In recent years the term “virtual signalling” has entered the public lexicon. Although the expression’s original use within signalling theory was purely descriptive, it is now almost always used pejoratively. Virtue signalling in this sense is something that other people do—a conspicuous display of moral virtue designed to enhance the person’s status within a particular social group. Virtue signallers do not really care about human rights, Palestine, the environment, or whatever. They care about themselves, and publicly displaying allegiance to specific causes is a way of getting ahead socially.
So described, virtue signalling is repugnant. Not because it is self-interested—or at least not just because it is self-interested. Plenty of human behaviour is self-interested. It is repugnant because it exploits the appearance of altruistic motives for selfish ends.
Nevertheless, you might wonder how widespread this kind of virtue signalling is. Sure, some people act in this ugly way. But, for the most part, don’t people really care about doing the right thing for the right reasons?
According to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s beautifully cynical new book, “Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life,” the answer to this question is an emphatic no. The central thesis they defend is that the basic interaction between selfishness and deception exhibited in virtue signalling is one of the deepest and most consequential features of human psychology, infecting the core design of the human mind.
In short, they claim that human beings have evolved to be selfish bullshit artists, continually engaging in ruthless forms of social competition—for social status, desirable sexual partners, useful alliances, and so on—whilst continually confabulating prosocial explanations of their motives. Importantly, these confabulations are not “lies” in any ordinary sense of that term. For the most part, we—the conscious part of our minds—genuinely believe these confabulations. Why? Because self-deception is an effective mechanism of social manipulation—of interpersonal deception. We act selfishly, pretend otherwise, and then actively believe this pretence because it better persuades other people that we are not selfish. In the words of the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, “We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others.”
The book has two main parts. The first part presents an impressively cynical portrait of human nature drawn mostly from research in evolutionary psychology. The second part consists of ten concrete real-world examples that are supposed to vindicate Simler and Hanson’s thesis.
I will return to the evolutionary story shortly. First, however, some examples.
Why do people get involved in politics—not politicians, but average people who participate in the democratic process? Here’s one answer: people are conscientious do-gooders. They care deeply about things like justice, fairness, equality, or whatever particular ideals they hold dear. Engaging in politics—casting votes, going to political demonstrations, tweeting impassioned take-downs of Donald Trump, and so on—helps to rectify wrongs and improve the state of society.
Simler and Hanson are having none of it. The do-gooder story, they argue, explains none of the data: people are remarkably apathetic about the concrete practical details of policies, focus almost exclusively (and very loudly) on big-banner values and ideals, almost never change their minds, and process information in extremely biased ways—much more so than they would if they genuinely cared about the outcomes they claim to care about. The explanation? Politics is not about doing the right thing; it is about very publicly being seen to be doing the right thing by the right people—in most cases, our respective tribes. Politics in this sense is primarily a mechanism for signalling loyalty in order to get ahead socially and form and solidify useful alliances.
For another example, consider charity. Why do people give money away? Again, here’s one answer: they care deeply about making the world a better place. Giving money away is a means of doing that.
As before, however, this story struggles to account for lots of basic data: people don’t much care about the effectiveness of charities, most of the money they give is to causes that could not possibly be defended on ethical grounds, and truly anonymous donations are extremely rare, to take just a few examples. The explanation? Once more, Simler and Hanson appeal to signalling: we give to charity not to do good, but to be seen to be doing good and thereby signal traits to others in a way that make our lives go better. Charity is a kind of “conspicuous compassion”:
“we’re motivated to appear generous, not simply to be generous, because we get social rewards only for what others notice. In other words, charity is an advertisement, a way of showing off” (Simler and Hanson 2018, p.217).
These are just two examples. The book contains eight more, including chapters on religion, consumption, education, and body language, which I found especially interesting. Each of the chapters illustrates the basic claim that we are systematically and suspiciously wrong about our real motives—that there is a deep mismatch between the largely unconscious motives on which we really act and the conscious motives on which we say and often genuinely believe we act.
