Simler and Hanson on Our Hidden Motivations in Everyday Life

[Update: December 17, 2017, with comments from Hanson]

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson recently published The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. It’s a book that might best be understood as a 400-page-long elaboration of the following blog post by Hanson, written nearly ten years ago:

Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy

The book is about the elaborate dance between the pleasant sounding, prosocial, altruistic motives we project to the world and the selfish motives that often underly our behavior.

I’ve long enjoyed the writing of both Simler and Hanson, and so I will confess I that was predisposed to like the book. I was not disappointed. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and easily digestible read on a difficult subject.

The book is an excellent survey of the literature on evolutionary biology, self-deception, and the biology of self-deception. The authors draw from the research of Trivers, Tooby, Haidt, and others.

The key thesis is not just that we are blind to our motives, but that we are strategically blind to our motivations. That we are evolutionarily designed to provide post-hoc rationalizations for why we do what we do, but that it is often not in our best interests to fully know the real motives.

First, we’re suggesting that key human behaviors are often driven by multiple motives—even behaviors that seem pretty single-minded, like giving and receiving medical care. This shouldn’t be too surprising; humans are complex creatures, after all. But second, and more importantly, we’re suggesting that some of these motives are unconscious; we’re less than fully aware of them. And they aren’t mere mouse-sized motives, scurrying around discreetly in the back recesses of our minds. These are elephant-sized motives large enough to leave footprints in national economic data.

As an example, imagine someone who gives to charity. If the real reason for that giving is not only a genuine care for others, but also a desire to look good in the community, according to the authors, the best way to sell that false motivation is to actually believe that the real reason for giving is a genuine care for others.[1]

The authors quote Trivers, who says, “We deceive ourselves the better to deceive others.”

Politics is about coalition building rather than pure policy. Art is about showing off how much leisure time we have to perform challenging and hard-to-replicate tasks rather than beauty. Religion is about norm enforcement and hard-to-escape community bonds rather than divine inspiration. Education is about conformity, day care, and socialization rather than learning.

Nearly all of our social activities have hidden subtexts that are about more than what we politely discuss in public. These are our hidden motives in everyday life.

When I talked about this book with my wife, she said, “that’s interesting and probably at least partially true, but what do we do with that information?”

It’s a good question. It’s probably the question most people will ask themselves as they read the book.

Funny she should ask. It just so happens that this question was the central focus in the book’s last chapter and conclusion.

This was also what I considered the weakest part of the book.[2]

The authors’ primary answer to the question is “situational awareness.”

That’s all well and good when the goal is to detect others’ bullshit, but an alarm went off in my head in the “Physician, Heal Thyself” sub-chapter.

After all, if one of the main theses in the book is that self deception is strategic and lack of self awareness in terms of our motivations serves a critical evolutionary purpose, how is it that situational awareness of that self deception can also be strategic?

We cannot “deceive ourselves to better deceive others and simultaneously strategically benefit from doing the opposite.

This seems flatly contradictory. If the very trait that is strategic in its absence can also be strategic its presence, then neither trait would be strategic. The whole book is about not-P and then the last chapter says, “But P!”  The Elephant in the Brain is an anti-self-help book, and that’s ok. It might be the best anti-self-help book I’ve read. But in the last chapter it reverses course and goes into full-on self-help mode.

The correct answer to the question of “what do we do with this information?” is probably “situational awareness of our self deception, though interesting, might not be that helpful in terms of our own behavior. That’s why we were designed with this lack of self awareness.”

But that’s not what the authors say. Instead, they try to rationalize why this brand of situational awareness is helpful, and how it can be used in our personal life and in business.

The authors state that, “Savvy institution designers must therefore identify both the surface goals to which people give lip service and the hidden goals that people are also trying to achieve.”

If taken literally, this is horrible advice! Savvy institution designers will do no such thing. Elon Musk would not be a better entrepreneur if he were aware and openly stated that his real motivations for building his companies were not just the betterment of the human race but rather the glorification of his own ego and the raising of his own status.

