Robin is one of the most original thinkers of our time. I’ll borrow a description from Bryan Caplan, who I think described him best:
When the typical economist tells me about his latest research, my standard reaction is “Eh, maybe.” Then I forget about it. When Robin Hanson tells me about his latest research, my standard reaction is “No way! Impossible!” Then I think about it for years.
Some time ago, Robin thought he had uncovered some ways to make the world a better place. He expected people to either agree or disagree. Instead he got indifference. How could that be? Does nobody care?
This led Robin to becoming an economist and, eventually, an answer: we aren’t motivated the way we say we are or think we should be. We do care, we just care more about other stuff. Stuff we don’t talk about. Those hidden motives are the subject of Robin’s new book (authored with Kevin Simler), The Elephant in the Brain.
From our conversation, some favorite excepts of mine:
Robin Hanson: Human behavior is consistently well adapted to its ancient environment. We are intelligent and clever about why we’re doing things. But then we have these conscious thoughts. We think we have a plan and follow that plan. But we mostly make conscious rationalizations for things we do. Most of the elephant in the brain is at this conscious level. The level of the reasons we tell ourselves we are doing this. And those reasons are just wrong compared to the reasons we actually have.
We are actually good at following the actual reasons we have, but the disconnect is when we try to explain it.
Robin Hanson: Once farming became possible, it was only possible because of human cultural plasticity. If we had just kept the same sort of norms and behaviors we had as foragers we would still be acting a lot like animals.
With our cultural plasticity we could create new norms. There was a new set of behavior that was the right behavior and a new set of things that were the wrong sort of norm violating behavior. It took a while but the farming world was able to come up with a whole new set of norms and values and enforce those and that allowed us to live and work in a very different world. Intead of wandering around we stayed in one place. Instead of egalitarianly sharing we had property and inequality. Instead of intermittent violence and mostly peace we had war and a lot of it. And we had so many things that were different than what foragers did.
Robin Hanson: Lately wealth has been dramatically increasing per person and that’s the other big trend over the last few centuries and that’s been causing most of the cultural trends you see. So humans are primed to act differently when they’re rich than when they’re poor. That’s an explantion for why we have increased leisure, art, travel, decreased violence, increased democracy, decreased fertility, decreased religion.
David Wright: Is it the case that foragers, then, are in some ways wealthy?
Robin Hanson: Anthropologists called them the original affluent society. They’re affluent in some ways but not others. They don’t have a lot of material wealth but they have a lot of friendship, play, dance, music. They’re living in a world where when they do something that feels right it roughly works.
…We’re being rich like that in our leisure time but at work we’re hyper farmers.