I found about 50-75% of this part of the book plausible. Much of it is familiar, some of it almost commonsense, and some of it doesn’t seem very plausible at all. (For example, I think that they assign too little importance to plain old human stupidity and suboptimality when it comes to accounting for many of the “puzzles” they identify). Nevertheless, I still enjoyed it immensely. It is useful to have a book that presents a maximally cynical explanation of almost all significant areas of human behaviour. Further, even when some of their explanations are almost commonsense, they are right that it is a kind of commonsense that is very rarely expressed in polite society and–when it is expressed–too often expressed just to explain the behaviour of others.
As such, I highly recommend it.
What about the first part of the book—the story of the human mind derived largely from evolutionary psychology that is supposed to make the combination of selfishness, social competition, signalling, and self-deception central to the real-world examples that Simler and Hanson describe plausible?
Roughly, here is how that story goes.
First, Simler and Hanson point out that human beings—like other primates—are competitive social animals. Although we cooperate in complex and impressive ways, we also compete in zero sum games for access to things like social status, desirable sexual partners, and useful alliances. Indeed, they suggest (as per the “social brain hypothesis”) that this intraspecies competition was one of the chief mechanisms behind the evolution of the peculiar human brain.
Second, they note that human beings evolved social norms and uniquely powerful mechanisms of norm enforcement—weapons, language, gossip, and so on—to quash the worst excesses of these competitive instincts and thereby ensure that human communities do not continually unravel from suboptimal prisoners-dilemma-like situations. For example, there are strong norms against selfishness and forms of social competition such as bragging, currying favour with high status individuals, and so on.
Third, it is generally in an individual’s interest to ensure that other people adhere to these norms whilst he or she skirts them. As such, in addition to our brilliance at norm enforcement, we have evolved to become experts at skilfully transgressing the very norms we enforce—at cheating and getting away with it. (Just think of the many skilful ways that people find of covertly bragging : humble bragging, getting others to brag for them, and so on.)
We employ many such strategies to skirt norms that punish selfishness and social competition but—according to Simler and Hanson (drawing principally on the work of Robert Trivers)—one of the most important is self-deception.
Deception is a ubiquitous feature of nature. Animals play dead to dissuade predators, evolve eye spots to trick other animals into believing they’re being watched, display a visual appearance that mimics poisonous animals, and so on. Humans are plausibly unique, however, in our proclivity for prolific levels of self-deception. We engage in wishful thinking, repress painful memories, create post hoc rationalisations of our behaviour, and exhibit an impressive motley of ego-defence mechanisms. Why?
According to Simler and Hanson, the function of self-deception is social: self-deception is self-serving, helping us to present a maximally attractive version of ourselves to other people. This can take many forms but an especially powerful one is our continual efforts to explain our behaviour in a way that is designed to maximize social rewards. Drawing on thinkers like Dan Dennett and Jonathan Haidt, Simler and Hanson suggest that the conscious mind is in this sense better thought of as a press secretary than a president: our principal role—the conscious “self”—is to broadcast a maximally flattering portrayal of our behaviour relative to the norms that prevail in our local social context.
We are the Sarah Huckabee Sanders of our brains.
How plausible is this?
I’m not sure, really. The idea that people often act as the functional equivalent of a press secretary for actions that have patently ignoble motives is—to my mind—almost comically compelling, as is the more general observation that much of our behaviour is exquisitely sensitive to social rewards. What I am less sure about is the theoretical context of evolutionary psychology that Simler and Hanson set this observation in—a context of evolved “modules” and very specific genetic adaptations.
I’m more sympathetic to this research programme than most people I know. (That’s probably because I’m in the humanities, where most people regard evolutionary psychology as a right-wing patriarchal conspiracy). Nevertheless, I wonder whether many of the psychological phenomena that Simler and Hanson (as well as Trivers) attribute to genetic adaptations might be better explained as by-products of a more general kind of social motivation and sensitivity to social rewards in human beings, which themselves evolved for other (perhaps more cooperative) reasons.
Be that as it may, I still found this part of the book well-written and compelling in many parts, and I highly recommend it.