Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
What’s it about?
We human beings are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives~ we’re designed to do it. The book highlights the fact that humans have hidden motives, which we hide even from our selves. We have many reasons for our behaviour, but we habitually accentuate and exaggerate our pretty, prosocial motives and down play the ugly and selfishness.
The authors illustrates with the following examples as to how we effectively rationalise our behaviour, by telling half truth, by cherry picking our most acceptable, prosocial reasons while concealing our ulterior motives. For instance ~
- Parents often enforce kid’s early bedtime “for their own good”, when a self serving motive seems just as likely~ that parents simply want an hour or two of peace and quiet without the kids. Though most parents genuinely believe that early bedtimes are good for their children, but the belief is self serving.
- Minor issues are often exaggerated to avoid unwanted social encounters “I’m not feeling well today” as an excuse not to go to work may only have half a grain of truth, and meanwhile other reasons (“I simply don’t want to”) are conveniently omitted.
There are many such wide-ranging, covering many fields and current events, and offering many concrete relatable examples which challenges how you think about yourself and how you see the world by shining a light on things people would rather stay hidden.
The Key Ideas
- Human behaviour is often driven by multiple motives. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as humans are complex creatures. But more importantly what they are suggesting is that some of these motives are unconscious.
- Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains, therefore, are designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to help us get ahead socially, often via deception and self-deception. But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. While most of the time we are trying to maximise social status~ we are quite skilful and strategic in pursuing our self~interest without explicitly acknowledging it, even to ourself
- Our brains are designed to act in our self~interest while at the same time trying not to act selfish in front of others. And in order to throw them off the trail, our brain often keeps “us” our conscious mind, in the dark
- Self~deception is therefore strategic, a ploy our brain uses to look good while behaving badly.
- We are competitive social animal fighting for power, status, and sex. The fact that we are sometimes willing to lie and cheat and go ahead, the fact that we hide some of our motives~ and that we do in order to mislead others.
The Elephant is used as a metaphor. The elephant~ whether in a room or in our brain~simply stands there, out in the open, and can easily be seen if only we steel ourself to look in its direction.
The aim of this book, then, is to confront our hidden motives directly – to track down the darker, unexamined corners of our psyches and blast them with floodlights. Then, once everything is clearly visible, we can work to better understand ourselves: Why do we laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do we brag about travel? Why do we prefer to speak rather than listen? Our unconscious motives drive more than just our private behavior; they also infect our venerated social institutions such as Art, School, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion. In fact, these institutions are in many ways designed to accommodate our hidden motives, to serve covert agendas alongside their “official” ones.
So my take away from the book is that it is useful to understand the motives of our fellow humans~but that is not all~ we often misunderstand our own motives. We have a gaping blind spot at the very centre of our introspective vision. Above all recognising this teaches us humility. It calls for a more thoughtful interaction with our fellow self~deceivers.