What’s Happening in Our Brains Behind the Conscious Self

Toward  the end of the introductory chapter of their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain what they observed with the human mind and what they will be exploring in the coming chapters. They write, “What will emerge from this investigation is a portrait of the human species as strategically self-deceived, not only as individuals but also as a society. Our brains are experts at flirting, negotiation social status, and playing politics, while “we” – the self-conscious parts of the brain – manage to keep our thoughts pure and chaste. “We” don’t always know what our brains are up to, but we often pretend to know, and therein lies the trouble.”

 

The last few days I have written about a few instances where we deceive ourselves and hide our true motives from ourselves. We do this so that in our political and social world we can appear to have high-minded motives and reasons for doing the things we do. Simler and Hanson show that this does not just happen on an individual level, but happens at group and society levels as well. We all contribute to the failure to acknowledge what it is that drives our decisions and why we do what we do.

 

This process takes place behind the conscious self that experiences the world. In the past, I have borrowed from Ezra Klein who has used a metaphor on his podcast about a press secretary. The press secretary for a large company doesn’t sit in on every strategic decision meeting, isn’t a part of every meeting to decide what the future of the company will be, and isn’t part of the team that makes decisions about whether the company will donate money, will begin to hire more minorities, or will launch a new product. But the press secretary does have to explain to the general public why the company is making these decisions, and has to do it in a way that makes the company look as high-minded as possible. The company is supporting the local 5K for autism because they care about the children in the community. The company has decided to hire more minorities because they know the power of having a diverse workforce and believe in equality. The company was forced to close the factory because of unfair trade practices in other countries.

 

On an individual level, our conscious self is acting like the press secretary I described, and this spreads throughout the levels of society. As individuals we say and think one thing while doing another, and so do our political bodies, our family units, our businesses, and the community groups we belong to. There are often hidden motives that we signal to that likely account for a large portion of why we do what we do. This creates awkward situations, especially for those who don’t navigate these unspoken social situations well, and potentially puts us in places where our policy doesn’t align with the things we say we want. We should not hate humans for having these qualities, but we should try to recognize them, especially in our own lives, and control these situations and try to actually live in the way we tell people we live.

Outsiders Within Our Own Minds

How good are you at introspection? How much do you know about yourself and how much do other people know about you that you don’t actually know? I try to ask myself these types of questions and reflect on how much I don’t actually recognize or know about myself, but it is really difficult. I much prefer to look at what I do with the most generous interpretation of myself and my actions and decisions, but I know that somewhere out there someplace is someone who looks at me with the least generous interpretations of me and my actions, in much the same way I look at a person smoking or a person with a political bumper sticker that I dislike and instantly want to ascribe a whole set of negative qualities to them. Beyond simply the idea of looking at ourselves honestly, looking at ourselves from the least favorable position is extremely uncomfortable, and reveals a bunch of things about who we are that we would rather ignore.

 

Luckily for us, our brains protect us from this discomfort by simply failing to be aware of our true actions and motives in any given point in time. The brain ascribes high-minded reasons for our behaviors, and hands us a script with the best interpretation of what we do. When it comes to the brain, we feel like we know what is going on within it, but the reality is that our own minds are mysteries to ourselves.

 

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about this in their book The Elephant in the Brain. “In other words, even we don’t have particularly privileged access to the information and decision-making that goes on inside our minds. We think we’re pretty good at introspection, but that’s largely an illusion. In a way we’re almost like outsiders within our own minds.”

 

We tell ourselves that what we do makes sense, is logical, and is the best possible outcome for everyone in a given situation. The reality is that we are likely more focused on our own gain than anything else. We don’t want to admit this to anyone (even ourselves) and so we sugar coat it and hide  our motivations behind altruistic reasons. Piercing through this with self-reflection is challenging because we are so good at deflecting and deceiving our own thought processes. It is comforting to believe that we are on the right side of a moral issue (especially if we get benefits from the side we are on) and uncomfortable with no clear path forward if we look inward and discover that we may have been wrong the whole time (especially if it seems that our social group has been wrong the whole time). Increasingly in my life I find it imperative that I consider that my brain doesn’t see things clearly and that my brain is likely wrong and short sighted about many issues. Remembering this helps me avoid becoming too certain of my beliefs, and keeps me open to the ways that other people see the world. It helps me recognize when people are acting out of their own self-interest, and helps me pull back in situations where my ego wants to run wild and declare that I am clearly right and those other people are obviously violating good moral ethics.

