[T]here’s a very real sense in which we are the Press Secretaries within our minds. In other words, the parts of the mind that we identify with, the parts we think of as our conscious selves (“I,” “myself,” “my conscious ego”), are the ones responsible for strategically spinning the truth for an external audience. […]

Body language also facilitates discretion by being less quotable to third parties, relative to spoken language. If Peter had explicitly told a colleague, “I want to get Jim fired,” the colleague could easily turn around and relay Peter’s agenda to others in the office. Similarly, if Peter had asked his flirting partner out for a drink, word might get back to his wife—in which case, bad news for Peter. […]

[S]peaking functions in part as an act of showing off. Speakers strive to impress their audience by consistently delivering impressive remarks. This explains how speakers foot the bill for the costs of speaking we discussed earlier: they’re compensated not in-kind, by receiving information reciprocally, but rather by raising their social value in the eyes (and ears) of their listeners. […]

Participants evaluate each other not just as trading partners, but also as potential allies. Speakers are eager to impress listeners by saying new and useful things, but the facts themselves can be secondary. Instead, it’s more important for speakers to demonstrate that they have abilities that are attractive in an ally. […]

But why do speakers need to be relevant in conversation? If speakers deliver high-quality information, why should listeners care whether the information is related to the current topic? A plausible answer is that it’s simply too easy to rattle off memorized trivia. You can recite random facts from the encyclopedia until you’re blue in the face, but that does little to advertise your generic facility with information. Similarly, when you meet someone for the first time, you’re more eager to sniff each other out for this generic skill, rather than to exchange the most important information each of you has gathered to this point in your lives. In other words, listeners generally prefer speakers who can impress them wherever a conversation happens to lead, rather than speakers who steer conversations to specific topics where they already know what to say. […]

In fact, patients show surprisingly little interest in private information on medical quality. For example, patients who would soon undergo a dangerous surgery (with a few percent chance of death) were offered private information on the (risk-adjusted) rates at which patients died from that surgery with individual surgeons and hospitals in their area. These rates were large and varied by a factor of three. However, only 8 percent of these patients were willing to spend even $50 to learn these death rates. Similarly, when the government published risk-adjusted hospital death rates between 1986 and 1992, hospitals with twice the risk-adjusted death rates saw their admissions fall by only 0.8 percent. In contrast, a single high-profile news story about an untoward death at a hospital resulted in a 9 percent drop in patient admissions at that hospital. […]

When John F. Kennedy described the space race with his famous speech in 1962, he dressed up the nation’s ambition in a suitably prosocial motive. “We set sail on this new sea,” he told the crowd, “because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” Everyone, of course, knew the subtext: “We need to beat the Russians!” In the end, our motives were less important than what we managed to achieve by them. We may be competitive social animals, self-interested and self-deceived, but we cooperated our way to the god-damned moon.

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain, 2017

Added to diary 26 June 2018