What Is the Goal of Communication? The Secret Motive

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Elephant in the Brain" by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the goal of communication—really? Why did Sheila talk to you at the office Christmas party? Why did she nod her head at almost everything you said?

Hidden motives are a byproduct of humanity’s social nature, so it’s no surprise that they show up in our most fundamental forms of communication. Both our speech and our body language are full of messages other than the ones we’re directly aware of.

Keep reading for an enlightening discussion about the hidden goals of conversation and body language.

Conversation

What is the goal of communication? Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson argue that, while we might think the purpose of conversation is to share information, its actual purpose is for the speaker to advertise him/herself as a good potential ally. The authors say that good conversationalists exhibit two key qualities:

  • They’re knowledgeable—they have a wealth of new information that can help us accomplish our goals or better understand the world. Simler and Hanson argue that when we share information, it’s not just the information that’s important—we’re also sending the message that we’re the kind of person who has such information and is therefore a valuable ally.
  • They’re relevant—we expect speakers to stay on topic rather than blurting out random facts. Simler and Hanson say that’s because we’re not just interested in how much knowledge someone has—we’re interested in allying with someone who can pull out the right knowledge at the right time.

(Shortform note: The ability to stay on topic also shows that the speaker is intelligent (can think clearly and craft an understandable message) and considerate (values our time enough not to follow every random tangent). Moreover, relevancy can signal that a speaker is interested in us, especially when they’re willing to keep the focus on a topic we care about. In fact, in How to Talk to Anyone, communications expert Leil Lowndes argues that successful conversation makes the other person feel good—suggesting that conversation is more of an emotional transaction than an informational transaction (as Simler and Hanson suggest). Taming the elephant: Either way, if you want to be a better conversationalist, it pays to think about what you can offer your audience.)

Because conversation is really about signaling your social utility, Simler and Hanson say that another purpose of conversation is to build prestige. Speakers want to look smart, informed, and connected. Returning to the discussion of social games above, prestige is one of two ways to raise your social status (which also helps you win the games of sex and politics). The more your conversation sends the message “I’m a valuable mate/partner/friend,” the higher you can drive your social status. 

Simler and Hanson point out that listeners want to associate with prestigious speakers because that association raises the listener’s prestige as well. They say that’s why it can be hard for people with very different social statuses to talk to each other: Someone with high social status won’t want to diminish that status or give it away cheaply by associating with someone with too little prestige. 

The Dangers of Prestige

The power of prestigious associations can lead to outrageous outcomes when someone is willing to exploit prestige. For example, in Bad Blood, reporter John Carreyrou explains how Elizabeth Holmes built her company Theranos into a $10 billion scam based on imaginary blood testing innovations. Carreyrou says that part of Holmes’s strategy was to make ever more prestigious associations through her investors and supporters—starting with one of her college professors and ending with two former US Secretaries of State, one former Secretary of Defense, and media mogul Rupert Murdoch. With so many prestigious names on board, Theranos’s credibility seemed to speak for itself.

Taming the elephant: Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong or to question authority. It’s better to lose a little prestige than to buy into a billion-dollar fraud.

Body Language

Whereas conversation is about sharing information in order to raise our social status and broadcast our utility as allies, Simler and Hanson say that body language allows us to communicate about things that we’d never talk about openly. That’s because body language is:

  • Unconscious—the authors argue that body language is mostly involuntary, which means that it communicates our true intentions (including intentions we wouldn’t put into words). Body language is also unconscious in that we typically interpret other peoples’ body language without being aware we’re doing so. The authors say that’s why we sometimes get a certain “vibe” from someone without knowing why. 
  • Subtle—it’s easy to overhear (and repeat) spoken words, but it’s much harder for a third party to notice many types of body language. The authors say that makes body language an ideal medium when we want to be discreet, like when communicating sexual interest.
  • Deniable—thanks to the previous two traits, it’s much easier to deny our true intentions (to ourselves and others) if something goes wrong. 
How Unconscious Is Body Language?

