The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler & Robin Hanson [Summary]

This is a comprehensive summary of the book The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler, and Robin Hanson. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski. Supporting Members get full access.


In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson argue that all of our actions are motivated by selfish motives. By examining different areas of our everyday life, the book aims to uncover the real intentions of our minds compared to the intentions we portray to the outside world – the two are always different. The introduced metaphorical idiom, the elephant in the brain, is used to explain that acknowledging our darker motives is consciously avoided – a taboo topic.

The Core Idea:

There is a hidden (ugly) motive behind even our most altruistic behavior. However, we never admit our selfishness because we never really understand it. This intentional blindness is a strategic self-deception set by the brain – so we can safeguard our persona if someone questions our actions. The reason such deception exists? We don’t want to appear egoistic in front of others. We want to position ourselves as caring. This way, others will like us more, and we’ll be accepted by the tribe. Deep down, though, we’re always guided by dark, narcissistic desires.


  • We’re designed to be self-serving and manipulative while also trying to hide these intentions.
  • There are three social games (sex, social status, politics) we all must play to get ahead in life.
  • Realizing that everyone holds inner self-serving motives will make you more vigilant when interacting with people.

6 Key Lessons from The Elephant in the Brain:

Lesson #1: Human Behavior is Rarely What it Seems

What’s this elephant that’s supposedly in our brain?

In short, it’s the way the authors pack and explain our dark selfish motives that the brain is trying to hide from us.

The underlying idea here is that, “the less we know of our own ugly motives, the easier it is to hide them from others.”

We’re designed to act in our best self-interest for a reason: our genes mostly care about propagating in the future. And since acting selfishly won’t be properly awarded by our social circle, we camouflage our real desires with acts that appear noble on the outside.

Basically, the tendency for our brain to mask and hide our ugly motives, for us as well, is an evolutionary trait that is observable in all of us.

The single-minded behavior can be spotted in pretty much all of our daily actions. For example, the authors suggest that receiving medical care isn’t primarily about the intake of medicine. To get well when we’re sick, we’re mostly interested in receiving care from others that is clearly visible – for us and for the others around. We pay for expensive medical procedures, and we leave others to take care of us not because a cheaper operation won’t do it or because we can’t prepare food on our own, but because we want to feel valued.

Another example is involving ourselves in social activities – donating blood, for instance. We’re not so interested in helping someone in need, we simply want to signal to others that we’re caring and worthy of being considered as a friend or partner. Or in other words, to improve our position in the social competition.

The most interesting aspect of our selfish drive is that we don’t talk about it even if we acknowledge it (we usually don’t fully comprehend it). We try to hide our motives and never discuss them. It’s a taboo topic for a reason – if others spot our real motives, we can be excommunicated from the community. And this can be devastating for our survival.

We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives—we’re designed to do it. Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people.” Kevin Simler & Robin Hanson

Lesson #2: Understand Why We Hide Our Motives

Primates can effectively groom only half of their bodies. To stay clean and to remove all the dirt from their fur, they rely on help from their friends.

This ritual is called social grooming.

Picture one chimp picking the fur of another. The idea behind this friendly act seem obvious – the groomer is trying to remove all the dirt from his friend’s back. The motive is also not so hidden. If chimp A helps his friend (chimp B), chimp B will likely return the favor.

But these facts are only the observable truths.

According to the text, social grooming is more about politics than about hygiene.

Apart from building trust between primates when they groom each other, alliances are also formed. And these connections are later used in the hierarchy-formation of the tribe.

Basically, on the surface, nothing unusual is happening. While in reality though, chimps are building strategic relationships.

Things are similar in the human world. We play different social games for one main reason: to ensure our survival. Understanding these schemes can help us comprehend why our motives are so carefully masked.

  • Sex: Avoiding death is just part of the job. The endgame of every individual is reproducing. After all, life won’t be possible without the continuation of the species.
  • Social status: Your position in society is not only important for your attractiveness, but also for your survival. The higher you are on the scoreboard, the greater the chances of receiving support from others.
  • Politics: Being strong won’t be enough to successfully maneuver through life. Your ability to win allies is far more important. As stated in the book, “coalitions are what makes politics so political.”

These three are all competitive games.

Wining and ensuring your survival has a lot to do with participating in all of them. To be successful, of course, excludes loudly expressing your real incentives – to get ahead of others. You need to focus on attracting partners and mates by showing that you care for others, while deep down you actually care only about yourself.

The other important similarity is that each game requires two complementary skill sets: the ability to evaluate potential partners and the ability to attract good partners. In sex, the partners we’re looking for are mates. In social status, we’re looking for friends and associates. And in politics, we’re looking for allies, people to team up with.” Kevin Simler & Robin Hanson

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