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The Elephant and The Rider

December 29th, 2013 by dimpledbrain

I first read about the concept of the rider and the elephant in Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. From that book I traced the source back to a guy called Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Happiness Hypothesis. He has been teaching psychology using this concept for more than a decade now.

Now what is this about the elephant and the rider? The recent bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is all about this concept. Ancient philosopher like Kahlil Gibran described this as Reason vs Passion. (You can google Kahlil Gibran Reason and Passion to read the entire text.)

The whole point is that until the rise of behavioural economics recently, we like to think ourselves as rational and self interested. That is to say the rider is in control of our thought process. But it’s difficult to apply this thinking to reality because we seem overwhelmed by the sheer force of the elephant. How many people that you know can overcome temptations just like that?

We have this rider vs elephant battle everyday. We set our alarm clock so that we can wake up early the next day but when the alarm goes off, we snooze it. The rider sets the alarm clock but the elephant snoozes it.

I hope by now you have some idea of it.

(1) Understanding the rider and the elephant

  • Jonathan Haidt called the rider our conscious/ controlled thought that evolved to serve the elephant. ( Think how wrong everything we read about ourselves…rational man? LOL). The elephant is our emotion and all the automatic processes.
  • The rider is small compared to the elephant. They can both work together if we know how to direct our rider and motivate our elephant. The opposite, which often happens, is equally true.

(2) Switch

  • If you want to know some simple ways to change, read Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.
  • The basic idea is when we want to change, we need to first know if it’s a rider problem or an elephant problem. The rider will keep on analysing the problem if there is a lack of clarity. In the end, it will revert to status quo when it’s overwhelmed. The elephant will easily panic when the change seems hard. When it runs amok, the rider can only force his way for so long.
  • That is why self control is exhaustible. The elephant wins most of the time.

(3) Taming the elephant

  • So whenever we fall back to status quo or old habits, remember it’s not because we are lazy. The rider is exhausted and the elephant just bulldozes his way. Good habits work too – the rider is not exhausted directing the elephant.
  • Everyone can change if we know how to do it.
  • And remember one of the most permanent laws in life is the effect of cumulative advantage, we either keep getting better or worse.


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