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Book Review: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

published: 30 March 2021
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.668717
Frontiers in Psychology | 1March 2021 | Volume 12 | Article 668717
Edited and reviewed by:
Árpád Csathó,
University of Pécs, Hungary
Jing Zhang
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Evolutionary Psychology,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 17 February 2021
Accepted: 23 February 2021
Published: 30 March 2021
Zhang J (2021) Book Review: The
Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives
in Everyday Life.
Front. Psychol. 12:668717.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.668717
Book Review: The Elephant in the
Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday
Jing Zhang 1,2
1Institute of Psychological Health, Hangzhou Dianzi University, Hangzhou, China, 2School of Medicine, Technische
Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany
Keywords: the elephant in the brain, hidden motives, selfishness, self-deception, subconsciousness, social
A Book Review on
The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 2018, 416 pages, ISBN:
9780190495992 (hardback), 9780190496012 (epub)
Whether animals have consciousness is still under debate, but we agree that human beings do
have. We perform various tasks when we are awake, and it seems there are conscious motives
behind almost every intentional activity. Freud’s work makes us apprehend that subconsciousness
can sometimes substantially impact our actions and decisions; it does not prevent us from
giving multiple conscious motivational explanations for our expressions and actions in social life.
Therefore, if someone tells us that our motive is not what we say or what we know, it must be
challenging to accept (Gazzaniga, 2011). Nevertheless, is it possible that this is the case? In the
book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson
aspire to demonstrate that there may be varied hidden motives that we are unaware of behind our
social behaviors.
The book’s main title comes from an English saying, “the elephant in the room,” which describes
the phenomenon that people deliberately avoid and ignore an apparent problem. Using “the
elephant in the brain,” they try to express that we turn a blind eye to something that exists in
our brain.
Part I, “Why We Hide Our Motives,” aims to show that there are various motives behind our
actions, but we tend to focus on and exaggerate good, prosocial motives while downplaying ugly and
selfish ones. The authors start from animals’ social behavior (Chapter 1, “Animal Behavior”). The
fact that primates spend much more time than necessary (meet the health requirement) suggests
that social grooming may have other functions, such as building trust with each other through
mutual grooming and forming alliances that can help them in other situations (Dunbar, 2010).
Further, the authors mention competitive altruism that some animals compete for providing food
and protection for their groupmates. By citing these examples, Simler and Hanson want to explicate
that even the motives behind animals’ behavior may be complicated; there are often deeper motives
behind human (as higher primates) behaviors.
Chapter 2 (“Competition”) continues the evolutionary perspective. Human beings’ behaviors
are formed and maintained out of evolutionary considerations, and competition is inevitable in
evolution. The three main types of competition for our ancestors were probably sex, social status,
and politics. No matter which game field the competition took place, the intra-species competition
would often waste resources. Human beings have formed norms in order to limit waste. Chapter 3
(“Norms”) combs the history of norm formation and explains why we need norms and how
Zhang Book Review: The Elephant in the Brain
gossip and reputation play a role in forming and maintaining
norms. In theory, a successful norm-enforcement can reduce the
use of the brain. However, the fact is that human brains are
getting bigger instead of shrinking. A larger brain consumes more
energy; therefore, it must be decisive for human survival—one of
the influence factors may be the existence of cheating.
In Chapter 4 (“Cheating”), the authors exclaim that
“Everybody cheats.” The mutual restriction between norm-
enforcers and norm-evaders improves their mental abilities
(Trivers, 2011). There are different forms of cheating: “cheating
on a test” is a norm-evasion scenario that whether a particular
person (the professor) has detected, while “drinking in public”
is a scenario that how many people know. Also, there is a
special cheating—self-deception. Concerning the function of
self-deception, the authors introduce two hypotheses (Chapter 5,
“Self-deception”). One recognizes self-deception as a way of self-
defense. The other considers self-deception as an outward-facing,
manipulative, and ultimately self-serving mechanism rather than
the inward-facing, defensive, self-defeating mechanism suggested
by Freud. The authors agree more with the latter. We show
self-deception in multiple situations, of which motivational self-
deception is essential (Chapter 6, “Counterfeit Reasons”). We
strategically ignore our motives. In other words, we do not always
know what is behind our actions, but we pretend to know. In
most cases, we even cannot notice that we are just pretending
to know.
In a nutshell, in Part I, the authors lead us to face the
elephant in our brain and demonstrate how it came into being by
quoting research and evidence from microsociology, psychology,
primatology, and economics. “The elephant in the brain” refers
to human beings’ selfishness and a collection of related concepts
or expressions. Then Part II, “Hidden Motives in Everyday Life,
further illustrates the elephant’s widespread existence and its
far-reaching impact on our lives through concrete examples.
There are 10 cases in Part II (“Body Language,” “Laughter,
“Conversation,” “Consumption,” “Art,” “Charity,” “Education,
“Medicine,” “Religion,” and “Politics”), which cover diverse
aspects of our social life. The authors introduce evident motives
for each one, point out that they are insufficient to explain, and
finally give alternative motives. All the chapters in Part II are
independent of each other; readers can skip according to interests
without undermining comprehension. Besides demonstrating
the universality and importance of hidden motives, the authors
emphasize that the ultimate goal of confronting the elephant in
our brain is using our acknowledgment to behave better, rather
than justifying selfishness. This book’s significant highlight is to
test that “there are hidden motives behind human behaviors”
in wide-ranging aspects. Nonetheless, the authors cannot avoid
choosing evidence according to their argument’s needs. For
example, spending money on others can make people happier
than those who spend it on themselves, regardless of how
much money or whether a third party knows it or not (Dunn
et al., 2008). Hidden motives cannot satisfactorily explain
such human behavior. In any case, the book is still worth
reading, whether for amateur or professional practitioners of
sociology, psychology, economics, political science, or other
related disciplines.
The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and
has approved it for publication.
This work was supported by the National Social Science
Foundation (20FZXB017).
Dunbar, R. I. M. (2010). The social role of touch in humans and primates:
behavioural function and neurobiological mechanisms. Neurosci. Biobehav.
Rev. 34, 260–268. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2008.07.001
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., and Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others
promotes happiness. Science 319, 1687–1688. doi: 10.1122/science.1150952
Gazzaniga, M. (2011). Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.
New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Trivers, R. (2011). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in
Human Life. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Conflict of Interest: The author declares that the research was conducted in the
absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a
potential conflict of interest.
Copyright © 2021 Zhang. This is an open-access article distributed under the
terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution
or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s)
and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in
this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use,
distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these
Frontiers in Psychology | 2March 2021 | Volume 12 | Article 668717
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Grooming is a widespread activity throughout the animal kingdom, but in primates (including humans) social grooming, or allo-grooming (the grooming of others), plays a particularly important role in social bonding which, in turn, has a major impact on an individual's lifetime reproductive fitness. New evidence from comparative brain analyses suggests that primates have social relationships of a qualitatively different kind to those found in other animal species, and I suggest that, in primates, social grooming has acquired a new function of supporting these. I review the evidence for a neuropeptide basis for social bonding, and draw attention to the fact that the neuroendrocrine pathways involved are quite unresolved. Despite recent claims for the central importance of oxytocin, there is equally good, but invariably ignored, evidence for a role for endorphins. I suggest that these two neuropeptide families may play different roles in the processes of social bonding in primates and non-primates, and that more experimental work will be needed to tease them apart.
Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain
  • M Gazzaniga
Gazzaniga, M. (2011). Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. New York, NY: Harper Collins.