Deceiving Ourselves

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about evolutionary psychology of the brain in their book The Elephant in the Brain to explain why it is that we have hidden motives and why those hidden motives can be so hard to identify. The authors write (brackets mine, italics in original), “The human brain, according to this view [evolutionary psychology], was designed to deceive itself–in [Robert] Trivers’ words, ‘the better to deceive others.'” The authors look at how self-deception can be positive from an evolutionary perspective, and how that shapes the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world.

 

Fudging on the rules from time to time and making ourselves look better than we really are can be good strategies to survive, or at least they potentially were for our ancestors. Humans evolved in small, political, social tribes with rules and norms to adhere to and enforce to varying degrees. Slight amounts of cheating, if they can go unnoticed, can be beneficial for survival. This drives an evolutionary pressure to pass along selfish genes that favor individual survival, hold up the rules when it is convenient, but push rules aside when it benefits us. Simler and Hanson argue that this pressure is so strong, that we evolved to not even notice when we do this.

 

We also seem to justify our actions (a process known as motivated reasoning) in a way which says that we didn’t really do anything bad, we were just making the best decision we could given the circumstances or we were upholding fairness and justice in the absence of a greater authority to administer justice. The more we can convince ourselves that we are right and that we are on the correct side of a moral argument, the more we can convince others that our actions were just. If we are blatantly lying about our motivations, and we know we are lying, it will be harder to convince others and build support around our actions.

 

If however, we convince ourselves that our actions were right and our motives pure, we will have an easier time convincing others of our correctness and of our value to them and to society. When we give to charity, at least part of our donation is probably driven by a desire to want to be seen as the person who gives to charity or as a person with enough money to give some away. These two motivations, however, would be frowned upon. Instead, we convince ourselves that we give to charity because it is the right thing to do, or because we think the cause is incredibly important. Those both may be true, but if we completely convince ourselves that we are donating for the high-minded reasons, we will be more authentic and better able to convince other people that we made donations for high-minded and not selfish reasons. We are wired not to see the world how it is, but to see it through a filter that magnifies our greatness and minimizes our faults, deceiving ourselves so we can do a better job of presenting the best version of ourselves to the world.
Game Theory of Mind

Game Theory Interactions with Self Deception

“Self deception is useful only when you’re playing against an opponent who can take your mental state into account,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain. “Sabotaging yourself works only when you’re playing against an opponent with a theory-of-mind.” 
When we think about other people and their actions, we don’t just look at the hard facts of what happened. We spend a lot of time trying to read small cues and context to understand why someone did something. We project ourselves into the situation, we imagine other people in their situation, and sometimes we even imagine a person from space with no human social awareness in the situation. We strive to understand what types of mental processes and thoughts may have been taking place in the person’s head at the time of an action or decision. From sports, to politics, to office gossip, we attempt to guess the mental state of others, we hold a theory of what is taking place in their mind.
This is a key part of game theory. We have to be able to deduce that others are thinking something and that they are interpreting, reacting to, and making decisions about a given situation and will change their behavior in response to the way that we think and behave. In this world, social decisions and consequences along with individual actions become very complex very fast. What often matters is not so much a given outcome, but the intent behind the outcome. Was this person just trying to make themselves richer, or did they have more altruistic motives of helping everyone? Did this person really want to develop a new type of road to help improve traffic, or again, were they just out for themselves? Is my crime conspirator going to rat me out, or will he keep his mouth shut? These are the types of questions and things we think about when we assume other people have minds that work like ours. 
This brings in self-deception. If we are always looking at others trying to sort out their motives, and if they are doing the same to us, then we better have a really  good poker face when we are lying–or when we are just not quite telling the full truth. “we, humans, must self-deceive. Those who refuse to play such mind games will be at a disadvantage relative to others who play along,” the authors white in their book. Many of us have probably been in a situation where we tried to be truthful and honest, but were afraid that someone who was not truthful could interfere with our plans by seeming to be honest but really lying. They may have made great impressions and possibly gotten the reward we hoped for, ultimately preventing us from doing something good while they scammed the situation. This is why we are under pressure to self-deceive, to over promise, to inflate ourselves, and to fudge the details. After all, if we know we can do something the best, we better make sure we have the chance and don’t have it stolen by someone else who might be lying and less capable. Competing with other smart social creatures encourages self-deception so that we can feel good about ourselves and appear more genuine when we are distorting the facts so that we can get ahead.

