In fact, your conscious mind is more plausibly a press secretary. You’re not the president or the king or the CEO. You aren’t in charge. You aren’t actually making the decision, the conscious part of your mind at least. You are there to make up a good explanation for what’s going on so that you can avoid the accusation that you’re violating norms.
On February 2, 1685, England’s King Charles II was struck by a sudden illness. Fortunately his physicians were the best of the best. To reassure the public they were kept abreast of the King’s treatment regimen. King Charles was made to swallow a toxic metal; had blistering agents applied to his scalp; had pigeon droppings attached to his feet; was prodded with a red-hot poker; given forty drops of ooze from “the skull of a man that was never buried”; and, finally, had crushed stones from the intestines of an East Indian goat forced down his throat. Sadly, despite these heroic efforts, he passed away the following week.
Why did the doctors go this far?
Prof Robin Hanson – Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University – suspects that on top of any medical beliefs the doctors had a hidden motive: it needed to be clear, to the King and the public, that the physicians cared enormously about saving His Royal Majesty. Only extreme measures could make it undeniable that they had done everything they could.
If you believe Hanson, the same desire to prove we care about our family and friends explains much of what’s perverse about our medical system today.
And not only what’s perverse about medicine – Robin thinks we’re mostly kidding ourselves when we say our charities exist to help others, our schools exist to educate students, and our political expression is about choosing wise policies.
So important are hidden motives for navigating our social world that we have to deny them to ourselves, lest we accidentally reveal them to others.
Robin is a polymath economist, and a font of surprising and novel ideas in a range of fields including psychology, politics and futurology. In this extensive episode we discuss his latest book with Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. We also dive into:
- What was it like being part of a competitor group to the ‘World Wide Web’, but being beaten to the post?
- If people aren’t going to school to learn, what’s education for?
- What split brain patients show about our capacity for self-justification
- Why we choose the friends we do
- What’s puzzling about our attitude to medicine?
- How would it look if people were focused on doing as much good as possible?
- Are we better off donating now, when we’re older, or even after our deaths?
- How much of the behavior of ‘effective altruists’ can we assume is genuinely motivated by wanting to do as much good as possible?
- What does Robin mean when he refers to effective altruism as a youth movement? Is that a good or bad thing?
- Should people make peace with their hidden motives, or remain ignorant of them?
- How might we change policy if we fully understood these hidden motivations?
- Is this view of human nature depressing?
- Could we let betting markets run much of the government?
- Why don’t big ideas for institutional reform get adopted?
- Does history show we’re capable of predicting when new technologies will arise, or what their social impact will be?
- What are the problems with thinking about the future in an abstract way?
- Why has Robin shifted from mainly writing papers, to writing blog posts, to writing books?
- Why are people working in policy reluctant to accept conclusions from psychology?
- How did being publicly denounced by senators help Robin’s career?
- Is contrarianism good or bad?
- The relationship between the quality of an argument and its popularity
- What would Robin like to see effective altruism do differently?
- What has Robin changed his mind about over the last 5 years?
The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.