If Stanford and other elite institutions advertised that their education was available for free to everyone and that the real value of a degree was because of a bald, zero-sum elitist credentialism; if churches advertised that the real reason for their elaborate ceremonies and overwhelming institutional demands was to demonstrate shared commitment and community-enforced norms rather than because of divine inspiration; if companies acknowledged that the real purpose of the business is for the ego-glorification and wealth-creation of the owners, rather than for whatever garbage is spouted off in the mission statement; if a political party admitted “what we’re really trying to do is raise the status of these groups and lower the status of these groups,” then all of these institutions would immediately and irrevocably unravel.

Such rational instincts make for bad coalition building. And weak coalitions make weak institutions. Tooby says:

People whose coalitional membership is constituted by their shared adherence to “rational,” scientific propositions have a problem when—as is generally the case—new information arises which requires belief revision. To question or disagree with coalitional precepts, even for rational reasons, makes one a bad and immoral coalition member—at risk of losing job offers, one’s friends, and one’s cherished group identity. This freezes belief revision.

Savvy institutions have dogma. Savvy institutions have mission statements. Savvy institutions have mottoes, creeds, and fight songs.

Savvy institutions do not acknowledge their own inconsistencies.

Institutions that acknowledge their own weaknesses, biases, and inconsistencies are weak institutions.

This is why rationalists struggle to organize a meetup of 20 people in a metro area of two million people, whereas the Mormon Church and Islam are growing as fast as they are. This is why you’ll never meet a 3rd-generation Unitarian.

It would appear that the authors fell into their own trap—wishing for a pretty benefit to ascribe to our awareness of our hidden motivations, when the rest of the book tells us that the opposite is true.

Either way, this doesn’t take away from the greatness of the book on the whole. The overall work is still well worth reading. If any of these concepts are new to you, reading this book will make it hard to look at much of anything you do in the same way again.

[Update: Hanson replied to this post twice on Twitter. I’ll give him the last word]

“Did you see us say: ‘Even when we simply acknowledge the elephant to ourselves, in private, we burden our brains with self-consciousness and the knowledge of our own hypocrisy. These are real downsides, not to be shrugged off.'”


“You ask ‘how is it that situational awareness of that self deception can also be strategic?’ We didn’t mean to suggest that the gains from situational awareness will usually outweigh these harms. We just said ‘There are benefits'”

[1] The authors would probably acknowledge that charity is at least partially about the selfless act of giving, but would emphasize that we are programmed to emphasize the pleasant-sounding aspect our selflessness when doing so while concealing our more selfish desires beneath the surface.

[2] I’m not normally inclined to focus on what I believe to be the most negative aspects of an author’s work. But in this case, Hanson claims that he prefers direct, frank criticism. So here goes.

Nothing to See Here

For about 1500 years, humans were better than machines at chess. In 1997, the world’s best chess-player computer beat the world’s best human. From 1997 to 2017, the best human-computer teams were better than the best computers at chess. Now as of this week, humans have no value to add against the best computer chess-playing teams.

Nothing to see here. Please move along.

Apparently, significant loss of neurons is not a normal part of aging.

Great David Chapman piece on fake insights. Explains why many of the times when we achieve “breakthroughs” or major discoveries what we really discovered was a sleight-of-hand trick.

Feeling blue about the all the shenanigans going on in DC? Maybe this will cheer you up.

On the Benefits of Status Flexibility

Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East—to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them—who were above such trifling.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

One underrated virtue is the concept of status flexibility.

So much of American society is obsessed with spending every spare minute of life clawing the way to the top of whatever ladder you might find yourself on.

Sometimes, relative status matters. But not always. Though you won’t hear many people talk about it, sometimes you can actually improve the quality of your life by playing lower status roles.

Consider the concept of the first follower, as espoused and explained by Derek Sivers:

By attaching one’s self to a higher status person as a follower, rather than trying to be a leader, you can raise your own status. This is the basic principle behind finding a good mentor, finding a Ph.D advisor, or brown-nosing any high profile member of your community. In many ways, it’s easier to ride the coattails of someone who already has prestige than to try to achieve prestige directly.

