Elephant in the Brain Reviews

Its now one week after the official hardback release date, and five weeks after the ebook release, of Elephant in the Brain. So I guess its time to respond to the text reviews that have appeared so far. Reviews have appeared at Amazon (9), Goodreads (8), and on individual blogs (5). Most comments expressed are quite positive. But there’s a big selection effect whereby people with negative opinions say nothing, and so readers rationally attend more to explicitly negative comments. And thus so will I. This post is looong.

Out of the 9 Amazon reviews, 6 gave 5-star reviews, and the 4 star review had no criticisms. The 3 star reviews were Robert Castro, who called it “OK but nothing new – a new packaging of known ideas,” and Krishna Kaliannanon, who says:

Some interesting ideas in this book, but they could be written in a far more concise manner. Perhaps 100 pages instead of ~400.

Another low review seems to have been withdrawn, but it said that our thesis is obvious; only hippies would think otherwise.

Out of the 8 GoodReads reviews, half give the book 5 stars and half 4 stars. Of the 4-star reviews, one of them had no complaint. Daniel Frank said

To the unacquainted, I don’t think this book is delicate or persuasive enough to convince them of its valuable messages.

ChickCounterfly said

It’s accessible for general audiences, and I would say some sections could’ve been improved by going a bit deeper and being a bit more challenging.

Thore Husfeldt said

These insights are shocking and important, but also available in many other recent introductions to social and evolutionary psychology. … Things I didn’t like: The book’s main metaphor, the Elephant in the Brain, does not do as much useful work as the authors may think. … The style is surprisingly light and accessible. … This is probably a good idea because it may widen the potential readership, but I had to cringe at some of the formulations.

So far, no one says they disagree with our main thesis, but some say our thesis is too obvious and unoriginal. Some say we should have been more academic and detailed, while other say we should have been more accessible and less detailed.

The Google page rank of the blogs where reviews have appeared is mostly low. Four have rank 0, and one has rank 4. (For comparison, this blog Overcoming Bias has rank 6, and my personal website has rank 5. The Boston Globe, where an interview appeared, and the Wall Street Journal, where I’m hoping to see a review soon, each have rank 8.) I’ll go through these blog reviews in chronological order.

The first blog review to appear was 1300 words long, by Kieran McCarthy, who had these words of praise:

Thoroughly enjoyable and easily digestible read on a difficult subject. The book is an excellent survey of the literature.

His criticism:

What do we do with that information? … This question was the central focus in the book’s last chapter and conclusion. This was also what I considered the weakest part of the book. The authors’ primary answer to the question is “situational awareness.” … [But] if one of the main theses in the book is that self deception is strategic and lack of self awareness in terms of our motivations serves a critical evolutionary purpose, how is it that situational awareness of that self deception can also be strategic? … It would appear that the authors fell into their own trap—wishing for a pretty benefit to ascribe to our awareness of our hidden motivations, when the rest of the book tells us that the opposite is true.

I thought we were pretty clear to say that while awareness is a benefit, we don’t know when it is a net benefit. And the main benefit is for policy specialists. Book quotes:

Even when we simply acknowledge the elephant to ourselves, in private, we burden our brains with self-consciousness and the knowledge of our own hypocrisy. These are real downsides, not to be shrugged off. … Beyond what we can do in our personal lives, however, is what we can do when we’re in positions to influence policy or help reform institutions. This is where an understanding of the elephant really starts to pay off. Maybe most laypeople don’t need to understand their hidden motives, but those who make policy probably should.

The second blog review was 1400 words, by Diarmuid. Key summaries:

I found a lot of sense in what they wrote, but at the same time wondered whether or not this is the sort of thesis that is unduly influenced by the prevailing mores or the dominant view of human nature. By the end of the book, I was still not sure that I felt comfortable with the objectivity of the thesis, but acknowledge that it is a theory that resonates and an argument that has been well put together. … On the whole, I found it an enjoyable read, but would have preferred more from part one [on general theory] and less from part two [on specific life areas]. It was hard to shrug off the suspicion that there were many people out there who would just as eloquently and convincingly shred the arguments put forward in part two – they seemed to be more interpretative than factual.

I find it hard to see people as on the whole as biased toward accepting our thesis; see the social desirability bias. On specific life areas, Diarmuid seems to think we both have too much and too little detail; too little to justify our claims, and too much to be interesting.

