The Argument That College Isn’t About Learning

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson make an argument that we create stories and narratives around how our world operates that make us look as good as possible. We have systems and structures in place that provide us with convenient reasons for behaving the way we do. These convenient reasons are socialable, put us in the best possible light, and make us feel good about ourselves. Simler and Hanson argue that below this surface lie our true reasons and our hidden motives for our behaviors.

 

One area they look at is education. Nominally, we tell everyone that we are going to school to learn something, to prepare ourselves for the future, to build new skills, to make new connections, and to gain new experiences. What we don’t say is that we are going to school to check a box, to gain a credential, and to simply look more impressive to other people. Education is supposed to be about learning and information, not about padding a resume and trying to simply gain something in a personal and selfish manner. Their argument about education relies on a lot of research that is also discussed in Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education, which I have not read but is referenced in The Elephant in the Brain and who I have heard on several podcasts. To suggest that education is about something other than just the learning we are supposed to do, the authors write,

 

“Consider what happens when a teacher cancels a class session because of weather, illness, or travel. Students who are there to learn should be upset; they’re not getting what they paid for! but in fact, students usually celebrate when classes are canceled. Similarly, many students eagerly take Easy A classes, often in subjects where they have little interest or career plans. In both cases, students sacrifice useful learning opportunities for an easier path to a degree. In fact, if we gave students a straight choice between getting an education without a degree, or a degree without an education, most would pick the degree-which seems odd if they’re going to school mainly to learn.”

 

Sometimes we do learn useful things in school. Sometimes we really do gain new perspectives, have new and meaningful experiences, and grow though our coursework. But students don’t seem as focused on the learning in most areas (some technical degrees at the university level might be different) as simply getting through and getting a diploma. Education includes a lot of signaling aspects that are just as important (if not more important) than any learning we might do.

 

Education tells people we are the kind of person who can earn a degree. Good grades tell potential employers that we are the kind of people who can figure out what is demanded of us, and we are the kind of people who will then do what is demanded. Much of what we learn we will forget, and once we get on the job we will be expected to do a lot of training to learn how to do the actual thing we were hired to do based on our education. We learn a bit in school, but we also signal a lot about ourselves in the process.

To See Our Own Face

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is exactly what the title suggests. It is a disquieting look at the world around us, making us think, question the every-day, and second guess what it is we believe and accept. Pessoa dealt with sever depression, and writes about his challenges with depression in stark and honest terms. He pulls apart experience in a way that is unique to him, and makes us question the experiential sums of the filaments of reality that we perceive.

 

Included in the book’s translation by Margaret Jull Costa, is a short piece about seeing ourselves in the mirror: “Man should not be able to see his own face. Nothing is more terrible than that. Nature gave him the gift of being unable to see either his face or into his own eyes. 
    He could only see his own face in the waters of rivers and lakes. Even the posture he had to adopt to do so was symbolic. He had to bend down, to lower himself, in order to suffer the ignominy of seeing his own face.
    The creator of the mirror poisoned the human soul.”

 

We easily become self-obsessed in our world today. We can spend hours looking at just pictures of ourselves if we wanted to. We have so many ways to capture our image and post it where we want. We can place mirrors and reflective surfaces throughout our world, to constantly look at ourselves and dress up the outside answer to the question, “Who am I?”

 

In Pessoa’s mind, we were never supposed to look at ourselves from the outside to try to answer and define that question. His quote shows that he believes we ourselves cannot provide an answer to the outside question of who we are, and that it should be publicly shameful to try. To turn inward, to become self-obsessed is a curse. To remain ignorant of the self, to be focused outside oneself and to exist as part of the social group of others to which we belong is where the human mind was supposed to be. The mirror split us and our definition of self from that collection, and poisoned the mind by forcing us to always consider ourselves first. Our ancestors from whom we evolved could not look back at themselves with a clear view of who they were and wanted to be as an individual. It is only with human created technology that we can focus the light back at ourselves, and take control to define ourselves as the outward image that is presented to the rest of the world.

A Final Thought on Charity

One of Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s closing thoughts in their chapter about charity in The Elephant in the Brain reads, “The forms of charity that are most effective at helping others aren’t the most effective at helping donors signal their good traits. And when push comes to shove, donors will often choose to help themselves.”

