The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-19-049599-2
Coauthors Simler, a software engineer, and Hanson (The Age of Em), an economics professor, bring a light touch in this thought-provoking exploration of how little understanding people have of their own motivations. The thesis is serious: we get into trouble because, while we “don’t always know what our brains are up to,” “we often pretend to know.” The authors do not claim that this notion is original, but do effectively synthesize a wide range of scholarship to demonstrate that self-deception is rampant and strategic, “a ploy our brains use to look good while behaving badly.” Not all of the self-deception discussed is malign; the authors suggest, counterintuitively, that something as seemingly straightforward as seeking medical care can come from the desire for “social support” as well as for good health. Given the book’s unsettling implications for human nature, the authors are wise not to distance themselves from their findings but to apply the same treatment to their own motivations. For instance, Simler reveals that in part the book was a “vanity project” for him, one aimed at getting his name onto a book cover. This is a fascinating and accessible introduction to an important subject. Agent: Teresa Hartnett, Hartnett Inc. (Jan. 2018)
Reviewed on: 07/24/2017
Release date: 01/01/2018
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