Every now and then I come across a metaphor that really sticks and helps me think differently about something I see every day.
The metaphor helps me look at these situations with a new lens, and, as a result, think, feel, and act more effectively.
I’ve heard of several ways to think about our thinking. I’ve heard of the left-brain and right-brain. I’ve heard of the emotional side and the rational side.
This time, the metaphor is the Elephant and the Rider. I especially like this metaphor because it paints a powerful picture of a little rider, either at the mercy of the elephant or directing the elephant to make great things happen. The big take away here is that change can come easily when Elephants and Riders move together.
In the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard , Dan Heath and Chip Heath write about the Elephant and the Rider.
The Two Systems: The Emotional and the Rational Side
Our brain has two systems at work – an emotional side and a rational side. Dan and Chip write:
“The conventional wisdom in psychology, in fact, is that the brain has two independent systems at work at all times. First, there’s what we call the emotional side. It’s the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain and pleasure. Second, there’s the rational side, also known as the reflective or conscious system. It’s the part of you that deliberates and analyzes and looks into the future.”
The Planner and the Doer
Modern behavior economists think of the two systems as the Planner and the Doer. Dan and Chip write:
“Plato said that in our heads we have a rational charioteer who has to rein in an unruly horse that "barely yields to horsewhip and goad combined." Freud wrote about the selfish id and the conscientious superego (and also about the ego, which mediates between them). More recently behavior economists dubbed the two systems, the Planner and the Doer.”
The Elephant and the Rider Metaphor
Jonathan Haidt introduces the Elephant and the Rider metaphor. Dan and Chip write:
“But to us, the duo’s tension is captured best by an analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist, Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt says that our emotional side is the Elephant and our rational side is the rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.”
When Our Elephant Overpowers Our Rider
Sometimes our emotional Elephant wins over our analytical Rider. Dan and Chip write:
“Most of us are all too familiar with situations in which our Elephant overpowers our Rider. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever slept in, overeaten, dialed up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten angry and said something you regretted, abandoned your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scared, and so on.”
Change is Easy When Elephants and Riders Move Together
The key to effective change is getting the Elephant and the Rider moving together. Dan and Chip write:
“Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination. The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment (all those things that your pet can’t do.) … To make progress toward a goal, whether it’s noble or crass, requires the energy and drive of the Elephant. And this strength is the mirror image of the Rider’s great weakness: spinning his wheels. The Rider tends to overanalyze and over think things. … A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure nothing changes. But when Elephants and Riders move together, change can come easily.”
Now, whenever I find my Elephant off track or my Rider spinning wheels, I ask myself, “How can I get the Elephant and the Rider moving together?”
Photo by Swami Stream.