On April 23, a 25-year-old man named Alek Minassian killed ten people with a van in downtown Toronto. Although his tactics resembled those used in recent, high-profile jihadist attacks, Minassian dedicated his terrorism not to the black flag of ISIS but to the message board 4chan and the “Incel Rebellion,” an imaginary uprising of involuntary celibates, or “incels” —members of an online subculture based around a shared inability to find willing sexual partners. The incels see this as a form of persecution: They are denied access to something, sex, that most people take for granted. Since most of them are straight men, their abstract rage at society for this persecution tends to boil down to rage at women, who are doing the alleged persecuting.
It’s hard to find a less sympathetic villain than the incel. He is, in the public imagination at least, a sexless Morlock combining the most frightening aspects of “toxic” masculinity with the sort of whiny impotence that would drive a saint to contempt. So when Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University and noted eccentric, offered the incels a little sympathy, it didn’t go over well. In a blog post written three days after the Toronto attack, Hanson asked why so many people who professed their commitment to economic equality seemed so dismissive of the incels’ demand for sexual equality. After all, an inability to get laid might sting just as much as a low income. Labor unions had, in the past, at least implicitly threatened violence in order to bargain for more money, and sex, like wealth, “could be directly redistributed.” Hanson, a libertarian, was of course opposed to such redistribution, but he couldn’t help but wonder: Are incels really so different from unions?
The question was a provocation, and the internet responded accordingly, accusing Hanson of promoting a host of garish schemes for government-sponsored rape. Even those who acknowledged that “sex redistribution” was merely a hypothetical found something creepy, almost Strangelovean, about it, conjuring as it did images of a Handmaid’s Tale–style arrangement in which women were passed out against their will to unappealing men. Hanson later tried to clarify that by “redistribution” he meant non-coercive measures, such as encouraging monogamy or giving men money to purchase sex, but this did little to quell the anger. Beyond gut-level revulsion, however, it was hard to explain exactly why Hanson’s economic analogy was so inapt. Some said that while poverty struck people for all sorts of reasons outside of their control, an inability to get laid was a personal failure on the part of the incels. But there’s no reason why the factors that make a person unfuckable should be any less arbitrary than those that make a person poor — even a deeply unpleasant personality may be a product of an inherited mental disorder, and the preferences of others are shaped by social forces no less vast than those that structure the economy. More convincingly, some claimed that something as deeply personal and intimate as sex should not be thought of as a resource at all, rendering discussions of its distribution or redistribution inappropriate. But here, too, we often accept ideas similar to Hanson’s provided they are presented in a less threatening context. Sex is at least sometimes treated as a resource —otherwise, no one would ever buy or sell it — and anthropologists do occasionally look at the distribution of wives within a society as one among many indices of status inequality.
Of course, humans don’t usually consider things in perfectly formal terms. As Michael Scott famously lamented, superficially equivalent statements take on radically different meanings based on social context. Who is the speaker and how do they relate to me? What tribe do they belong to? Who are they speaking to, and about, and how do those people relate to me? Are they joking? Threatening? Blowing off steam? A great deal of this calculation will be unconscious, initially leaving us, in the case of a hostile reaction, with little more than an acute sense that the stupid person did a bad thing. Reasons come later. And my guess is that something similar explains the response to Hanson: Everyone looked at the incels and saw these creepy white nerds out there killing people over some weird sex thing and thought, That’s terrible, and then here comes Hanson— also white, definitely a nerd, at least marginally creepy — and instead of saying like a normal person, Hey, we gotta do something about this nerd menace, this aggression will not stand, he starts in with a whole routine about how, Well, people use violence all the time and, you know, maybe their weird sex thing isn’t all that weird, and, uh, I know you people like unions, so just think of the nerds like a union, but instead of dental they want to fuck you or your daughter, and really, is that so wrong? Of course people saw that and thought, My God! He’s one of them!
Ironically, the suite of unconscious social calculations that led many to peg Hanson as an incel sympathizer is one of the major themes of Hanson’s most recent book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, co-authored with his former student Kevin Simler. Published last December, The Elephant in the Brain is, narrowly, a study of how humans are evolved to deceive themselves in order to pursue their self-interest with a clean conscience; more broadly, it’s an argument that the purpose of most of our behavior is to broadcast social signals to others while interpreting the signals they broadcast to us, and that this purpose is usually hidden from our conscious minds. At a time when accusations of “bad faith” and “virtue signaling” have become rampant on the internet, indicating a belief that our antagonists are not merely wrong but cynical and dishonest as well, the book offers a welcome reminder that much if not most of the time, we’re just honestly deluded.
The Elephant in the Brain is built on a hodgepodge of different disciplines, but its main argument rests on two key concepts from biology: signaling and self-deception. A signal, in evolutionary biology, is “anything used to communicate or convey information” between organisms, and can be anything from a physical trait to a behavior to literal communication. A male peacock’s tail signals genetic quality to the female, and a dog putting its head down, raising its rear end, and extending its front legs signals that it wants to play. Hanson’s own blog, Overcoming Bias, has done a lot to popularize the concept as it applies to humans, and he and Simler believe that signaling can account for a great deal of our behavior. Wearing a certain item of clothing may signal your wealth, taste, or subcultural affiliation, while repeatedly mentioning that you’re a big fan of Tarkovsky might signal your intelligence or, inadvertently, your pretension and lack of social grace. Conspicuously affiliating yourself with some noble cause can be a way of signaling moral virtue, hence the derogatory term “virtue signaling.” Hanson and Simler’s notion of signaling in humans draws heavily on evolutionary psychology, which some may be inclined to dismiss thanks to the discipline’s reputation for wild speculation and at-times sloppy research practices. But signaling is well established among animals, including primates, so it’s almost definitely something people do as well, even if the details are up for debate.
