The Elephant in the Brain:
Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

a new book by
Kevin Simler & Robin Hanson

Out as hardback January 2, 2018, NOW as ebook.
From Oxford University Press
Order from Amazon, BN, Google, Target.


the elephant in the room, n. An important issue that people are re­luc­tant to ack­now­ledge or add­ress; a social taboo.

the elephant in the brain, n. An important but un­ack­now­ledged fea­ture of how our minds work; an introspective taboo.

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains are therefore designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means.

But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our own ugly motives, the better. And thus we don’t like to talk — or even think — about the extent of our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain,” an introspective blind spot that makes it hard to think clearly about ourselves and the explanations for our behavior.

The aim of this book is to confront our hidden motives directly — to track down the darker, unexamined corners of our psyches and blast them with floodlights. Then, once our minds are more clearly visible, we can work to better understand human nature: Why do people laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do we brag about travel? Why do we prefer to speak rather than listen?

Beyond our personal lives, unconscious motives also lurk within large-scale social institutions such as art, charity, education, politics, and religion. In fact, these venerated institutions are in many ways designed to accommodate our hidden motives, to serve covert agendas alongside their “official” ones. The existence of big hidden motives can upend the usual political debates and cast fatal doubt on many polite fictions. You won’t see yourself — or the world — the same after confronting the elephant in the brain.


About The Authors

Kevin Simler is a writer and software engineer currently living in San Francisco, CA. You can read more of Kevin's work at his blog,

Robin Hanson is an associate professor of economics at George Mason University and a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University. He has a PhD in social science from Caltech, master's in physics and philosophy from U. Chicago, and worked for nine years as an artificial intelligence researcher at Lockheed and NASA. He helped pioneer the field of prediction markets, and recently published The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth; his TED talk on it has over one million views. He’s had sixty academic publications, 3620 citations, 700 media mentions, given 315 invited talks, and blogs at More here.

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