“Doesn’t Add Up,” by John Lanchester. The New Yorker, 7/23/2018. (Book review of “The Elephant In the Brain” by Hanson and Simler.)
Several years ago, I was discussing with a friend, a retired psychology professor, the recently discovered peccadilloes of General Petraeus. Why, I asked, do people at that high level think they can get away with indiscretions? My friend put it simply: Why would anyone work so hard to become a general? To get babes, of course! They are only claiming their rewards.
Author Hanson would say even you are reading this blog to later signal your health, energy, and overall fitness, not just to attract a mate, but to attract allies or to intimidate rivals. That is, you, male or female, will use the information you find here to later signal your power. That is your true motivation.
When asked in an interview, Hanson estimated over 90% of our actions are based on signaling our power. When asked for a example of an action not related to signaling, he replied, after some thought, “scratching your butt.”
There are so few domesticated animals because most species resist humans taking the role of the dominant pack animal. We also resist submitting to other humans. We resist by signaling our own power.
We often ignore the true motivation of our actions. Our education system’s true purpose is to train children to focus for long hours on boring tasks. Uneducated children grow up into unschooled adults who don’t show up for work on time and won’t accept assigned tasks that conflict with their perceived status. (Very sensitive to being dissed.)
The “elephant in the brain” in Hanson’s book title is the “introspective taboo” that prevents us from seeing the truth in ourselves about our motives. The true purpose of medical care is as often to signal concern as it is to cure. The true purpose of religion is as often to enhance feelings of community as it is to instill transcendental beliefs.
Reviewer Lanchester says Hanson’s thesis is an important factor, but it attempts to go too far, to explain too much. Our total motivation for a given action is a complex blend of many factors. Overreaching is Hanson’s problem, not the idea, itself.