 

We human beings are not that great at being altruistic. We are social creatures, and we know that what we do is always being judged by our social tribe in a complex context. It is not just about what we do, but who we are, what kind of people we want to associate with, how we choose to use our time and resources, and what we try to do in the world. Charity, and any altruistic behavior we engage in, fits into this larger narrative about the person we are or try to be.

 

We cannot separate our charitable behavior from our individual self-interest or from the larger context of our live. As a result, charity is something that we use as a signaling mechanism. It is often about helping others, but it is just as often about telling people something about ourselves. This is where Simler and Hanson’s quote comes from.

 

We can use our charity to primarily do good in the world, or we can get the benefits of doing good while primarily showing people how generous we are. We can use our money and extra time to do something meaningful for others that also benefits us with social rewards and accolades, however, the personal benefit from charitable behaviors can be so great that it can take over and become the driving force behind our decisions.

 

This certainly doesn’t happen for everyone and doesn’t apply in every situation, but for a bulk of our charitable behaviors it is a factor at play. It is important to recognize so that we understand what is pushing us to make our donations, and to reshape those pressures so that we use our charitability in the best way to really make the world a better place. We should also acknowledge it so that we can encourage others to do something generous and to help others receive a positive social reward, but only if their charity is also the most effective that it can be.

Marginal Charity – An Opportunity for Big Business

Big businesses strive for efficiency. If something can be reduced, eliminated, streamlined, and automated then at some point it will be. Each tiny advantage can be huge at scale, and can mean the difference between growing and laying off employees. Flaunting success, hiding failure, and maximizing at the margins are standard business operating procedures, but they create a void that could be filled for companies to do meaningful things that can be viewed in a charitable light. In The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler talk about “marginal charity” an idea that you can do something that economically doesn’t add much cost to your own life, only marginally diminishes your efficiency, but provides a big element of charity to the business you are already doing.

 

In the book, the authors consider a high rise apartment building. Say 10 floors is the height to shoot for in order to achieve maximum efficiency. There may be situations where adding one more floor would not increase the cost by a significant amount, but would reduce the efficiency that the building owners and property developers expect from the complex, especially if the final floor was developed to allow for more low-income/affordable housing. Adding this extra story doesn’t make sense in a pure efficiency model, but if you are trying to add a touch of charity to the business you are already engaged in as the developer, you can do a lot of good by providing many additional affordable housing units with little marginal cost to yourself.

 

Hanson and Simler write, “In terms of providing value to others, marginal charity is extremely efficient. It does a substantial amount of good for others at very little cost to oneself. (In other words, it has an incredible ROD [Return on Donation]).” Finding a way to add a little extra while taking away from your own individual efficiency may make the entire system a bit more equitable, and a bit more efficient as a whole. Small tweaks to how to do things and create the systems that shape our lives can help provide for greater long-term benefit even if they slightly limit what is possible for us now.

 

Since we are not all property developers, we won’t all have this type of chance to make a big difference through small actions in a business context. But we can think about marginal charity in our own lives and try to set up systems and structures that help us default toward charitable behavior. I don’t think this looks like donating a dollar to the thing the grocery store check-out system asks you to donate to (I’d recommend saving that money and making a single larger donation to a charity featured on GiveWell), but it may look like picking up bottles or trash along the street you already walk down every day. It may look like increasing your recurring donation by an additional $5. It may look like making personal choices that add a little extra cost, but reduce energy use, plastic use, or single use item consumption. We can think about charity on a marginal level, encourage others to do so, and that will help build a spirit of looking for those marginal charity wins. They may not change the world, but they might help set up a culture and system that will.

On Charity, Evolution, and Potential Blind Spots

“Spontaneous generosity may not be the most effective way to improve human welfare on a global scale, but it’s effective where our ancestors needed it to be: at finding mates and building a strong network of allies.” Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson include this quote in their book The Elephant in the Brain when looking at our typical behaviors for donating money and the excuses we have for making donations. Our behaviors don’t always match the expectations we might have if we were donating money for the reasons we claimed to be donating.

 

At its base, the argument is that making donations is about impressing others to increase our own status and make it more likely that we will attract a mate and pass along our genetic information. The main thesis of the book is that we deceive ourselves with the reasons for our actions, and actually act in much more self-interested ways than we would like to admit, so that we can have a better chance of finding a mate and continuing our genetic line.

