boo. It’s comforting to know that the parent is there for you and ready to help, but it doesn’t do anything medically.


We like to buy medicine for our family members, we like to buy it for our employees, we like to buy it for other citizens and nations, and it pays off. People are really are touched by that.

The question is, how big a part of our motivation is that? We usually tell ourselves, “sure, these social motives are there, but they’re modest and rare.” The main point of the book is to try to convince you that it’s not modest and rare.

Q: But if my wife is diagnosed with cancer, I’m going to be genuinely upset. When I pursue brand-name care for her, isn’t it because I love her and I’m scared to death of what’s going to happen to her?

A: If you just look inside your mind, your mind will throw up the story that you are simply, sincerely doing the prosocial thing. But when we look at medicine, we see a large number of puzzling patterns that don’t make much sense if the main thing going on is just trying to get healthier.

We find, for instance, that people are surprisingly uninterested in information about the quality of medicine and medical treatments. They can hardly be bothered to pay much attention when they’re told. And it turns out there are many things that affect health besides medicine — nutrition, job safety — that we are much less interested in, even though they are objectively much more important.


We are focused on — and obsessed with — medicine. And we find that people who get more medicine, on average, are just not healthier.

Q: If we’re all trying to one-up each other on health care spending, all trying to show we care more than the next person, how do we stop the cycle?

A: These are what we call signaling games. There can be an inefficient amount of signaling, and we might all be better off if we taxed the signals or limited them. Many societies in the past recognized the disadvantages of expensive signaling. They had rules about expensive clothes or expensive funerals, and they limited how much you could spend on those things.

Even today, if you look at school uniforms — they’re a way to limit spending on expensive clothes by students. If we accepted that medicine was [in part about showing off], we might see a point to limiting medicine overall.

Q: When Ben Franklin died, he gave 1,000 pounds to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia under the condition that it be invested for 100 years before it was used to sponsor apprenticeships for children. It’s called a “Methuselah trust,” and there’s a real logic to it — if you grow your donation over time, it can be more impactful. But you write in your book that this sort of donation is rare. Why is that, and what does that say about our true motivations when we donate to charity?


A: The story we like to tell is that we’re trying to help — we’re looking for people who are deserving of help, in places where our resources can be stretched the farthest to help the most. But what we’re really trying to do with charity is show other people that we are caring, concerned people.

If you say, “I want to help, but I’m going to save my money so I can help more later,” we might look and say, “well, maybe [you will], but we’re not so sure.” Whereas, if you spend the money now, especially in a visible way — we can see where you spent it and how — then we can credit you for actually having sacrificed something to help.

Q: What can we do to direct people into wiser, more efficient giving?

A: Well, if it was just that they wanted to give more effectively, and didn’t know how, all they would need is some how-to guides. And there is an “effective altruism” movement that produces those things.

But we claim in the book that it’s less about knowing how, and more about basic motivation: Do you want to give efficiently?

Of course, what you really want to do is seem like you’re helping. So if we could make it more widely, publicly known that certain types of [traditional] charity strategies are suspiciously ineffective, then we might shame people into doing more effective things.


Q: You even go after laughter in your book. You say there’s a dark side to it. What do you mean?

A: Well, for example, when we laugh at jokes about prison rape, we reveal that we don’t actually care that much about what happens to prisoners. We often, via our laughter, reveal who we really are and what we care about.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.