“Team victory” as a key hidden motive

Simler and Hanson’s The Elephant in the Brain has been hugely influential on me. The core claim of the book is that our beliefs and behaviors often serve hidden motives, and that these motives are commonly less pretty than the more noble motives that we usually proclaim.

A key point that is mentioned in the book is the significance of coalitions and coalitional conflicts in human life and human evolution. Specifically, the authors note how, in small-scale coalition politics, “coalitions compete for control, and individuals seek to ally themselves with powerful coalitions”.

Yet it seems that there is more to be said about the significance of coalitional conflicts for our hidden motives than what is covered in The Elephant in the Brain (as the authors would surely agree). Indeed, the book is explicitly an open invitation for others to identify or suggest additional hidden motives, and I will here take up that invitation and suggest a general hidden motive that plausibly plays a large role in much human behavior, namely coalitional success, or “team victory”.

Different categories of hidden motives

It seems to me that we can meaningfully distinguish at least four categories of hidden motives (even as these categories are overlapping, and the motives not always hidden):

  • To signal impressiveness (e.g. by showing that you are impressively knowledgeable, athletic, or hard-working)
  • To signal loyalty (e.g. by wearing a sports jersey or a religious symbol)
  • To gain “team victory” (e.g. helping to ensure that your team gains more power than the rival team)
  • To gain “individual success” (e.g. actually getting the calories or sex needed for survival and reproduction)

Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, these motives must ultimately all translate into success in terms of “individual success”. Yet seeking individual success very directly is often a bad way to achieve such success for humans — hence these other motives and strategies. (Though it is worth noting that in certain circumstances, it would be fitness-enhancing to pursue “individual success” even at the expense of these other adaptive drives, meaning that there are cases where humans can gain “individual success” by doing things that are positively unimpressive, disloyal, or detrimental to team victory. These are sometimes called scandals.)

Hidden motives: Not all about signaling

An important point implied by the categories above is that hidden motives are not all about signaling, and that our signaling motives sometimes take a backseat to other hidden motives that are even stronger.

For example, signaling loyalty and ensuring team victory seem to be fairly convergent aims for the most part, yet there are probably still many cases where the “team victory” motive is stronger than the loyalty-signaling motive, such as when our actions have a significant influence on the probability of team victory (e.g. slightly reducing our perceived team loyalty — from 10 to 9, say — in exchange for a huge gain in our team’s success would likely have been adaptive in many cases).

Indeed, even when our actions do not have a high probability of influencing outcomes, such as in large-scale politics involving millions of other actors, it is likely that our evolved instincts — which were adapted for small-scale coalition politics — will in many cases still care as much or more about collective team victory as they care about individual loyalty-signaling to that team.

Reasons to think that “team victory” is a strong motive

What reasons do we have for thinking that “team victory” is a strong motive underlying much of human behavior?

The importance of coalitional success

First, there is the fact that individual human success often depended crucially on coalitional success, at the level of intra- as well as inter-group competition (both of which could be lethal). And merely signaling loyalty to one’s own coalition(s) — while important — would often not be sufficient to secure coalitional victory. A serious drive and effort toward actually winning was likely paramount.

As hinted above, actions that optimize for loyalty-signaling and actions that optimize for group victory are probably correlated to a significant extent, but not perfectly so, and individuals whose motives and instincts were optimized purely for loyalty-signaling would probably be less effective at achieving coalitional success than would individuals whose motives and drives were optimized more for that aim (i.e. individuals whose motives were to some degree optimized both for intra-group loyalty-signaling and for securing inter-group success and power).

Given the importance of inter-group success in our ancestral environment, it seems reasonable to think that our motives also reflect drives for such success to a significant extent. Hence we should not restrict our focus to intra-group success alone when analyzing human motives. (Note that this picture applies both to group struggles within and between tribes; after all, human social life consists of multiple nested coalitions.)

Some evolutionary theorists, including John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, have provided more elaborate arguments for the claim that we humans have strong coalitional instincts, similarly based on the importance of coalitional acumen in our ancestral environment. Related is Jonathan Haidt’s argument that “groupishness” is a deep feature of human nature. (See also Pinsof, 2018, ch. 3)

Empirical data and informative examples

In empirical terms, there are studies that show that we often prefer policies that disadvantage our outgroup (e.g. people in a foreign country), even when we have the option to choose win-win policies that benefit our own group as well. Such findings lend some support to a significant “team victory” motive in human decisions and behavior. (Of relevance, too, are “minimal group paradigm”; “realistic conflict theory”; Sapolsky, 2017, ch. 11; Clark et al, 2019.)

