An Interview With Kevin Simler And Dr. Robin Hanson

We are guided by forces beyond the obvious, and these come from the elephant in the brain, which is the selfish undertone behind what we do. This concept  is explored in detail by Kevin Simler and Dr. Robin Hanson in their book titled The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

The book is broken into two parts, with one being about why our motives are hidden, and the second part being about how these hidden motives show up in everyday life. The key part of the second half is that it catalogs the undertones in various fields of life, like the educational system, use of body language, application of charity, and social laughter. I find the authors of this book to be very fitting to my style of reading and writing, and this made the book flow very well for me.

Author Kevin Simler has degrees in philosophy and computer science from UC Berkeley, and had started a PhD program in computational linguistics at MIT before joining Palantir Technologies as an engineer, engineering manager, and product designer. He believes in reduced sense of identity, allowing for open criticism of all aspects of a concept, and the values of writing to complement thought.

Author Dr. Robin Hanson is associate professor of economics at George Mason University and research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. He has done research in the fields of artificial intelligence, Bayesian statistics, and hypertext publishing. He has proposed alternative institutions to those that currently exist, supports rational discourse, and embraces upcoming technologies.

Here is my interview with both authors on topics of interest from concepts in The Elephant in the Brain:

Armen: If people look to the boss or leader as to when to end the meeting, does ending a meeting of your own accord edge you toward becoming/being the leading person in a situation?

Kevin Simler: Probably not. In general, I like treat these kinds of social situations as “not gameable,” meaning that there are no easy ways to get a better outcome for yourself. (Because if there were, everyone would already be doing it.) In the specific case of ending a meeting, if you move to end it but everyone else decides to stay, you risk looking inept. Unless you’re actually the kind of person others are prepared to follow, you won’t be able to lead.

That said, if you can consistently read the room and know when it’s a good time to end the meeting (i.e., when other people will want to follow), you may be able to edge yourself toward becoming the leader. But in that case, it’s because you have a real skill (reading the room) that’s valuable to potential followers. In other words, it’s not a free lunch.

Armen: Are our hidden motives becoming more known year by year, as technology unearths each of the things that makes us who we are, and why we do what we do? Will there be a progression of revealing up until artificial intelligence matches our level of intelligence?

Robin Hanson: Sometimes tech makes things more visible that were hidden. For example, we’ll probably have automatic ways to read facial expressions soon. That will make it harder to deny the messages we communicate via this channel. But we will adapt our habits to new tech, and after our adaptations we will probably still succeed in hiding many of our motives.

Armen: Since putting out loud and frequent mating calls is an honest signal that is differentially expensive, is someone who has situational and experiential leverage for making such mating calls better off making as many as they can?

Kevin Simler: It’s very hard to say, because it depends on what the exact risks and rewards are. Since an honest signal (like a mating call) usually costs something to produce, you have to weigh that cost against the expected benefits. And when you keep doing any given thing, you also run up against the law of diminishing marginal returns. It’s rare to see someone doing “as many as they can” of anything. But of course, the less it costs to do something like a mating call (because of leverage or otherwise), the more we should expect people to do it.

Armen: With all the teams in society, like political groupings, religious groupings, or sports team supporters, does that make it very easy to manipulate them by pandering to their people in a micro context?

Robin Hanson: No, manipulation is in general hard and expensive because so many people and groups compete to manipulate. As their desired manipulations often seek contrary ends, they can’t all succeed.

Armen: I once mentioned on a YouTube interview that I’m not about “the thing”, and the book expresses why, as “the thing” is almost never what it is presented to be about(education/healthcare/festivities/etc). Have you found that it is best to go with the flow(or avoid the flow) publicly, and then work your own way on your own?

Kevin Simler: As a personal matter, yes, I generally feel that it’s better to go with the flow and not question “the thing” in a public way. This is largely a function of my own personality and the social niche I like to fill. I’m a pretty congenial person and don’t enjoy ruffling feathers, and when I express skepticism about “the thing” it often ruins the mood (for no tangible benefit, as far as I can see). But that’s just me. I’m friends with a good many prickly contrarians who like to voice their skepticism loudly and proudly, and I quite like their company. So there’s definitely a niche for the people who poke holes in the polite fictions that everyone else blithely accepts.

Armen: If someone doesn’t play the “laughter game” by laughing when the average person would do so to seem docile or calm, will they always be looked at as dangerous and unlikable? Is it only a minority of people who are able to mutually bypass these lower level visceral response patterns?

Robin Hanson: If you won’t laugh naturally with people, you suggest to them that either you don’t feel safe around them, that you care too little about them to be willing to bother showing them much of anything, or that you see them as so far beneath you that you’d lower your status by interacting with them on any roughly equal level.

Armen: In the same way that our minds are modular, with many systems coming together to make decisions, are each of us part of a larger modular system when combined with everyone else on the planet?

Kevin Simler: Absolutely. We aren’t just mixed up together into a big undifferentiated “human soup.” We silo ourselves into communities, companies, teams, professions, industries, states, etc., each of which is a little module that pursues its own agenda alongside all other modules.

A related question is, “Just how *much* agency do we have as a big planet-wide superorganism?” In the brain, there are a lot of smaller modules, but the system as a whole also manages to act in a very purposeful way (e.g., pursuing and achieving goals). It seems to me that humanity as a whole does very little in the way of cooperating at global scales and pursuing coherent goals. It’s only when you get down to the next level of organization — individual countries and/or coalitions like the EU — that agency really becomes sharp and focused.

Armen: One large issue that I see in public commentary is that individuals don’t provide fleshed out alternatives of the way something currently is, because of the effort involved. You have come up with alternatives to popular institutions – what gave you the impetus to come up with these? Is it just a select few that have the energy to come up with another way to do things?

Robin Hanson: For any kind of task, we should expect to see variations that take small effort much more often than we see variations that take a lot more effort. I’m weird and unusual, which in part explains why I do weird and unusual things.

Armen: Can someone else’s conspicuous consumption be looked at as a form of weakness on their end, as it shows their desire to make up for lack within by presenting external representations of success?

Kevin Simler: I suppose one could look at it that way, but that’s not how I choose to look at it. I think conspicuous consumption is often a necessary strategy for getting along and getting ahead in the world. Moreover, I think most of us are conspicuous consumers, one way or another. That said, of course there are some people who are all flash, no substance. They’re not my favorite kind of people, and when I’m choosing my own friends, I try to avoid them.

Armen: In the same way that you like “viewquakes” that shake up your view, I am built for times of change that fit into a punctuated equilibrium model. Does some of your desire for things that challenge your worldview come from a feeling of dormancy when things seem too comfortable or “known”?

Robin Hanson: The information value of any news is proportional to its scope, and inverse to the initial probability you would have assigned to that news. So surprising results of wide scope have a lot of information value. That is one obvious reason to like viewquakes. But of course there could be other reasons, such as a desire to see changes to the current world order.

Appreciations to both authors for taking part. For Kevin, you can check out his Chrome productivity app Intent, follow him on Twitter at @kevinsimler, or read his essays on his site Melting Asphalt. For Robin, you can check out his blog Overcoming Bias, his Twitter @robinhanson, or look at his information on alternative institutions. You can also get The Elephant in the Brain on Amazon.

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