Hanson and Simler believe that we are usually unconscious of our signaling motives, which we cover up with plausible-sounding rationalizations that put a more admirable gloss on our behavior — I laugh at the boss’s jokes because they’re funny, not because it’s in my interest for her to like me. Borrowing from the biologist Robert Trivers, they argue that this is because we have actually evolved to deceive ourselves in order to deceive others. Since we are social creatures whose ability to survive and reproduce depends heavily on others’ willingness to cooperate with us, we need to signal that we possess prosocial traits like honesty while concealing antisocial ones like selfishness. And because our brains are built to be constantly evaluating other people’s motives, lying tends to be hard: it’s mentally taxing and carries with it the threat of detection and punishment. If I believe my own motivations are altruistic, however, I’m more likely to convincingly signal my altruism to others, making it easier for me to form alliances, climb the social ladder, and pass on copies of my genes. A less deluded competitor will have to consciously dissemble in order to cover up his own selfish motives, and is therefore more likely to be reviled as a liar and shunted into genetic oblivion. As Hanson and Simler write, “Our brains are built to act in our self-interest while at the same time trying hard not to appear selfish in front of other people. And in order to keep them off the trail, our brains often throw ‘us,’ our conscious minds, in the dark.” This works because, according to the psychologist Timothy Wilson, our brains are split into an “adaptive unconscious,” which processes information more or less honestly and makes decisions in our own self-interest, and a conscious mind, which invents reasons for the behavior that we can then offer to others.
The first half of The Elephant in the Brain is spent establishing and elaborating this evolutionary logic, which explains why humans construct elaborate rationalizations for our signaling behavior and why we are so apt to believe them. In the second half, Hanson and Simler apply their signaling/self-deception lens to the real world, attempting to uncover our hidden motives in domains such as art, education, politics, and religion, as well as microsocial interactions like conversation, laughter, and body language. The basic point is that in each of these areas, there’s a big and demonstrable gap between what we think we’re doing and what we’re actually doing. Donors to charity, for instance, may believe that they are helping other people, yet most of them show little interest in whether their donations actually benefit anyone, leading the authors to speculate that charity is mostly about signaling the donor’s generosity and compassion. In politics, people may believe they care about specific policies or making the world a better place, but are generally bored by policy detail and ignore accurate information that challenges their worldview. This is because politics, according to the authors, is mostly an exercise in signaling loyalty to “our side” — allies with whom we have an established cooperative relationship, which can differ based on context, but in the political realm tends to be our party or cultural tribe. And art, in their view, is a sort of elaborate status ritual: “from an evolutionary point of view, the fundamental challenge facing artists is to demonstrate their fitness by making something that lower-fitness competitors could not make, thus proving themselves more socially and sexually attractive.”
This second part of the book is interesting, occasionally enlightening, and sometimes a little slapdash — while the evidence for signaling and self-deception offered in Part I is convincing enough, the empirical applications in Part II are a little shakier, at times relying heavily on social psychology priming studies (which have been hit hard by the replication crisis) and in particular the research of Vladas Griskevicius, whose work has been singled out as “bogus” by the statistician Andrew Gelman, thanks to wildly implausible findings like that ovulation led to a 17 percent jump in support for Mitt Romney among women in relationships (this study, thankfully, is not cited in the book). Hanson and Simler aren’t overly concerned with getting every detail right — they admit that they “expect most readers to buy only 70 percent of what we’re selling” and hope only to convince people that “hidden motives are common and important.” Although they clear that rather low bar, their admission isn’t a particularly reassuring signal to readers suspicious that evo-psych is prone to sweeping yet poorly supported statements about human nature, or that it’s a stalking-horse for political reaction (among other things, they dismiss most medical spending as useless, implying that it could be cut drastically). And in some places, Hanson and Simler’s explanations do resemble the “just-so stories” for which evo-psych is often criticized — plausible-sounding theories that make sense and fit the data but lack hard evidence. They suggest, for example, that voting “functions as a display of loyalty to the nation” for which we earn “patriotism points,” but their only evidence is that U.S. polling stations hand out “I Voted” stickers.
Hanson and Simler argue that much of the signaling they describe is a waste of time and effort: “Under the feel-good veneer of win-win cooperation,” they write, “our institutions harbor giant, silent furnaces of intra-group competitive signaling, where trillions of dollars of wealth, resources, and human effort are being shoveled in and burned to ash every year, largely for the purpose of showing off.” Their proposals to cut such waste, however, tend to be depressingly utilitarian: If art is mostly about letting a few guys in turtlenecks sleep with gallery assistants, and education is mostly about ostentatious displays of intelligence, we might as well cut funding for the arts and humanities and herd all the precocious children into useful fields, like engineering and poultry science. A more cynical reviewer might suggest that it’s in the self-interest of slightly nerdy economists to demonstrate that artists, musicians, and writers — who possess a cultural cachet economists tend to lack — are engaged in a status game only marginally more dignified than chimpanzees bludgeoning one another to death over a mate, but I look for the best in people.
Outside of the policy prescriptions, most of the information contained in The Elephant in the Brain can be read more or less apolitically. Signaling and self-deception seem real and widespread, although anyone acknowledging that should be careful to remember that they are just as present in one’s own behavior as in that of others. Moreover, there may in fact be something humanizing in the recognition that when you see a rival spouting some ludicrous idea that conveniently benefits them, they probably believe it themselves, or that when you or your tribe are angry at somebody, that anger has less to do with what that person said and more to do with what they seemed to signal by saying it. This won’t always be reassuring —an evil person who sincerely believes they’re good is the most dangerous kind, and sometimes the motive a person is signaling is more nefarious than what they’d explicitly admit to. But it may at least be a step toward clarity, and away from deceiving ourselves.