Examples where the “team victory” motive seems to positively eclipse the loyalty-signaling motive include cases in which people secretly cheat in order to secure “team victory” — behaviors that the cheaters sometimes know will get them hated among their ingroup if they get exposed. Some of the instances of cheating mentioned here appear to fit this pattern.

Board games in which different teams compete against each other may be another example. It seems that people are often more concerned about winning than about signaling loyalty to, and having a good standing among, their team mates; so much so that they sometimes even deride their entire team while being in a relentless rush to win. And this phenomenon also happens at times in sports. (Board games and sports are arguably both supernormal stimuli that trigger the players’ drive for “team victory” in more overt and systematic ways than do our everyday — mostly hidden — coalitional competitions.)

The fact that the derisive and practically anti-loyal behaviors described above seem to occur with some frequency in competitive domains — despite team cohesion generally being important for team victory, and despite loyalty-signaling in particular seeming reasonably correlated with team victory — suggests that the “team victory” motive is probably also lurking in more ordinary circumstances (where it is expressed in more group-aligned ways). Indeed, one can argue that the drive for “team victory” must be quite strong for it to override and to some extent counteract our otherwise powerful pro-cohesion and loyalty-signaling motives in this way, even if only occasionally.


Similarly, consider your own direct experience when you play team sports or board games on a team. Do you plausibly most want to signal loyalty to your team or do you most want to win? While we should not base our views only or even mostly on introspective observations of this kind, they can still provide at least some additional evidence, especially if our felt drive for team victory is particularly strong. (There is, of course, individual variation in terms of how strongly people are motivated by “team victory” — for instance, some people do not seem to care at all whether they win in team board games. Yet the same is true of other hidden motives: some people do not seem particularly keen to signal loyalty or impressiveness in the usual ways, but that hardly undermines the claim that these are significant motives for most people.)

An explanation of “Sudden Patriotic Sports Obsession”?

Finally, one may argue that the “team victory” motive is supported by some of the surprising predictions that follow from the conjecture that we have strong desires and drives for “team victory”. For example, a prediction that arguably follows from this hypothesis is that people should generally feel a desire to see their national team win in major sports events that are highly publicized (e.g. the FIFA World Cup). And importantly, this should be true even of many people who do not usually follow that sport, and even if they do not identify strongly with their nationality. (Only “many people” because of factors such as individual psychological variation and a lack of exposure to the relevant media channels.)

As far as I can tell, this hypothesis is strongly vindicated. During widely popularized sports events, people who are usually neither sports fans nor patriots indeed tend to become mysteriously preoccupied with the fate of their national team (and I must admit that this is also true of myself: I somehow care about it, despite trying not to, and despite not watching any games).

Yet this phenomenon makes perfect sense if we have strong drives for “team victory” that can readily be triggered by a perception of direct competition between “our group” and “other groups”. (This is not to say that an instinctive drive for “team victory” is the only factor that explains this phenomenon of “Sudden Patriotic Sports Obsession”, but it does seem a plausible explanatory factor.)

Is the motive of “team victory” really hidden?

One may agree that the “team victory” motive is common and strong, yet dispute that it is at all hidden. It is, after all, unmistakably clear in the expressed desires and behaviors of athletes and dedicated sports fans, as well as in many other explicitly competitive arenas of human life.

However, in supposedly nobler and more cooperative spheres, such as in academia or in activist circles, the “team victory” motive does indeed appear quite hidden. Here, attempts to undermine the status of opposing groups, and to increase the status and influence of one’s own group, seem to often be packaged as “intellectual criticism” and “strategic disagreements”. In other words, the text of the conversation may be a technical discussion about some obscure claim, while the subtext — the underlying driver of the dispute — may be a fight for coalitional victory and dominance.

Of course, these are not the kinds of motives that sophisticated and prosocial folks are supposed to have, and hence such folks are forced to find more indirect and sophisticated ways to act them out.

Hanson makes a similar point about our lust for power — something that we would usually gain through “team victory” in our ancestral environment:

We humans evolved to lust after power and those who wield power, but to pretend our pursuit of power is accidental; we mainly just care about beauty, stories, exciting contests, and intellectual progress. Or so we say.

Indeed, like the other hidden motives identified by Simler and Hanson, our motive to achieve “team victory” and power is probably mostly unconscious in situations where we are not supposed to act on this motive, since being unconscious about such a norm-transgressing motive might make us better able to deny the accusation that we are acting on it.

Even in politics, which is obviously competitive, we almost always frame our motives purely in terms of impartial motives to “help the world” and the like (cf. Simler and Hanson, 2018, ch. 16). We rarely frame them in terms of wanting our team to win, even though there is much evidence that this is in fact a strong motive underlying our political behavior.