Deception is Expected

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler consider it normal and expected that humans are deceptive creatures. We evolved, according to the authors, to be deceptive so that we could get a little bit more for ourselves and have a slightly better chance of reproducing and keeping our genes in the mix. We don’t boldly take things and openly cheat to get what we want (most of the time), but instead we do our best to be a team player, with some marginal cheating and stealing under the table. As they put it,

 

“Deception is simply part of human nature–a fact that makes perfect sense in light of the competitive (selfish) logic of evolution. Deception allows us to reap certain benefits without paying the full costs. And yes, all societies have norms against lying, but that just means we have to work a little harder not to get caught. Instead of telling bald-faced lies, maybe we spin or cherry-pick the truth.”

 

This leaves us in an interesting position as we think about how we should act at an individual level and how societies should organize themselves at a larger level. We want to have norms in place that deter cheating and lying to help protect people’s property, to prevent fraud, and to create a system where people can meaningfully engage with one another and trust their institutions. But at the same time, we recognize that there is going to be a substantial amount of deception and a natural urge to be deceptive in order to obtain a little more benefit with a little less cost. Individuals will behave this way, and so will the families, social groups, communities, states, and nations that individuals create.

 

A solution that I would explore would be to accept Simler and Hanson’s views openly, and then begin looking closely at externalities. Externalities (usually discussed in the negative sense) are the additional things that stem from the original action. Deceptive behavior can have negative externalities, such as wastes of money when we buy sports cars to show off rather than using our money for more productive and charitable uses. At the same time, deceptive behavior can have positive externalities, such as the benefits of charity when we donate large amounts of money, again to show off.

 

If we accept this is happening, then in our own lives and in our societies we can try to add additional costs (such as taxes) on deceptive behaviors with negative externalities, and we can do more to encourage deceptive behaviors that produce largely positive externalities. We don’t have to abandon our human nature, but we can collectively decide to shape the consequences we might face for being deceptive in certain situations. This can help bring our behaviors and actions in line with the outcomes we want, but it does require that we accept what is taking place inside our brains and accept that we are not always as wonderful as we would like to appear.

Deceiving Ourselves

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about evolutionary psychology of the brain in their book The Elephant in the Brain to explain why it is that we have hidden motives and why those hidden motives can be so hard to identify. The authors write (brackets mine, italics in original), “The human brain, according to this view [evolutionary psychology], was designed to deceive itself – in [Robert] Trivers’ words, ‘the better to deceive others.'” The authors look at how self-deception can be positive from an evolutionary perspective, and how that shapes the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world.

 

Fudging on the rules from time to time and making ourselves look better than we really are can be good strategies to survive, or at least they potentially were for our ancestors. Humans evolved in small, political, social tribes with rules and norms that were adhered to and enforced to varying degrees. Slight amounts of cheating, if they can go unnoticed, can be beneficial for survival. This drives an evolutionary pressure to pass along selfish genes that favor individual survival, adhere to the rules when it is convenient, but push rules aside when it benefits us. Simler and Hanson argue that this pressure is so strong, that we evolved to not even notice when we bend rules or apply them flexibly in ways that benefit us.