Further, by playing the low status role in your initial conversations with new people you meet, you can raise your status long term. This is a critical subtext in the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, perhaps the most important self-help book of all time.

Here are the key tenets of that book:

  • Become genuinely interested in other people
  • Smile
  • Remember a person’s name
  • Be a good listener
  • Be wiser than other people if you can; but do not tell them so
  • To be interesting, be interested
  • Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering
  • Talk in terms of other people’s interests
  • Make the other person feel important

In sum, play a role that temporarily increases your neighbor’s status, rather than worrying about your own, ,and you can reap rewards (or you can just have friends who enjoy your company).

And though obvious, it’s worth mentioning: It’s easier to play low status roles than it is to play high status ones. If everyone tries to go through the door first, there will be logjam at the entrance. Best to open the door for your neighbor instead. You avoid the rush, and you be considerate while you’re doing it.

This may sound a touch cynical, but consciously deferring to others—and being content deferring to others—in most situations is among the most prosocial things you can do. Most of society’s conflicts arise when two or more people are clamoring for status. Avoid needlessly clamoring for high status when it doesn’t matter and you avoid many conflicts.

Of course, most of us  have a desire to play the hero at least some of the time. But the savviest are careful about picking their battles.

Trying to be a leader all of the time is a guaranteed path to  stress and turmoil. Every society needs people who will play roles of modest status most of the time for it to continue to function. Not only is that rational, but it’s totally healthy. Whether you’re ultimately looking to angle for higher status in your preferred field, just looking to fly under the radar, or even if you just want to live a life of peace, consciously accepting a flexible stance on status is an effective strategy to get there.

Lazy Photoshopping Makes for Bad Propaganda

Why belief in our own moral superiority is the most irrational bias of all.

Speaking of which, the famine in Yemen could be one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in years, and the US government has been complicit in its creation.

On a more pleasant note, if this isn’t the coolest thing you watch today, I’d love to know what is. The part starting about 45 seconds in is downright hypnotic.

The woodworker who quit email. I’m jealous.

Catalan government photoshops image of political rival out of photo, forgets to photoshop legs of political rival. Note the disembodied khakis slightly to the left of center.

Can War Foster Cooperation?

That’s the title of a 2016 meta-analysis by Michal Bauer, Christopher Blattman, Julie Chytilova, Joseph Henrich, Edward Miguel, and Tamar Mitts. It’s a fascinating and contrarian view on the long-term consequences of violence.

The short answer in the paper is that yes, it does. That’s the counter-intuitive angle that the paper is trying to evoke.

But almost certainly the more precise answer based on the weight of their research is, “war fosters cooperation among insiders, but not much cooperation, and perhaps even some hostility, toward outsiders.” This more nuanced answer is much less counter-intuitive than the title of the paper might suggest.

Think of the way that countries rally together during war or after a terrorist attack. When one’s survival is threatened, the instinct is to cooperate and work together to fend off an outside threat. The “rally around the flag” effect is real.

According to research by Bauer, Cassar, Chytilova, and Henrich (2014) in war-torn Sierra Leone, victims of violence were much less selfish and more inequality averse toward in-group members than those who had never been exposed to war. But there were no comparable effects of cooperation and unselfishness toward outsiders. Further, additional research by Cecchi, Leueld, Voor, and van der Waal (2015) on soccer players in Sierra Leone showed that victims of war violence behaved more altruistically toward their teammates but were also more likely to get yellow or red cards than those who were not victims of violence.

In the United States, the generation that fought in World War II is often referred to as “The Greatest Generation.” What made them so great?

That generation, more so than prior or subsequent generations of Americans, faced a real existential threat. They came together and overcame that threat, and that effort brought them closer together, creating a social cohesion that other generations do not possess.

