The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life
Although Robin has blogged on related topics for over a decade, the book in your hands—or on your screen—would not have happened but for Kevin’s initiative. In 2013, Kevin considered taking his second stab at a PhD, but instead approached Robin with a suggestion that they forego the academic formalities and simply talk and work together, informally, as student and advisor. This is the fruit of our collaboration: a doctoral thesis of sorts. And we suppose that makes you, dear reader, one of our thesis committee.
Unlike a conventional dissertation, however, this work makes less of a claim to originality. Our basic thesis—that we are strategically blind to key aspects of our motives—has been around in some form or another for millennia. It’s been put forward not only by poets, playwrights, and philosophers, but also by countless wise old souls, at least when you catch them in private and in the right sort of mood. And yet the thesis still seems to us neglected in scholarly writings; you can read a mountain of books and still miss it. For Robin, it’s the view he would have been most eager to hear early in his research career, to help him avoid blind alleys. So we hope future scholars can now find at least one book in their library that clearly articulates the thesis.
As we put our final touches on this book, we find that our thoughts are now mostly elsewhere. This is, in part, because other tasks and projects clamor for our attention, but also because it’s just really hard to look long and intently at our selfish motives, at what we’ve called “the elephant in the brain.” Even we, the authors of a book on the subject, are relieved for the chance to look away, to let our minds wander to safer, more comfortable topics.
We’re quite curious to see how the world reacts to our book. Early reviews were almost unanimously positive, and we expect the typical reader to accept roughly two-thirds of our claims about human motives and institutions. Yet, we find it hard to imagine the book’s central thesis becoming widely accepted among any large population, even of scholars. As better minds than ours have long advanced similar ideas, but to little apparent effect, we suspect that human minds and cultures must contain sufficient antibodies to keep such concepts at bay.
Of course, no work like this comes together without a community of support. We’re grateful for the advice, feedback, and encouragement of a wide network of colleagues, friends, and family:
•Our book agent, Teresa Hartnett, and our editors, Lynnee Argabright and Joan Bossert.
•For feedback on early drafts: Scott Aaronson, Shanu Athiparambath, Mills Baker, Stefano Bertolo, Romina Boccia, Joel Borgen, Bryan Caplan, David Chapman, Tyler Cowen, Jean-Louis Dessalles, Jay Dixit, Kyle Erickson, Matthew Fallshaw, Charles Feng, Joshua Fox, Eivind Kjørstad, Anna Krupitsky, Brian Leddin, Jeff Lonsdale, William MacAskill, Dave McDougall, Geoffrey Miller, Luke Muehlhauser, Patrick O’Shaughnessy, Laure Parsons, Adam Safron, Carl Shulman, Mayeesha Tahsin, Toby Unwin, and Zach Weinersmith.
•Robin received no financial assistance for this book and its related research, other than the freedom that academic tenure gives. For that unusual privilege, Robin deeply thanks his colleagues at George Mason University.
•For additional support, encouragement, ideas, and inspiration, Kevin would like to thank Nick Barr, Emilio Cecconi, Ian Cheng, Adam D’Angelo, Joseph Jordania, Dikran Karagueuzian, Jenny Lee, Justin Mares, Robin Newton, Ian Padgham, Sarah Perry, Venkat Rao, Naval Ravikant, Darcey Riley, Nakul Santpurkar, Joe Shermetaro, Prasanna Srikhanta, Alex Vartan, and Francelle Wax, with a special shout-out to Charles Feng for the suggestion to think of the book as a dissertation, and to Jonathan Lonsdale for the suggestion to look for a “PhD advisor.” Kevin is also particularly grateful for the support of his parents, Steve and Valerie, and his wife Diana.
•Finally, Kevin would like to thank Lee Corbin, his mentor and friend of 25 years. This project would not have been possible without Lee’s influence.
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