The third blog review was much longer, at 9200 words, by Zvi Mowshowitz. Overall Zvi likes the book:

I highly recommend the book, especially to those not familiar with Overcoming Bias and claims of the type “X is not about Y.” The book feels like a great way to create common knowledge around the claims in question, a sort of Hansonian sequence. For those already familiar with such concepts, it will be fun and quick read, and still likely to contain some new insights for you. …

The second half did an excellent job of pointing out the signaling, status and strategic motives behind these areas of life. In this regard, I bought most of the book’s claims. Such motives are all around us and central to almost everything involving multiple people. … This adds up to [my] buying about 90% of claims. For a book making so many bold claims, that’s very good.

Out of the ten life areas we covered, Zvi accepts on average roughly 100% of our claims in 8 of the areas, but only about 50% in two areas: conversation and consumption. His doubts:

I do not think, as I believe Robin does, that most product variety and customization is worthless aside from signaling. … The value of inconspicuous consumption … is vastly underrated. I often end up buying the package of conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption together, but there’s no other way to get the half I want. Perhaps that also means I am the exception that proves the rule. I can believe most people instead throw away the other half. If your restaurant consumption is, as the book claims, ‘more for showing off’ than for personal use, you are doing it wrong. Same with (from the same chart) mobile phones and living room furniture. …

I think ‘conversation is about info’ is more importantly true than ‘conversation is not (entirely) about info.’ … Are the puzzles even accurate? People can and do keep track of conversational debt. If you tell me something valuable, I owe you, and vice versa. … Relevant things build upon previously said things in valuable ways, and are likely to be of higher value. If I talk about what we should have for dinner and you tell me the capital of Brazil, chances are that’s both not something I especially care about right now and also not helping. Similarly suboptimal exchange, since info has relative value based on context and what different people care about at different times. … But yes, people would benefit greatly if we paid more attention to talking about more valuable topics, and exchanging more valuable information.

These sound to me like Zvi claiming that he puts an unusually high value, compared to others, on product variety and conversation info. But our book tries to estimate average motives; we are happy to admit that individuals vary. It still seems to me that most people get a lot less value than they’d admit out of product variety and conversation info. Conversation debts seem rare, and small talk topic relevance rules don’t usually create much info value.

The fourth blog review was 1500 words, and is the one on a 4-rank blog, by philosopher Tristan Haze. He starts with praise:

A fantastic synthesis of subversive social scientific insight into hidden (or less apparent) motives of human behaviour, and hidden (or less apparent) functions of institutions. Just understanding these matters is an intellectual thrill, and helpful in thinking about how the world works. Furthermore – and I didn’t sufficiently appreciate this point until reading the book, … better understanding the real function of our institutions can help us improve them and prevent us from screwing them up. Lots of reform efforts, I have been convinced (especially for the case of schooling), are likely to make a hash of things due to taking orthodox views of institutions’ functions too seriously.

But as you might expect from a philosopher, he has two nits to pick regarding our exact use of words.

I want to point out what I think are two conceptual shortcomings in the book. … The authors seem to conflate the concept of common knowledge with the idea of being “out in the open” or “on the record”. … This seems wrong to me. Something may satisfy the conditions for being common knowledge, but people may still not be OK talking about it openly. … They write: ‘Common knowledge is the difference between (…) a lesbian who’s still in the closet (though everyone suspects her of being a lesbian), and one who’s open about her sexuality; between an awkward moment that everyone tries to pretend didn’t happen and one that everyone acknowledges’ (p, 55). If we stick to the proper recursive explanation of ‘common knowledge’, these claims just seem wrong.

We agree that the two concepts are in principle distinct. In practice the official definition of common knowledge almost never applies, though a related concept of common belief does often apply. But we claim that in practice a lack of common belief is the main reason for widely known things not being treated as “out in the open”. While the two concepts are not co-extensive, one is the main cause of the other. Tristan’s other nit:

Classical decision theory has it right: there’s no value in sabotaging yourself per se. The value lies in convincing other players that you’ve sabotaged yourself. (p. 67).

This fits the game of chicken example pretty well. But it doesn’t really fit the turning-your-phone-off example: what matters there is that your phone is off – it doesn’t matter if the person wanting the favour thinks that your phone malfunctioned and turned itself off, rather than you turning it off. … It doesn’t really matter how the kidnapper thinks it came about that you failed to see them – they don’t need to believe you brought the failure on yourself for the strategy to be good.

Yes, yes, in the quote above we were sloppy, and should have instead said “The value lies in convincing other players that you’ve been sabotaged.” It matters less who exactly caused you to be sabotaged.