To the extent that our country is particularly polarized now, perhaps one can view the lack of a serious external rival as a contributing factor in that polarization. Without external rivals to force us to direct our attention elsewhere, we increasingly direct our negative energy at our internal rivals.

Yudkowsky on the Dangers of False Modesty

Rationalist hero, AI alignment pioneer, and brilliant autodidact Eliezer Yudkowsky recently published a short book called Inadequate Equilibria, Where and How Civilizations Get Stuck. Like all Yudkowsky writing, it’s densely thought provoking and intellectually playful. It’s not for everyone, but for those who enjoy thinking through the hardest and deepest philosophical problems, his writing is a can’t-miss.

The book has two central theses: 1) there are many areas where civilizations reach suboptimal equilibria because of flawed incentive structures and 2) too often smart people are too modest in challenging those inadequate equilibria.

When it comes to flawed systems, Yudkowsky believes that this is not a rare occurrence.

[M]ost of the time systems end up dumber than the people in them due to multiple layers of terrible incentives, and that this is normal and not at all a surprising state of affairs to suggest.

The first part of the book discusses which systems are more likely to have flawed structures that are exploitable and which do not. For Yudkowsky, there are three basic types of systems: 1) efficient and not easily exploitable 2) inefficient but inexploitable, and 3) inefficient and exploitable.

For an example of a system that’s efficient and not easily exploitable, Yudkowsky points to short-term markets. There are millions of smart people who watch markets and are highly incentivized to know whether the price of Facebook stock is going up or going down from one day to the next. If you know for certain whether the price of Facebook is going up or down tomorrow, you can make millions. Since other people can too, they will also want to do the same. If you have a leg up on the market, you should already be wealthy. If you are not, then perhaps you should be more most about your ability to outperform markets.

Yudkowsky also emphasizes that there are many flawed systems that many people know are flawed, but cannot be exploited because of skewed incentives. An example of this might be NCAA college sports, particularly football and basketball. For both college football and college basketball, the NFL and the NBA rely on collegiate sports to provide minor-league systems for their professional leagues. College sports are popular, but the athletes – the very people who are busy dedicating their lives to providing the entertainment, receive no compensation. This is a screwed up system that athletes have known is screwed up for decades. But there isn’t anything anyone can do about it, because of the extraordinary coordination problems inherent in the system.

Colleges certainly have no incentive to change the system; they profit from it. Individual athletes may wish to change the system, but to do so involves a huge coordination problem. Each individual athlete only gets one chance to aspire to a professional career, and the best way to do that is to excel in the conventional system. The best athletes, the ones with the most leverage, have the least incentive to rock the boat. They just have to play nice for a year or two and then profit from a professional career. Those with the greatest incentive to make a change, excellent athletes who aren’t quite good enough to become professionals, don’t have enough leverage to force a change. And the fans, the ones who watch and pay money to see college athletes, they like to pretend that the minor-league athletes who represent their alma maters are actually somehow representative of where they went to school.

So the system lives on, even though everyone knows it’s ridiculous, because the incentives of those who make decisions and benefit from the system are separated from those within the ecosystem, and the incentives of those who make decisions favor a perpetuation of the system.

The last category of systems is the inefficient and exploitable. It is here where Yudkowsky recommends that we focus our attention. Every successful startup began when visionaries saw a flawed system and then went about fixing it. Yudkowsky here is not necessarily arguing that everyone should go about starting their own business, but rather having the confidence to trust one’s own judgment. To understand that the majority of systems outside of short-term markets have deep flaws. And if the opportunity is right for exploiting those flaws, that we should do so.

This is a central disagreement I have with modest epistemology: modest people end up believing that they live in an inexploitable world because they’re trying to avoid acting like an arrogant kind of person. Under modest epistemology, you’re not supposed to adapt rapidly and without hesitation to the realities of the situation as you observe them, because that would mean trusting yourself to assess adequacy levels; but you can’t trust yourself, because Dunning-Kruger, et cetera.