 

Like charitable giving, where sometimes we really do make donations to help the world, the stated reasons for doing what we do are sometimes legitimate and accurate, but often times they don’t account for the whole story. We claim to make donations to improve the world, but we often just make small donations impulsively when people are watching. We want to impress them with our generosity and resources, and we want to raise our social status and attract a mate.

 

If there is one thing that I would say I am most likely to be wrong about, it is the extent to which I believe our tribal ancestry shaped our evolution (especially our cognitive evolution). I look at most things and consider how they made sense and how they may have originated in small tribal groups. This seems to work well when considering charity, but I may be overly reliant on this explanation and miss other factors. For now, however, with backing from research presented in books like The Elephant in the Brain, self-interested behavior emerging from small tribal groups will be the basis from which my theories of human behavior and interaction begin.

Well Known Charities

Another interesting consideration about charitable giving addressed in The Elephant in the Brain has  to do with which charities we chose to donate large sums of money to. If part of our charitable donations is intended to impress other people and show them how generous and caring we are, then we want to make sure everyone understands how good our donation is.

 

As an example, I have an automatic recurring donation set up with the Against Malaria Foundation. If I wanted to tell someone about the charitable donations that I do and convince them that what I was doing was meaningful, I would have to convey to them what exactly malaria is, what the foundation does, and why it is effective. Just saying that I donate to the Against Malaria Foundation may not resonate with people the way that me telling them that I was donating to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network would. Malaria is not common in the United States and most people probably don’t understand how debilitating yet preventable it can be. Many people in the United States have heard, however, about Leukemia and probably know it is a type of cancer. Many people also probably have experience in their families of cancer (of one form or another), and know how devastating it can be. Attaching our donations to a terrible disease that people have experience with and trying to support a population such as children is a much easier sell in some regards than convincing people to donate to a charity aimed at malaria which impacts people living far away.

 

Simler and Hanson write, “Original research generates private information about which charities are worthy, but in order to signal how prosocial we are, we need to donate to charities that are publicly known to be worthy.” This leads us to donate to the Children’s Leukemia Support Network, even though the charity’s entire existence is a scam, rather than the Against Malaria Foundation which GiveWell identifies as one of the most effective charities.

 

The important thing is that we don’t really do much background with our donations and set out primarily to make big donations to well known charities that tackle things that we think we, or people close to us, might face directly. We want to feel a warm glow about our donations, and we want people to see our donations and immediately recognize what a positive difference we are making. Smaller but more effective charities that address less well known causes are left behind in favor of the bigger more well known charities, even if we could have a bigger impact on the world by making a donation to the smaller charity that people don’t immediately recognize.

 

Why Don't We Care About People Living Far Away?

In human societies, it is quite OK to be biased toward local rather than foreign or distant concerns. We care a lot about our own family, care a little less about our neighborhood, care less about the people on the other side of town, care less about people across our state, less about people in other states, and much much less about people in other countries or on other continents. Our minds really only seem to have the capacity to fully care about those things in our immediate vicinity, pushing the worries and troubles of others out of our thoughts. When we consider charity, we like to put ourselves first, thinking of things we can do in our community before we consider things we can do outside of our community (not always but in general). The highest impact use of our resources (such as charitable donations) can often come from people who live far away, where our money can have greater purchasing power and make a greater marginal benefit for the recipient.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at this phenomenon in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They specifically consider how this plays out for our leadership, “We want leaders who look out for their immediate communities, rather than people who need help in far-off places. In a sense, we want them to be parochial. In some situations, it borders on antisocial to be overly concerned with the welfare of distant strangers.”

 

In a sense, it is easy to understand why we are concerned with the people in our community. If we make a big effort to help the homeless in our own city, then we might not have to see any homeless or deal with any panhandlers. But in another sense, it can be harmful to only focus on the people in our own communities. If we can make relatively small investments to help reduce famine in a distant country, then it may prevent a major crisis that leads to refugee flows back into our own country.
My concern is that as we move forward on this planet, we will need to find ways to think of ourselves beyond our local communities. We will face challenges that require human responses on a global scale, and if we are limited by tribal thinking, then we will not be able to successfully cope with these problems of enormous magnitude. Somehow we have to recognize that our brains are biased toward local present needs, threats, and dangers, and think beyond ourselves, our communities, and our current moment.

Generous Leadership

We tend to select leaders who see the world in a positive sum. We like leaders who can look ahead and project a way to create a rising tide that will lift all boats. We want leaders with empowering visions of the future and shared prosperity for all. We don’t want greedy leaders who are cunning, ruthless, and don’t care to share their bounty with the rest of us.