The fifth and final blog review is another long one, at 4400 words, by Jess Riedel. He is overall positive:

Although there is much I am not convinced by, I find the general framework deeply insightful, and his presentation to be more clear, analytical, and descriptive (rather than disruptively normative) than other accounts. … I highly recommend it. … Let me emphasize: the basic ideas of this book strike me as profound and probably mostly true.

But he has many critiques.

I like that Hanson and Simler emphasize up front that many of the selfish motives they discuss are unconscious. … I wish the book had attempted to operationally define consciousness in this context. … It’s true that, in many circumstances, it’s difficult to unambiguously distinguish between conscious and unconscious effects, and there are varying degrees of conscious awareness. … The authors mostly ignore  the further distinction between (a) the evolutionary goal of an adaptation in the ancestral environment and (b) the execution of that adaptation. …  For instance, people (especially men) plausibly like to win arguments to signal intelligence or social domination, but when they spend hours arguing anonymously on the internet, they aren’t gaining status or prestige. …

Yes for each motive one can distinguish both a degree of consciousness and also a degree of current vs past adaptation. But these topics were not essential for our main thesis, making credible claims on them takes a lot more evidence and argument, and we already had trouble with trying to cover too much material for one book.

I think Simler and Hanson are making this mistake, at least in part, when they eagerly attribute so many ineffective or dangerous medical treatments to the desire to demonstrate care. Yes, people use prestige to guide their choice of treatment, and they often neglect careful analytical signals, but we can’t confidently conclude they value signaling their own prestige more than their own life. … This isn’t to say that the hidden desire to appear caring doesn’t drive billions of dollars of waste in medicine, it just means people also make honest mistakes pursuing conventional goals.

Sure, given any goal and any behavior, one can invoke an error theory to explained that behavior as a mistaken attempt to achieve that goal. The problem is that according to the error theory these deviations should be random. Thus theories that can explain the behavior more systematically can get stronger evidential support. Our book tries to offer such systematic theories.

Why are so many of these selfish human motivation kept unconscious in the first place, rather than simply being conscious and well hidden? … The obvious rebuttal here is that we should just have evolved to not have those leaky, difficult-to-suppress emotional responses, or for those responses not to have evolved in the first place.

We see a reasonably strong consensus in the literature that it is very hard to design brains to block all possible paths by which conscious motives can leak. We accept that consensus.

Laughter does not occur very often in competitive but physically safe games. … Other observations that don’t really seem to fit with play-signaling: (1) Laughter is used by women to signal their romantic interest in men, and more generally by anyone to signal that they like and approve of someone else. (2) Laughter is mostly restricted to situations in which expectations are violated (a property observed in the literature reviewed by the authors), but there are other times we need to signal play, and instead we use smiling, relaxed body language, etc. (3) Laughter is used to indicate we can distinguish jokes from non-jokes quickly, signaling intelligence.

Jokes may be empirically connected to violated expectations, but I don’t think laughter more generally is. I don’t see how the other points here are at odds with laughter as play signal.

I think the authors are too eager to interpret everything in terms of hidden motives rather than, e.g., cognitive limitations. … referees almost never discuss a work’s long-term potential for substantial social benefit. … But wouldn’t judgment of long-term benefit be highly subjective (and idiosyncratic), whereas technical mastery is relatively objective? … Ensuring “spit and polish” — that each individual detail is precise and correct — strikes me as something that may hinder authors but aids the literature as a whole.

Yes, one can make such excuses. But as a long-time academic I’ll say that the theory that our apparent focus on impressiveness is all really a complex clever plan to maximize long term research progress just doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Blue jeans, for example, are a symbol of egalitarian values, in part because denim is a cheap, durable, low-maintenance fabric that make wealth and class distinctions harder to detect. So conspicuous consumption signals wealth, but not doing this signals egalitarian values. What would the authors not interpret as signaling? … I get it, social dynamics are hard and plausible deniability is central to a lot of signaling, so we shouldn’t be surprised that there are many ambiguous layers, counter-signaling, etc. But we should also admit this allows a signaling explanation for most isolated observations, and we should be more modest and careful about our claims.

Come on, these aren’t aliens we are talking about. Isn’t it really obvious that overall people pay a lot of attention to how others will interpret their clothing choices? Is there really any question about this?

The authors should spend more time drawing this out in each specific example, perhaps by quantifying simplicity, or by proposing novel experiments for which apologists would actually make contrary predictions. … A few chapters, especially the one discussing religion, were very thin on data. …

Count Jess as someone who wanted a longer book.

Those are the reviews so far. Maybe soon I’ll give a bigger picture view about the reaction to our book.

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