The alternative to modest epistemology isn’t an immodest epistemology where you decide that you’re higher status than doctors after all and conclude that you can now invent your own de novo medical treatments as a matter of course. The alternative is deciding for yourself whether to trust yourself more than a particular facet of your civilization at this particular time and place, checking the results whenever you can, and building up skill.

We live in a world where Donald Trump was elected president. This is not a place where the most qualified always rise to the top. As such, we ought not perpetually to defer to those with higher status. We have to rely on our own judgment to decide what to do and how to react in any given environment.

Yudkowsky does not suggest that it is easy to exploit vulnerable systems. To succeed, we have to be very cautious about picking our battles. He provides the following formulation for how often we can expect to exploit such systems.

0-2 lifetime instances of answering “Yes” to “Can I substantially improve on my civilization’s current knowledge if I put years into the attempt?”

Once per year or thereabouts, an answer of “Yes” to “Can I generate a synthesis of existing correct contrarianism which will beat my current civilization’s next-best alternative, for just myself.”

Many cases of trying to pick a previously existing side in a running dispute between experts, if you think that you can follow the object-level arguments reasonably well and there are strong meta-level cues that you can identify.

Yudkowsky then makes one final, powerful argument about why we should not have too much modesty in the face of daunting systemic challenges. Simply put, modesty is a losing strategy.

I think that’s my true rejection, in the following sense: If I saw a sensible formal epistemology underlying modesty and I saw people who advocated modesty going on to outperform myself and others, accomplishing great deeds through the strength of their diffidence, then, indeed, I would start paying very serious attention to modesty

This does not mean that we should then employ an arrogant disregard for systems or people. It means we should make a lot of small bets, assess how we do in those bets, and then reassess and move forward. In Yudkowsky’s words, we should:

Run experiments; place bets; say oops. Anything less is an act of self-sabotage.

Friday Funday: Why Humans Brains Aren’t as Special as We’d Like to Think

Recent research from my alma mater shows that humans aren’t so special in terms of how much energy we allocate to our brains.

Sports as healthy substitute for war. Exhibit 1, Samoa vs. Tonga.

Why are Americans on the left, so sensitive to notions of class and racism, not more sensitive about the Indian caste system?

8,000-year-old images of dogs on leashes.

Why two stars slamming into each other is such a big deal for cosmologists.

Friday Funday: Why Clocks Run Clockwise

Why clocks run clockwise.

“You don’t have to be good.” Gives me chills every time.

The ever-brilliant Kevin Simler of Melting Asphalt is developing a browser plug-in that will make your Twitter feed physically painful to view to keep you from spending too much time on the site.

Dani Rodrik on how to defeat a demagogue. My take from last year.

Great New Yorker piece on how Stalin became Stalinist.

Congratulations to Peru for qualifying for its first World Cup since 1982. Zero bonus points for good sportsmanship. This video is from their opponent’s hotel the night before they qualified.

Sunstein on Conspiracy Theories

Most people who have heard about the Holocaust believe it was either a complete or a partial hoax. A majority in the United States believe that there was more than one gunman in the JFK assassination. And the majority of the British public believe the moon landing was faked.

Given that so many believe in conspiracy theories, and how dangerous they can be, it’s amazing how little serious scholarship exists on why people believe in them.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 2008, Cass Sunstein, the most cited and influential legal scholar alive, wrote a paper with Adrian Vermeule to figure out why so many believe things that aren’t true.

Sunstein starts off by explaining why these conspiracy theories so pernicious. He argues that if you are willing to believe that the Holocaust was faked or that 9/11 was an inside job, that your mistrust of institutions runs so deep that you’ll believe just about anything.

