80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

#25 - Prof Robin Hanson on why we have to lie to ourselves about why we do what we do

80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

On February 2, 1685, England’s King Charles II was struck by a sudden illness. Fortunately his physicians were the best of the best. To reassure the public they kept them abreast of the King’s treatment regimen. King Charles was made to swallow a toxic metal; had blistering agents applied to his scalp; had pigeon droppings attached to his feet; was prodded with a red-hot poker; given forty drops of ooze from “the skull of a man that was never buried”; and, finally, had crushed stones from the intestines of an East Indian goat forced down his throat. Sadly, despite these heroic efforts, he passed away the following week.

Why did the doctors go this far?

Prof, Robin Hanson, Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University suspects that on top of any medical beliefs they also had a hidden motive: it needed to be clear, to the king and the public, that the physicians cared enormously about saving His Royal Majesty. Only by going ‘all out’ would they be protected against accusations of negligence should the King die.

Full transcript, summary, and links to articles discussed in the show.

If you believe Hanson, the same desire to be seen to care about our family and friends explains much of what’s perverse about our medical system today.

And not just medicine - Robin thinks we’re mostly kidding ourselves when we say our charities exist to help others, our schools exist to educate students and our politics are about choosing wise policies.

So important are hidden motives for navigating our social world that we have to deny them to ourselves, lest we accidentally reveal them to others.

Robin is a polymath economist, who has come up with surprising and novel insight in a range of fields including psychology, politics and futurology. In this extensive episode we discuss his latest book with Kevin Simler, *The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life*, but also:

* What was it like being part of a competitor group to the ‘World Wide Web’, and being beaten to the post?
* If people aren’t going to school to learn, what’s education all about?
* What split brain patients tell us about our ability to justify anything
* The hidden motivations that shape religions
* Why we choose the friends we do
* Why is our attitude to medicine mysterious?
* What would it look like if people were focused on doing as much good as possible?
* Are we better off donating now, when we’re older, or even wait until well after our deaths?
* How much of the behavior of ‘effective altruists’ can we assume is genuinely motivated by wanting to do as much good as possible?
* What does Robin mean when he refers to effective altruism as a youth movement? Is that a good or bad thing?
* And much more...

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