 

We can also seem to justify our actions, a process known as motivational reasoning, which says that we didn’t really do anything bad, we were just making the best decision we could given the circumstances or we were upholding fairness and justice in the absence of a greater authority to administer justice and fairness for us. The more we can convince ourselves that we are right and that we are on the correct side of a moral argument, the more we can convince others that our actions were just. If we are blatantly lying about our motivations, and we know we are lying, it will be harder to convince others and build support around our actions.

 

If however, we convince ourselves that our actions were right and our motives pure, we will have an easier time convincing others of our correctness and of our value to them and to society. When we give to charity, at least part of our donation is probably driven by a desire to want to be seen as the person who gives to charity or as a person with enough money to give some away. These two motivations, however, would be frowned upon. Instead, we convince ourselves that we gave to charity because it is the right thing to do, or because we think the cause is incredibly important. Those both may be true, but if we completely convince ourselves that we are donating for the high minded reasons, we will be more authentic and better able to convince other people that we made donations for high-minded and not selfish reasons. We are wired not to see the world as it is, but to see it through a filter that magnifies our greatness and minimizes our faults, deceiving ourselves so we can do a better job of presenting the best version of ourselves to the world.

What’s Happening in Our Brains Behind the Conscious Self?

Toward  the end of the introductory chapter of their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain what they observed with the human mind and what they will be exploring in the coming chapters. They write, “What will emerge from this investigation is a portrait of the human species as strategically self-deceived, not only as individuals but also as a society. Our brains are experts at flirting, negotiation social status, and playing politics, while “we” – the self-conscious parts of the brain – manage to keep our thoughts pure and chaste. “We” don’t always know what our brains are up to, but we often pretend to know, and therein lies the trouble.

 

The last few days I have written about a few instances where we deceive ourselves and hide our true motives from ourselves. We do this so that in our political and social world we can appear to have high-minded motives and reasons for doing the things we do. Simler and Hanson show that this does not just happen on an individual level, but happens at group and society levels as well. We all contribute to the failure to acknowledge what it is that drives our decisions and why we do what we do.

 

This process takes place behind the conscious self that experiences the world. In the past, I have borrowed from Ezra Klein who has used a metaphor on his podcast about a press secretary. The press secretary for a large company doesn’t sit in on every strategic decision meeting, isn’t a part of every meeting to decide what the future of the company will be, and isn’t part of the team that makes decisions about whether the company will donate money, will begin to hire more minorities, or will launch a new product. But the press secretary does have to explain to the general public why the company is making these decisions, and has to do it in a way that makes the company look as high minded as possible. The company is supporting the local 5K for autism because they care about these children in the community. The company has decided to hire more minorities because they know the power of having a diverse workforce and believe in equality. The company was forced to close the factory because of unfair trade practices in other countries. None of these reasons are self-interested, but the final decision made by the company may be more self-interested than altruistic or even necessary.

 

On an individual level, our conscious self is acting like the press secretary I described and this passes along throughout the levels of society. As individuals we say and think one thing while doing another, and so do our political bodies, our family units, our businesses, and the community groups we belong to. There are often hidden motives that we signal to, without expressing directly, that likely account for a large portion of the reason for us to do what we do. This creates awkward situations, especially for those who don’t navigate these unspoken social situations well, and potentially puts us in places where our policy doesn’t align with the things we say we want. We should not hate humans for having these qualities, but we should try to recognize them, especially in our own lives, and control these situations and try to actually live in the way we tell people we live.

More on Hiding Our Motives

Deception is a big part of being a human being. If we try, we can all think of times when we have been deceived. Someone led us to believe one thing, and then we found out that something different was really going on the whole time. If we are honest with ourselves, we can also see that we clearly try to deceive others all the time. We make ourselves seem like we are one thing, but in many ways, we are not exactly what we present ourselves as being. Sometimes we truly are genuine, but often, we are signaling a particular behavior or trait to a group so that we can be accepted, praised, and get some sort of future benefit. In order to do this really well, we create stories and ideas about why we do the things we do, deceiving even ourselves in the process. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson wright in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “We hide some of our motives…in order to mislead others.”