To think, for example, that U.S. government officials destroyed the World Trade Center and then covered their tracks requires an ever-widening conspiracy theory, in which the 9/11 Commission, congressional leaders, the FBI, and the media were either participants in or dupes of the conspiracy. But anyone who believed that would undercut the grounds for many of their other beliefs, which are warranted only by trust in the knowledge-producing institutions created by government and society. How many other things must not be believed, if we are not to believe something accepted by so many diverse actors? There may not be a logical contradiction here, but conspiracy theorists might well have to question a number of propositions that they seem willing to take for granted. As Robert Anton Wilson notes of the conspiracy theories advanced by Holocaust deniers, “a conspiracy that can deceive us about 6,000,000 deaths can deceive us about anything, and [then] it takes a great leap of faith for Holocaust Revisionists to believe World War II happened at all, or that Franklin Roosevelt did serve as President from 1933 to 1945, or that Marilyn Monroe was more ‘real’ than King Kong or Donald Duck.

Sunstein offers a few different explanations of why people want to believe conspiracy theories. First, he cites Karl Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies for the idea that people need to find someone to blame for all of society’s ills. People aren’t hardwired to believe that complex problems may have complex origins. Conspiracy theories appeal to a desire for a simple cause-and-effect resolution—and a clear scapegoat—for every scary problem.

When Germany struggled after World War I and thousands starved, people looked for someone to blame. The combination of reparation burdens, bad monetary policy, and a worldwide financial crisis probably caused their problems. But these are complex and abstract causes. It was easier for Hitler and the Nazis to find a convenient scapegoat in the Jews.

While Sunstein acknowledges that the desire to find a scapegoat often happens, he finds Popper’s “hidden agent” hypothesis to be limited in its predictive scope. For example, there is no question that the events of 9/11 were caused by someone. The problem there is that conspiracy theorists think the wrong people did it.

According to Sunstein, more often conspiracy theories are caused by crippled epistemology—belief systems that are rooted in flawed decision-making, factual error, and lack of quality information.

For most of what they believe that they know, human beings lack personal or direct information; they must rely on what other people think. In some domains, people suffer from a “crippled epistemology,” in the sense that they know very few things, and what they know is wrong. Many extremists fall in this category; their extremism stems not from irrationality, but from the fact that they have little (relevant) information, and their extremist views are supported by what little they know. Conspiracy theorizing often has the same feature. Those who believe that Israel was responsible for the attacks of 9/11, or that the Central Intelligence Agency killed President Kennedy, may well be responding quite rationally to the informational signals that they receive.

Next, Sunstein points to rumors and conspiracy entrepreneurs. As we have seen in our most recent election, when there is financial incentive to give people certain information that they would like to believe, entrepreneurs are often eager to fill the void.

Finally, and perhaps most critically, Sunstein points to the problem of group polarization. As groups become increasingly polarized, they are more at risk for conspiracy theories. This is because of a well-documented phenomenon of group members coming together to form ever-more extreme positions. If you get ten conservatives in a room together, they’re likely to end up much more conservative after they deliberate than when they began. The same phenomenon occurs with liberals. In a mixed group, individuals’ opinions will tend to converge, but when a group already starts out with a certain directional lean, when left in isolation that group will grow more extreme over time.

This, when combined with a deep distrust of authority, leads to conspiracy theories. When two groups are polarized, one group may feel quite logically that the other group does not represent its interests. If one group is in power and the other is not, this scenario is fertile ground for conspiracy theories for the group not in power, because all information from the opposing group is inherently suspect.

Think of enemy propaganda leaflets dropped from airplanes during a war. If enemy planes dropped leaflets on you, and those leaflets contained arguments and beliefs that ran counter to everything you had previously believed, you would be disinclined to believe the substance of the leaflets.

For purposes of understanding the spread of conspiracy theories, it is especially important to note that group polarization is particularly likely, and particularly pronounced, when people have a shared sense of identity and are connected by bonds of solidarity. These are circumstances in which arguments by outsiders, unconnected with the group, will lack much credibility, and fail to have much of an effect in reducing polarization.

Because the proponents of these theories’ have inherent skepticism toward authority, Sunstein argues that the most effective means of rebutting these theories is not formal government action, but rather cognitive infiltration.

