Our Book’s New Ground

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Matthew Hutson, author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, reviews our new book The Elephant in the Brain. He starts and ends with obligatory but irrelevant references to Trump. Quotes from the rest:

The book builds on centuries of writing about self-deception. … I can’t say that the book covers new ground, but it is a smart synthesis and offers several original metaphors. People self-deceive about lots of things. We overestimate our ability to drive. We conveniently forget who started an argument. … Much of what we do, including our most generous behavior, the authors say, is not meant to be helpful. We are, like many other members of the animal kingdom, competitively altruistic—helpful in large part to earn status. … Casual conversations, for instance, often trade in random information. But the point is not to trade facts for facts; what you are actually doing, the book argues, is showing off so people can evaluate your intellectual versatility. …

The authors take particular interest in large-scale social issues and institutions, showing how systems of collective self-deception help explain the odd behavior we see in art, charity, education, medicine, religion and politics. Why do people vote? Not to strengthen the republic. …. Instead, we cheer for our team and participate as a signal of loyalty, hoping for the benefits of inclusion. In education, as many economists have argued, learning is ancillary to accreditation and status. … In many areas of medicine, they note, increased care does not improve outcomes. People offer it to broadcast helpfulness, or demand it to demonstrate how much support they have from others.

“The Elephant in the Brain” is refreshingly frank and penetrating, leaving no stone of presumed human virtue unturned. The authors do not even spare themselves. … It is accessibly erudite, deftly deploying essential technical concepts. … Still, the authors urge hope. … There are ways to leverage our hidden motives in the pursuit of our ideals. The authors offer a few suggestions. … Unfortunately, the book devotes only a few pages to such solutions. “The Elephant in the Brain” does not judge us for hiding selfish motives from ourselves. And to my mind, given that we will always have selfish motives, keeping them concealed might even provide a buffer against naked strife. (more)

All reasonable, except maybe for “can’t say that the book covers new ground.” Yes, scholars of self-deception like Hutson will find plausible both our general thesis and most of our claims about particular areas of life. And yes those specific claims have almost all been published before. Even so, I bet most policy experts will call our claims on their particular area “surprising” and even “extraordinary”, and judge that we have not offered sufficiently extraordinary evidence in support. I’ve heard education policy experts say this on Bryan Caplan’s new book, The Case Against Education. And I’ve heard medicine policy experts say this on our medicine claims, and political system experts say this on our politics claims.

In my view, the key problem is that, to experts in each area, no modest amount of evidence seems sufficient support for claims that sound to them so surprising and extraordinary. Our story isn’t the usual one that people tell, after all. It is only by seeing that substantial if not overwhelming evidence is available for similar claims covering a great many areas of life that each claim can become plausible enough that modest evidence can make these conclusions believable. That is, there’s an intellectual contribution to make by arguing together for a large set of related contrarian-to-experts claims. This is what I suggest is original about our book.

I expect that experts in each policy area X will be much more skeptical about our claims on X than about our claims on the other areas. You might explain this by saying that our arguments are misleading, and only experts can see the holes. But I instead suggest that policy experts in each X are biased because clients prefer them to assume the usual stories. Those who hire education policy experts expect them to talk about better learning the material, and so on. Such biases are weaker for those who study motives and self-deception in general.

Hutson has one specific criticism:

The case for medicine as a hidden act of selfishness may have some truth, but it also has holes. For example, the book does not address why medical spending is so much higher in the U.S. than elsewhere—do Americans care more than others about health care as a status symbol?

We do not offer our thesis as an explanation for all possible variations in these activities! We say that our favored motive is under-acknowledged, but we don’t claim that it is the only motive, nor that motive variations are the only way to explain behavioral variation. The world is far too big and complex for one simple story to explain it all.

Finally, I must point out one error:

“The Elephant in the Brain,” a book about unconscious motives. (The titular pachyderm refers not to the Republican Party but to a metaphor used in 2006 by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in which reason is the rider on the elephant of emotion.)

Actually it is a reference to common idea of “the elephant in the room”, a thing we can all easily see but refuse to admit is there. We say there’s a big one regarding how our brains work.