 

This is not a pretty idea of humans, and expressing this idea is an admittance that we sometimes are not as great as we like to make everyone believe. This is not an idea that is popular or that everyone will be quick to admit, but I believe that Simler and Hanson are right in saying that it is a huge driving influencer of the world around us. I also don’t think that accepting this about ourselves ends up leaving us in as sad, cynical, and dejected of a place as one might think. Humans and our social groups are complicated, and sometimes being a little deceptive, doing things with ulterior motives at their base, and behaving in a way to signal group alliance or value can be a net positive. We can recognize that we do these things, that we are deceptive, and that we deceive others by lying about our motives, and still make a good impact in the world. The altruist who donates money to the Against Malaria foundation may tell himself and everyone he knows that he donates because he wants to save people’s lives, but truly he just gets a warm glow within himself, and that is perfectly fine as long as the externality from his status seeking behavior is overwhelmingly positive (looking in the mirror on this one).

 

If we don’t accept this reality about ourselves and others then we will spend a lot of time trying to work on the wrong problem and a lot of time being confused as to why our mental models of the world don’t seem to work out. In my own life, recognizing status seeking behavior, self-deception, and motivated thinking helps me to be less judgmental toward other people. I recognize that I have the same capacity for these negative and deceptive behaviors within myself, and I choose (as much as I can) to redirect these types of behaviors in directions that have the greatest positive social impact rather than in the direction that has the greatest personal benefit for me and my feelings. Ultimately, I encourage us to be honest about the fact that we are sometimes rather dishonest and to build our awareness in a way that is easy on ourselves and others for behaving as humans naturally behave, but still nudges us in a direction where we create positive externalities where possible from these ways of being.

Designed to Act on Hidden Motives

The human brain evolved in a social and political context. As our species developed, it mattered who you were close allies with, who you were opposed to, and who you cooperated with to survive. You needed to build up your social support to survive each day, but you also needed to build up your status so that your offspring and their offspring could survive and reproduce. Genetic survival and continuation of your genes and family depended on you being able to operate and survive in coordination with others in a world that didn’t have enough food, shelter, mates, and resources for everyone to survive all the time.

 

As our species expanded, our brains got bigger, took up more of our energy, made us smarter, and helped us further develop our social, political, tribal societies. In order to do well in these tribes, we had to be good at helping others in a way that furthered others’ trust in us and encouraged reciprocation. We had to appear to be helping others while at the heart of what we did, we wanted to ensure our survival and the survival of our children.

 

This idea is at the heart of The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. We evolved to be self-interested and self-serving, but in a deceptive way that is hard to notice. The authors write, “Here is the thesis we’ll be exploring in this book: 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.”

 

We hide our hidden motives from everyone, including ourselves, as we go about the world, but if we look closely, we can find the motives in ourselves and others that more accurately describe our decisions and behaviors. We post a photo on Facebook telling ourselves and others that we want to keep our friends up to date with our new house projects, but a more plausible reason for posting on Facebook is simply that we wanted to show off and be socially applauded. We like to donate to charity in the spirit of helping those who are in need, but we often fail to ask where we could make a donation to help the most people, and we are good at finding ways of making our donation very visible so that everyone knows what we donated.

 

These hidden motives are not all bad, but they do exist and in many ways drive our behavior. We need to be aware of our hidden motives and our capability of acting on them. When we are honest with ourselves about why we do what we do, we can start to have more agency in our lives and the choices we make. We can start to see that much of what we do is purely status seeking behavior, and we can ask ourselves if it is truly worth it or if we can step back and let go of our hidden motives on a case by case basis. We can shape policy in a way that redirects externatilities from our hidden motives toward positive outcomes rather than toward negative self-serving outcomes. We don’t have to evolve away from hidden motives to meaningfully engage with the world, but we should recognize them and do our best to prevent negative hidden motivations from driving our emotions, behaviors, and decisions.