Our Brains are Socially-Hardwired to Show Off

We are self-deception machines that employ altruism, conversation, and kindness to show off.

Learn about the hardwiring of humans for social and reproductive signalling. In other words, we are programmed to seek out social status.

The elephant in the brain is the colloquial term for the collection of dark, yet obvious, motives of homo sapiens. The Elephant in the brain is also a book written by two psychologists that explores the hidden motives for human behaviour… most of which are about reproduction.

Here’s an example of the elephant in the brain in action:

We like to think we are doing things for others, but really we’re doing things to signal that we are a worthy ally to others.

Studying the elephant has shifted my paradigm on human behavior. It has stopped me from deceiving myself. It has helped me cultivate self-compassion for when I engage in selfish behavior.

In the book, they offer analogies to describe the three segments of our brains: The Rider, the Elephant, and the Path.

  1. The Rider is the conscious mind. It makes slow, thoughtful decisions. It is lazy and depletable. It requires effort to engage.
  2. The Elephant is the unconscious mind. It makes automatic quick decisions. It is where the evolutionary programs live. It is socially and sexually hardwired. Motives under the elephant are often subconscious.
  3. The Path is the environment. It is the choice infrastructure: the external situation that makes some choices hard and some easy. The path ‘nudges’ to make certain decisions. In a really significant way according to behavioural economists. When the path is controlling us, we stick to the default option. We do not opt for another choice.

Another analogy described in the book is the idea of the press secretary. We think we are the president, but really this is our unconscious mind. The press secretary of the president is the conscious mind.

Here are my insights and upgrades from the book.

We, human beings, are a species that’s not only capable of acting on hidden motives — we’re designed to do it.

We are designed to conceal egoism.

  • Appearing egoistic in front of others is damaging. It reduces social trust. So, the elephant hides our egoistic behaviours. It deceives us into thinking we are being altruistic, when really we’re trying to raise our social status.
  • The elephant conceals selfish behaviours with noble ones.

My Application — Look for the selfish motives in others altruistic motives. Be cautious with others’ selfless acts. Not everyone is truly giving without expectation of anything in return.

Social norms exist to punish uncooperative behavior.

  • Following social norms promotes survival. It promotes trustworthiness. Following social norms is a social signal that you’re a part of the group.
  • An example of the protective mechanism of social norms exists with violence. Social ostracization results from harming or betraying another human. The consequence of being isolated is far greater than the potential revenge of the person being harmed.
  • The risk of being ostracized as a result of transgressing a social norm encourages people to behave — it encourages people to not harm others through violence, stealing, cheating, etc.

My application — Carefully select the social norms you wish to transgress. Weigh the risk and reward.

Enlightened self-interests are interests we should aspire to adopt.

  • This is the term that the authors give to pursuits that are selfish, but via altruism and prosociality. A great example is philanthropy or volunteering.

My application — Adopt a service-mindset. Help others become better. Instead of competing, cooperate. Become the resource to which all others rely. This will raise your social status.

Signals are demonstrations that you are worthy of allyship or sex.

Without illustrating your virtues, they are worthless.

  • Signals are outward social behaviours designed to show off your fitness for allyship or reproduction. One example of a signal is our work ethic. It goes up when others are around.
  • Modern day signals involve our digital lives — Facebook and Instagram are just amplifiers of signals. When we share how great we are, more people want to be are friend or have sex with us.

We must accept that status-seeking is hardwired into humanhood.

  • There are two forms of social status: 1. dominance and 2. prestige.
  • Prestige signalling involves showing off expensive things, either financially or energetically. Expensiveness is defined here in terms of resource-intensity. A peacock has a very expensive tail because it is a burden to them.
  • Dominance signalling involves showing off one’s capacity protect one’s position in the social hierarchy, which determines one’s access to reproduction. Dominance is gained through greater capacity for aggressiveness and competitiveness.

In everyday life, there are dozens of signals.

  • Body language: Laughter, eye contact, and physical mirroring are all means to build rapport and gain allyship with others.
  • Conversation: Knowledge sharing is a means to show off how many tools we have in our backpack.
  • Consumption: We show off what we consume to illustrate who we are and how many resources we have.
  • Education: Getting a degree or certificate has less to do with competency than it has to do with displaying credibility.
  • Beauty: We embellish ourselves to show off our reproductive potential and dominance status (for men).

Behaviour Upgrades:

Studying the elephant has led me to lower my expectations on the average human. I don’t want to expect them to be altruistic, because I will be let down.

This book has also given me a framework for having compassion for others selfish pursuits — we are all guilty of misleading others because we mislead ourselves.

In one sentence, if I were to summarize the harsh conclusions of the book:

The elephant is selfish and almost all of its actions are intended to promote survival and allyship with our kin.

For more insights on human connection, facilitation, and community-building, join my lab: https://bit.ly/my-human-connection-lab

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