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.

Highlights

So it’s not just that we are ignorant about education and about medicine, we are surprisingly ignorant. I have to say it’s really surprising that incoming college students who pick a major hardly know anything about what happens to people with that major. How often do they get jobs, where the jobs are, how many hours a week do those work. Amazingly enough, people choose majors and career plans without knowing even the basics of what will be the consequences of that, which is suspicious because they know an awful lot about, say, their dorm and where they are living and which meal plan they’re having. I mean it’s not like they don’t get information about anything.

Pretty much every choice you make on some parameter, there will be your personal optimum and it won’t be the social optimum, and you should just shave it in the direction of the social optimum. And so the main thing you need to do is just be able to know which direction is the social optimum for all the parameters of choice that you make. Now, it helps to be an economist to be able to figure that out, but if people are interested I think we could teach them a couple-day course where they would be able to apply this all over the place.

One standard example is being nice and being generous, having gratitude, having a positive attitude. All these things seem to be useful for the world on average. Just be a little bit nicer to everybody you interact with. You already have some reason to be nice – reputation and not wanting to feel like a jerk – just be a little bit nicer, right? Smile a little bit more, take a little more of a moment to look them in the eye and then be friendly. And this isn’t an original thing for me. I mean there are many people who over the centuries have said, “A way to help the world is just to be a little bit nicer in each of your interactions.” And that’s basically what I’m saying, just be a little bit nicer in every little thing you do.

It’s not enough just to convince you that this is an effective charity, you need to convince the people you’re trying to impress that it’s an effective charity so that you will want to impress them this way. A problem with that of course is often that you will create the impression that you feel you’re holier than thou and other people may then criticize you for that. So when you try to tell everybody that this is the most effective thing, are you creating the impression that the people who think they’re doing this think they’re better than everybody else? And then that puts a bad taste in people’s mouth and they might want to actually step away from that.

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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