In one variant, government agents would openly proclaim, or at least make no effort to conceal, their institutional affiliations. A recent newspaper story recounts that Arabic-speaking Muslim officials from the State Department have participated in dialogues at radical Islamist chat rooms and websites in order to ventilate arguments not usually heard among the groups that cluster around those sites, with some success. In another variant, government officials would participate anonymously or even with false identities. Each approach has distinct costs and benefits; the second is riskier but potentially brings higher returns. In the former case, where government officials participate openly as such, hard-core members of the relevant networks, communities and conspiracy-minded organizations may entirely discount what the officials say, right from the beginning. The risk with tactics of anonymous participation, conversely, is that if the tactic becomes known, any true member of the relevant groups who raises doubts may be suspected of government connections. Despite these difficulties, the two forms of cognitive infiltration offer different risk-reward mixes and are both potentially useful instruments.

The inherent difficulty in combatting conspiracy theories is obvious. But the value in studying and analyzing conspiracy theories, rather than dismissing their proponents entirely, as Sunstein as done here, seems like a positive step in fortifying an open society with a strong epistemological foundation.

Dr. George Sheehan on the Benefits of Physical Play

The first time I remember hearing the word “philosopher” and thinking that it was something I wanted to do was in reference to a man named George Sheehan. If you’re not a runner over the age of 40, you’ve probably never heard of him. But to runners from the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, he was a ubiquitous avuncular figure who expressed his opinions on the most profound parts of life, always through the lens of a long-distance runner.

From the late ’60s to his death in 1993, he wrote a regular column for Runner’s World. He was an MD before he was known as a philosopher, and so his columns started off as medical advice for runners. But as his following grew and he got older, his writing shifted from a focus on the body to the mind and the deeper questions of life.

One topic that recurs throughout his writing that is almost entirely absent from the writing of other philosophers is the idea of physical play. For Sheehan, physical play was the starting point for a healthy body and mind. He argued frequently and vigorously against the stereotype that physical play is only for children:

As we age we stop following our physical bliss. The body is pampered rather than challenged. It is told to be quiet, and becomes no more than a receptacle for the mind and the spirit. Life becomes a matter of creature comforts. The challenge becomes its ability to withstand he effects of our bad habits. We are no longer athletes. We have become spectators.

This will never do. Among Emerson’s instructions for the good life was another terse statement: “Be first a good animal.” Life is not a spectator sport. Only to the good animal come the peak experiences, the joys, the epiphanies. All of us are Olympians. And each day brings with it success or failure, as it were, only to ourselves. How this plays out is determined much more by our body than we think. “The body is the source of our energy,” said Plato. We are our bodies, our bodies are us, and we must live this life physically and at the top of our powers.

Going the Distance, George Sheehan

Sheehan sought out philosophers and poets who emphasized the benefits of play and time spent in nature and quoted from them liberally. He quoted Thoreau, Dickinson, William James, Arisotle, and Ortega y Gassett. Here’s another gem where he sources English philosopher Bertrand Russell on the benefits of play and exercise:

Russell thought it was impossible to be happy without physical play—of both mind and body. But such activity, he suggested, should be agreeable, directed to a desired end, and not contrary to our impulses.

“A dog will pursue rabbits to the point of complete exhaustion and be happy all the time, but if you put a dog on a treadmill he would not be happy because he is not engaged in a natural activity.”

I am an observer of happy dogs. Daily I see numbers of them walking with their owners on the boardwalk and grass in front of our beach house. They are a curious lot, constantly in motion and exploring the world around them. At times they are engaged in play, chasing through sticks or pursuing Frisbees. One characteristic is immediately evident. They are very serious when having fun. They may wag their tails but they are totally concentrated on what is about to happen.

Play is of equal importance to us. The things we do with our bodies should be done merely because they are fun—not because they serve some serious purpose. If we are not doing something that is enjoyable on its own account we should look for something that is. We may not find something as natural to us as hunting is to a dog, but we can come quite close.

George Sheehan lived and wrote with energy and vigor until the last days of his struggle with cancer. For a detailed account of his last months, Going the Distance is a beautiful and lasting portrayal of coming to grips with death and remembering a life well lived.