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  • Ben Albert Pace

    > We do not offer our thesis as an explanation for all possible variations in these activities! We say that our favored motive is under-acknowledged, but we don’t claim that it is the only motive, nor that motive variations are the only way to explain behavioral variation. The world is far too big and complex for one simple story to explain it all.

    Right, I’d been wanting to know your response to that criticism. This makes sense – you are advocating a theory with significant-but-not-unanimous explanatory power in many domains. I admit your theory has an elegance and coherence to it, and your blog posts often seem to make sense of things in my life I’d been confused by.

    If I may ask an ignorant question, do you have any easy links to / examples of times where your theory has made novel predictions in advance of the data being available? I appreciate this may be difficult as you rarely get to run studies yourself. An alternatively satisfying thing would be a set of studies you’d like to run that would be very surprising yet you’d strongly predict would come out in your theory’s favour.

    • Caplan and I have long predicted low interest in MOOCs. Does that count? I predicted that the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment would show weak health effects, does that count?

      • Ben Albert Pace

        I like those both a lot – do you have a link to such predictions very early?

      • The effort to search for such things seems to me misspent.

      • Ben Albert Pace

        No worries, I’ll look around myself.

  • Sniffnoy

    For what it’s worth, I also thought the title was a (confusing) reference to the mentioned Haidt metaphor.

  • Robin, thank you for bringing your post to my attention and inviting me to add comments here. You make several reasonable points.


    Indeed! That’s why I wrote “I can’t say that the book covers new ground, but it is a *smart synthesis* and offers several original metaphors.” (I probably should have added “much” before ”new ground.”) FWIW, I would describe my own book as a smart synthesis that doesn’t cover much new ground.


    That’s true, but my (relatively uninformed) perception is that excess medical care in other developed countries is a fraction of what it is in the US. If that’s the case, then by far the biggest factor in US medical bloat is something US-specific. And if status-signaling doesn’t have anything to say about that overwhelming factor, then it’s left begging for scraps of factors to explain. My analysis may be incorrect, but in any case I suspect other readers might have the same unanswered questions, and so I called it a hole in your case. You may have reasoning or evidence to plug the hole in a jiffy, but it was missing from the book. (Formally, it’s not a hole in the case that status affects some medicine, just in the case that it has a sizable effect on medicine, which I perhaps incorrectly assumed was the case you were making. I left it to myself to define “sizable.”)

    Perhaps it wasn’t the ideal example of a hole, but I also had unaddressed counter-argumets for all of the predictions at the end of the chapter. For example, in the first (“Keeping Up with the Joneses”), it’s possible that people spend more on health care after moving to a richer neighborhood because they spend more on everything. Or if they spend more specifically on health care, maybe there are descriptive norms about how much it’s reasonable to spend on health care not for status but for health. You might hear from neighbors that a certain specialist or procedure is quite effective and worth the cost, then see the service as a practical expenditure.


    Ah, I assumed it was a double entendre because you cite Haidt’s book in the discussion of mind modularity. (In a draft of the review I included both entendres, but an editor remove the “elephant in the room” reference, perhaps because he felt that entendre needed no explanation.) I thought I recalled your mentioning Haidt’s metaphor explicitly, but I can’t find the passage, so apparently I was confabulating!

    Anyway, I enjoyed your book, and I hope that came across.


    • Sorry for not responding here earlier; the blog software hid your comment & I’ve finally got it out. Thanks again for engaging with our book, and yes it is clear that you enjoyed it. 🙂

      I agree that the US is an outliner in some ways, and it is interesting to think about how to explain those facts. Let me suggest that exceptional US spending on medicine and the military are due in part to the US telling itself key myths that it deservers credit for pioneering modern medicine, and for saving the world from fascism and communism. We feel that by spending more on these things, we support our claims of the great value of such things, and constantly remind the world of the gratitude we feel they owe us. We feel we are the best, but must keep spending more to stay the best.

      Yes it is possible come up with many explanations for any particular empirical fact. But there’s a great risk of being overly ad hoc that way. The discipline that we try to hold ourselves to in our book is to explain many patterns at once with a small number of assumptions. Of course that approach could mislead by chance, or we could have failed to do it well.