Tentative critique

A point of criticism I would raise regarding The Elephant in the Brain is that it seems to focus almost exclusively on hidden signaling motives, and that it thereby underemphasizes other hidden motives, such as “team victory”. Yet to consistently give overriding weight to signaling explanations relative to other, often more disturbing and unflattering explanatory motives would seem to require a justification. After all, signaling explanations — e.g. explanations that invoke loyalty-signaling motives over “team victory” motives — are not more plausible by default.

The following are some examples from the book where I think the “team victory” motive is likely to play a significant role (to be clear, I am not claiming that “team victory” necessarily plays a greater role than the hidden motives identified by Simler and Hanson; my claim is merely that the “team victory” motive plausibly also plays at least some significant role in these areas).


Simler and Hanson emphasize impressiveness-signaling as the key hidden motive of our conversations, including when it comes to academic conversations in particular. This seems right to me. But it appears that “team victory” is also an important hidden motive in our conversations, and that it sometimes even overrides the impressiveness motive. In particular, many academic conversations and disputes are plausibly more driven by a crude desire for “team victory” than by a motive to signal impressiveness — especially when these disputes are chiefly impressive in terms of how primitively tribal they are.


On art, the authors again highlight the individual motive to impress as the key hidden motive, and I again think they are right. But even here, I suspect that “team victory” can play a surprisingly significant role, beyond just the (also significant) motive of wanting to personally affiliate with impressive artists. For example, beautiful cities, such as Florence and Budapest, are themselves pieces of art that can provide a strong sense of pride and “team victory” to the local inhabitants — including their leaders — which might help explain the creation of all this art (even if “team victory” may not be the main motive). And note that this is arguably an even more cynical motive than is bare impressiveness; “we’re creating all this art to make a good impression on you” seems considerably more prosocial than “we’re creating all this art to beat your team”.

Likewise, people sometimes seem to view their best artists in much the same way that they view their best athletes: as individuals who can symbolically match and beat those on the other team. (The same appears true of the way people sometimes view their best scientists, intellectuals, fashion models, etc. Our most famous and prestigious people can serve as tokens of team status and “team victory”.)

“Our church is bigger than yours”

“But our parliament can beat your parliament”


Simler and Hanson argue that the main hidden motives behind charity are to signal our wealth and empathy. Again, I think they are right. But it seems plausible that charitable behavior can also be motivated to some extent by a desire for “team victory”, such as when people donate toward the promotion of their own religion, political faction, or activist ingroup.


The hidden motives the authors ascribe to religious behavior is community bonding and loyalty-signaling, which seems right. But “team victory” is probably also an influential motive (cf. Tuschman, 2013, ch. 7). An extreme example might be religious wars, in which one religion would essentially try to beat another, plausibly motivated in part by a drive for “team victory”. A less extreme example might be apologists and missionaries who seek to defend their faith and convert others — for many such people, the “team victory” motive plausibly plays some role, even if they also have other motives (e.g. being impressive to the ingroup, seeking to get into heaven, or genuinely trying to help other people).


The authors identify loyalty-signaling as a key hidden motive underlying our political behavior. This seems right. But as noted earlier, it is plausible that we are also strongly motivated by “team victory”. After all, even when following an election in private, partisan voters still seem to fervently root for the victory of “their team”, not too unlike people who eagerly want their team to win in board games or in sports. And again, just as many sports fans would be willing to quietly take off their sports jersey (i.e. their personal signal of loyalty) if they thought it significantly increased their team’s chances of winning, it seems that many political actors would likewise be willing to quietly forego loyalty signaling to a significant extent provided it could help their political team bring home the desired win.

Potential biases that follow from this?

Lastly, it is worth briefly pondering how this drive for “team victory” might bias our outlooks and priorities. The most plausible bias I see is a tendency to overstate the extent to which “our team winning” is the key to creating better outcomes from an impartial perspective.

That is, our coalitional intuitions might at some level hold that “if our coalition wins, that is a total success; if their coalition wins, that is a total disaster”. After all, in terms of reproductive success, this was probably often true in the context of intense coalitional conflicts in our ancestral environment. But it seems considerably less true from an impartial perspective, especially in the context of modern political competition between similar parties, or among different factions of activists who have broadly similar aims.

In other words, our intuitions are plausibly much too afraid of (reasonably similar) “outgroups” in the modern political and altruistic landscape, and we may well overestimate how much better “our group” would do compared to “their group” when it comes to creating beneficial outcomes for everyone.


I am grateful to Tobias Baumann and Robin Hanson for helpful feedback.

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