The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life – Kevin Simler, Robin Hanson Book Summary

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life – Kevin Simler, Robin Hanson | Free Book Summary

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life – Kevin Simler, Robin Hanson

A phenomenal book on understanding your own “hidden motivations in everyday life” and why we do what we do. They are widely applicable to all parts of life, and the kind of explanations you can’t stop thinking about after reading them.

Body Language

  • Human beings are strategically blind to body language because it often betrays our ugly, selfish, competitive motives
  • A cue is similar to a signal, in that it conveys information, except that it benefits only the receiver
  • An open posture makes a person vulnerable
  • Much of the thrill and drama of courtship lies in struggling to decipher the other’s mixed signals
  • When we feel comfortable around others, we touch them and allow ourselves to be touched
  • Eye contact is considered an act of aggression.

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Speakers strive to impress their audience by consistently delivering impressive remarks.

They’re compensated not in-kind, by receiving information reciprocally, but rather by raising their social value in the eyes (and ears) of their listeners.

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We are stuck in a rat race

No matter how fast the economy grows, there remains a limited supply of sex and social status-and earning and spending money is still a good way to compete for it

The easier it is to judge someone based on a particular product, the more it will be advertised using cultural images and lifestyle associations.


While ecological selection (the pressure to survive) abhors waste, sexual selection often favors it

Because replicas are cheap relative to the originals, we’ll pay less to see a much wider variety

We find attractive things that could have been produced only by people with attractive, high-fitness qualities

A live performance, or an improvised one, succeeds by putting the artists’ talents on full display.


According to one calculation, for the cost of sending a kid through college in America, you could instead save the lives of more than 50 children in sub-Saharan Africa

The main recipients of American charity are religious groups and educational institutions

When we evaluate charity-related behaviours, gross inefficiencies don’t seem to bother us

For example, wealthy people often perform unskilled volunteer work, even when their time is worth vastly more on the open market.


If a small amount of useful learning takes place, then sending every citizen to school will result in only a small increase in the nation’s overall productivity

Meanwhile, when you’re an individual student within a nation, getting more school can substantially increase your future earnings

The top U.S. colleges draw their mystique from zero-sum competition.

Each party is hoping to earn a bit of loyalty from the patient in exchange for helping to provide care.

In part, it’s a simple quid pro quo: “I’ll help you this time if you’ll help me when the tables are turned.”

When choosing between doctors, people typically focus on the prestige of their school or hospital, instead of their individual track records for patient outcomes.


Beliefs are often better modelled as symptoms of underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological

We don’t worship simply because we believe, we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures

A religion is an entire social system

Actions speak louder than words

Rituals of sacrifice are honest signals that are hard to fake

People who believe they risk punishment for disobeying God are more likely to behave well.



People do not vote for their material self-interest

Instead, they vote for the candidates and policies that would make them personally better off

We tend to vote for our groups’ interests

For our beliefs to function as loyalty signals, we have to believe things that are beyond reason, things that other, less-loyal people wouldn’t believe.


We ignore the elephant because doing so is strategic.

Self-deception allows us to act selfishly without having to appear quite so selfish in front of others.

Another benefit of confronting our hidden motives is that, if we choose, we can take steps to mitigate or counteract them.

One promising approach to institutional reform is 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.

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