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson tie ideas of generosity and charity to leadership. Being charitable, giving away of lot of money, and investing a lot of time into something, shows that a person is willing to put others first, is willing to sacrifice something of their own for the good of society, and genuinely cares about other people and not just themselves. The authors write,

“This helps explain why generosity is so important for those who aspire to leadership. No one want leaders who play zero-sum, competitive games with the rest of society. If their wins are our losses, why should we support them? Instead we want leaders with a pro-social orientation, people who will look out for us because we’re all in it together.” 

Leadership is challenging because people don’t want to follow someone who is acting in their own self-interest. For all of us, it is a challenge to get beyond our own desires and to think about what is needed beyond our immediate concerns. To be a leader requires thinking beyond ourselves and having other people in mind when we decide what we are going to do, how we will use our resources, and generally how we will orientate our lives. We can’t be a leader if we are setting out to just be more than or better than others. People will see through us and our leadership will never take off.

Charitable Advertisements

Charitable behavior says something about us. It is a way for us to advertise ourselves to the world in a discrete manner, so that everyone can see us and take away a message without us having to tell each person something about ourselves in a direct manner. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The most obvious thing we advertise is wealth, or in the case of volunteer work, spare time.”

It seems strange that we would use charity in this way. I hear arguments from time to time that we should just have higher taxes and use government systems and structures to address social problems. As a change to the current system, we could build more government agencies and provide more support for the kinds of programs and functions that we currently ask non-profits and charities to assist with. A frequent argument against this idea is that it would be inefficient and we couldn’t rely on government to consistently address the kinds of problems that charities and non-profits pop up to address. An argument that I don’t hear very often, but that I think plays a role, is that we would not be able to signal our generosity and extra wealth if we just expanded taxes and the role of government.

“In effect, charitable behavior says to our audiences, I have more resources than I need to survive; I can give them away without worry,” continue Simler and Hanson. The fact that our donations are often public and are often directed to causes that make us feel warm and fuzzy are evidence that we are not really using our donations to try to solve real problems. Asking the government to step in and play a bigger role might really address the problems that are out there, but it wouldn’t give us the warm fuzzy feeling we are looking for, and wouldn’t allow us to advertise to others about how charitable we are. This is why it is so hard to say no to people soliciting donations at grocery stores. We don’t know anything about the charitable cause they are asking us to support, but if we don’t take the chance to advertise how generous we are, we inadvertently advertise how inconsiderate we might be, or how little resources we have to spare. These little charitable behaviors end up being more about ourselves than about the good we are trying to do.

Motivated to Appear Generous

One of the big challenges in life is being content with ourselves and our work without needing others to notice the good things we have done. As social creatures we want acknowledgement, praise, and approval from our fellow humans, so simply being good or doing good on our own doesn’t seem to satisfy us in the way we need. We all recognize and understand that we should be content without someone patting us on the head to tell us good job, but nevertheless, we pursue social approval all the time.


Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at this type of behavior within our charitable donations in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They write, “Griskevicius calls this phenomenon blatant benevolence. Patrick West calls it conspicuous compassion. The idea that we’re motivated to appear generous, not simply to be generous, because we get social rewards only for what others notice. In other words, charity is an advertisement, a way of showing off.”


As a child, I used to seek approval and gratitude from my mother in a similarly conspicuous way. If I did a chore like vacuuming, I would leave the vacuum out so that my mother would see that I did something. She would tell me to put the vacuum away and be a little frustrated, but at least I could be sure that she knew that I did something good.


These direct appeals for attention, praise, and recognition are frowned upon. We don’t like the person at the gym water fountain who over-plays how out of breath they are and tells us how hard that last set of squats with all that weight was. We don’t like the person in the office that goes out of their way to show us how long the report they wrote was. As adults, it is harder to get away with obvious gestures that are designed to get people to notice the good things we do.


Our charitable uses of money or time are a way to get around this. We can publicly donate a large amount of money, we can save our money for donations in public settings such as charity auctions, and we can make sure that everyone sees our Facebook photo about how blessed we feel to be able to give back by volunteering. As long as it appears that our main motive is to do something good, we can get away with the same type of bragging or showing off that I did as a child when I made it super obvious that I had done my chores.