The Elephant and the Rider: A Metaphor for Our Emotional and Rationale Sides



“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.” — Oscar Wilde

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?”

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  1. Thanks for sharing J.D.,
    wonderful metaphor indeed!
    I guess it is time for me to order the book Switch;-)

    Have a super cool day, everyone and have fun elephant ride today;-)

  2. Very familar with this. Good analogy. I’ve got a pretty big elephant, for whatever reason. Great for song writing. Often, not so good for staying on track.

    Lately I’ve been concentrating on “loops” where the rider starts to thinking too much because the elephant is taking over. He feels “bad” about that, wants the elephant to be happy, but can’t seem to help it to be. Thsi doesn’t help the situation of course. He’s using all his energy feeling bad, which the elephant senses and makes it worse (just like with a real animal).

    But over time, I can identify more of the loops and develop strategies to get out of them.

    From getting rid of certain addictions I learned that just having the rider watch the elephant when it’s going nuts and trying to limit it from the most destructive behavior through alternatives is most helpful. This is that same “awareness” concept that is common in spiritual circles as well.

  3. Never ingore any elephants in the room. Give white elephant (and all) gifts freely. And follow up good plans with good dos! 🙂

    I think your 3-step idea ties in well with this, reminding me that sometimes all our rider and elephant need to get on the same page is a little Monday morning and Friday afternoon consultation. Well, I’m a little behind for this week. 🙂 Been playing more with blog design, planning blog posts and reading blogs than writing songs. Hmmnn, maybe a mid-week plan assessment will be just the ticket for me! 🙂 In writing!!

    Cool post! Another great metaphor story is about the 6 men who all described an elephant’s leg differently.

    Elephants rock!


  4. A very insightful metaphor! It’s origin came from the great Persian poet -Rumi. There Rumi is analyzing the story of Madjun and his Camel to illustrate the internal fight that goes on between the Reason (The rider)and the Ego(The Camel). The rider Madjun was pursuing his travel towards his beloved Layla,while the Camel was striving to get back home in order to be close to her young one(there was no hope of self control!). In this particular case no matter how much the driver tried to guide the camel (Elephants and Riders move together!), all his efforts were in vain,no matter that his mind was looking into the future. It was not even a situation problem (according to Dan and Heap),that could be resolved.It was a overcoming
    basic needs problem,that would take more time.If time and quick solutions were sought.But the Elephant and its Rider,seems to be a Work World problem, where adequate coaching is sought,in order to apply the contemporary understandings , as to reach a stage where they volunteer
    for it. We must not forget the unavoidable conclusion that is :Your brain isn’t of one mind(dubbing in the two systems the Planner and the Doer).

  5. Hello J.D. –

    Great metaphor.
    The big take away here is that change can come easily when Elephants and Riders move together. Absolutely to be absorbed as synchronization between 2 or wheels will always make ride smooth and reach great destinations.

    Bye for now,

  6. @ Ivana — I think you’ll really enjoy the book. The stories really light things up and drive the points home.

    @ Rob — A big Elephant means lots of power and capacity and that’s a good thing. You’re right, breaking the loops is the key. I think the trick with breaking out of loops is knowing what you want to accomplish (so you can correct course), and really knowing the why behind it (so you have the Elephant on your side.)

    @ Alik — I really like how the impact of the visual.

    @ Jannie — Good dos are the way to go! I like how you connected the dots to 3 stories. You’re right — it’s the heart + mind combo for compelling results.

    @ Michael — Beautiful distillation — your brain isn’t one of mind. I like your story of the origin (Madjun/Camel, Reason/Ego) … I think it re-enforces the timeleness and pervasiveness of the point.

    @ Cheryl — Lining up our wheels and getting ourselves in sync definitely makes for a smoother ride.

  7. My elephant is huge right now as I make change and the Rider is calling foul….

    I am asking the HOW question…how do I release the old information that does not serve any more and how do I do it with love…

    Will power is not working….Great story and metaphor and I am finding wonderful insights from my online reading adventure this morning.

    Thank you once again for having such great timing…

  8. @ Patricia — For my HOWs, I’m a fan of finding the right mentors — mentors are the short-cut. I’m also a fan of finding little ways to test my results and build momentum. I find will power only works once you’ve flipped the switch and decided … and that you have faith that it’s the path you need to be on. There’s a difference between faith in your path and belief.

    @ Steve — You’re right, it’s right up my alley 😉 Thank you — all is well.

  9. great sum up JD!
    I working on a post series about this topic. I would let you know once I publish it

  10. Hi JD .. the rider reigns in the elephant for a while, giving him time to think and plan, then they can both forge ahead together ..

    The elephant will get to the other side .. but will it be where he wants to be or will his strength and stamina allow him to go round the houses a little longer before the rider catches him again and directs him in a more straightforward route ..
    I love elephants after my stay in South Africa .. and they are lumbering giants, but by golly are they clever too .. so they’d never let the rider down, if their lives depended on it.

    Thanks – enjoyed the telling of the story .. Hilary

  11. JD,
    I can relate to this:
    “Sometimes our emotional Elephant wins over our analytical Rider.”
    I am grateful that my hubby is more analytical and grounded and so it helps balance us out more, and I think he would say the same of me. 😉 I am learning to put foundations under my dreams 😉 this resonates as well: “Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.” I have gotten much better with this, through teamwork or individually by focusing on my own rhythm. Some people can do something one day skip the next and still come back to it — for me I need that momentum to keep on going! I find urgency and spontaneity really help me live strong from my heart and the mindwork can happen before or after the task for preparation of the next. Journaling grounds me so much and helps to bring the mind and the heart together as one! 😉 great post! ~Jenn

  12. Great analogy! I really like it!
    Recently I started posting interestnig analogies I found on the web on I thought it could be a good idea to create a place where people can share useful analogies such as yours.

  13. @ Dror — Thank you!

    @ Hilary — It really brings out the idea that you’re either working with or against yourself. Thank you.

    @ Jenn — Balancing really is the key and it helps keep perspective. Mind and heart as one is a powerful force. Thank you.

    @ Peter — Analogies are like hearing the right song . Thank you.

  14. Great metaphor for the ride of our lives. And for me, the lesson also being that the elephant needs to trust the rider much as the rider needs to accept his limitations.

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