Simler and Hanson contend that, because it’s unconscious, body language reveals our true intentions most of the time. But this argument doesn’t account for cases where someone is deliberately using his or her body language to make a specific impression. Simler and Hanson acknowledge this possibility, but they argue that consciously cultivated body language plays little role in most of our interactions. Yet the vast amount of literature on body language and nonverbal communication suggests otherwise. For just a few examples:

In How to Talk to Anyone, Leil Lowndes gives tips for seeming approachable and likable. For example, she recommends pausing before smiling when meeting someone new.

In The Way of the Wolf, Jordan Belfort gives extensive advice for using body language to close sales. For example, he suggests copying a potential customer’s gestures and mannerisms to create a subconscious rapport.

In Surrounded by Idiots, Thomas Erikson argues that you can discern someone’s personality type from just their nonverbal communication style. For example, he says people who have little sense of personal space and stumble over their words tend to be “yellow” personalities—entertaining, idealistic extroverts.

Similar tips can be found in countless guides to dating, public speaking, job interviewing, getting ahead at work, making friends, closing business deals, and so on. And even if you don’t formally study and practice body language, most of us are taught (by parents, teachers, and others) some of the same practices that the above experts recommend: stand up tall, make eye contact, smile, use a firm handshake, and so on. Given all that, it’s perhaps not so easy to conclude that body language reveals the unfiltered truth of our intentions as Simler and Hanson suggest.

Taming the elephant: It’s worth studying body language so that you can project the image you want, avoid revealing truths you’d rather keep hidden, and be aware of when other people try to manipulate or control you.

Simler and Hanson say that body language’s subtlety and deniability allow us to use it to communicate about things that norms would ordinarily tell us to avoid, such as:

Sex: The authors point out that we would rarely meet a stranger in a club and openly ask about having sex. Instead, we unconsciously communicate our romantic intent by using eye contact, touch, tone of voice, and so on. These behaviors are subtle enough that many outsiders won’t notice them. And if the interaction goes badly (the other party isn’t interested—or his/her romantic partner suddenly shows up) it’s easier to deny our intent because we never actually stated it. 

(Shortform note: This deniability might also ease the blow of rejection by allowing us to put less of ourselves out there than if we were to openly declare our interest. However, subtlety has its costs: One study suggests that we only correctly detect whether someone was flirting with us about 28% of the time.)

Power: Similarly, norms against dominance and self-aggrandizing mean that a boss probably won’t verbally declare his own importance to his employees. Instead, he unconsciously broadcasts his authority by using aggressive eye contact, interrupting others, adopting relaxed and open postures, and so on. Simler and Hanson point out that in these scenarios, subordinates unconsciously adapt their own behavior to signal their acceptance of a leader’s authority: They make less eye contact, speak less (and never interrupt the leader), and maintain more formal postures in the leader’s presence. The authors argue that because these signals are subtle and deniable, people can more easily overcome their aversion to authority since that authority is never explicitly stated or discussed.

(Shortform note: We need only look at recent politics to see that power signaling is often anything but subtle. For example, Donald Trump is known for subjecting others to uncomfortably long and aggressive handshakes, while Russian president Putin and Turkish president Erdoğan have taken turns leaving each other waiting for hours before planned meetings. Taming the elephant: If you’re in a position of power and don’t wish to be domineering, be careful how you use nonverbal dominance signals. If you’re on the receiving end of these dominance signals, recognizing them for what they are might help you better understand your office dynamics (and potentially change jobs). Or, as Robert Greene suggests in The 48 Laws of Power, you can exploit your boss’s sense of superiority for your own gain.)

What Is the Goal of Communication? The Secret Motive

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler's "The Elephant in the Brain" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Elephant in the Brain summary :

  • How human behavior is driven by selfish motives
  • Why your own brain is hiding your intentions from you
  • Why the purpose of education is to certify future employees

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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