You've successfully subscribed to Not Overthinking
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to Not Overthinking
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.

Envy and The Elephant in the Brain

Envy and The Elephant in the Brain
This episode is mostly a discussion of Robin Hanson's "The Elephant in the Brain", a book about the 'hidden motives in everyday lives'. We also go on a long tangent about envy, and our personal experience of it over the years.

Some of the highlights from our discussion:

The Elephant in the Brain revolves around the hidden motives in our everyday lives. The author argues that everything we do is for, what he calls, ‘counterfeit reasons’ or hidden motives. He makes the distinction between reasons and motives – reasons being things we say out loud and motives being the hidden agenda and meaning behind the things that we say. The analogy of the elephant in our brain is akin to the elephant in the room – it represents the hidden motives that are always there but crucially we never talk about and which we deceive ourselves into thinking are not there as well.

The author breaks this down in a 4 part thesis:

  • People are judging us all the time and one of the most important parts they are judging are our motives.
  • Because others are judging us, we are eager to look good so we emphasise our pretty motives and downplay our ugly ones.
  • This applies not just to our words but also our thoughts.
  • In some areas of life, especially in polarised ones like politics and religion, we’re quick to point out when other’s motives are more selfish than they claim.

The reasons for doing things are always multifactorial but the principal one is more often than not the hidden motive that we wouldn’t say out loud.

There are two explanations as to why humans have evolved such complex and developed brains. There is the ‘nice’ explanation that we have adapted to band together as a community to face ecological challenges and to cooperate. Then there is the alternative explanation that the reason that our brains are so developed compared to our closest ancestors is that we have had to compete for mates or jockey for social status. Hence, there is the ecological reason that our brains have developed and the social reasons that our brains have developed.

Our brains can rationalise our own behaviour so effortlessly in ways that we aren’t even aware of. The books labels this the Press Secretary – the brain module that is responsible for explaining our actions typically to Third Parties. The bulk of our brain intuitively decides what our moral views on things are, whilst the Press Secretary seeks to provide reasons to justify our actions to others.

Our hidden motives can also be seen in body language, conversation, consumption, religion, charity, politics, education – all these domains where we say one thing but our hidden motives can be completely different.

The ideas around human motives and competition can be linked to the Parable of the Redwoods. Redwood trees are one of the largest species in the world and in forests of redwood trees, each tree is competing against the other to reach the heights to get the sunlight and grow. Thus the redwood, as a species, is locked in an evolutionary arms race, or in this case a height race, with itself. It grows tall because other redwoods are growing tall – if it didn’t throw its’ energy into growing upwards it would wither and die in the shadows of its rivals. A similar analogy can be drawn to humans and how we compete with each other.

Social status can be split up into dominance and prestige. Dominance refers to being able to intimate other people, prestige comes from being impressive as a human specimen. Dominance is the result of competition and it seems on the surface as if prestige is less competitive. However, this couldn't be further from the truth - competition for 'prestige' is a game we are all engaged in within our own arenas of interest.

A big part of happiness and self-esteem comes from seeing yourself as having prestige in the game that you are playing. Ali talks about how he actively tried to diversify his identity to compete in other prestige ‘markets’ after he left school and could no longer identify along the lines of being the best in the class. This led to starting a business and trying to develop multiple streams of passive income.

In relation to envy and prestige, we tend to only feel envious of those who are in the same league as us. We only compare ourselves to those around us and so we only feel envy towards them. These people are invariably are peers or people we associate with which can be damaging socially if we are not reflective on this envious feeling. No-one is looking at Warren Buffet earning £20,000 more per year and getting the same level of envy as they would if one of their peers suddenly got a £20,000 pay rise.

Before meeting a life partner, people tend to engage more in social status seeking activities. But, that said, the human desire to compete for social status amongst our peers means that there will always be some level of social status ‘gaming’ going on – before and after meeting a ‘mate’.

Before meeting a life partner, people tend to engage more in social status seeking activities. But, that said, the human desire to compete for social status amongst our peers means that there will always be some level of social status ‘gaming’ going on – before and after meeting a ‘mate’.

Links:1. The Elephant in the Brain — the book we discuss2. The British Podcast Awards — please go on this link and vote for us, it takes 30 seconds!

This episode is kindly supported by Brilliant, the best way to learn maths, science, and computer science online. Brilliant focuses on helping you learn how to think, rather than just memorising methods and facts. Sign up at — the first 100 people get 20% off an annual subscription.

Become a Not Overthinker

We've got a fun little members-only community where we have a private Slack channel, and host weekly (ish) Zoom hangouts. Click here if you fancy joining.

Leave us a Review

If you enjoy listening to the podcast, we'd love for you to leave us a review on iTunes / Apple Podcasts. Here's a link that works even if you're not on an iPhone :)

Send us an Audio Message

We really want to include more listener comments and questions in our episodes. If you've got any thoughts on this episode, or if you've got a conundrum or question you'd like us to discuss, send an audio file / voice note to