By Chip and Dan Heath, Experience Life
Many of us have acted in ways we wish to change, or have created habits that don’t align with our future goals. You’ve likely 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.
These are all situations in which our emotional side overpowers our rational side — the Elephant overpowers the Rider.
It is helpful to think about how we can affect positive change through a metaphor used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis (Basic Books, 2006). He argues that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the 6-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched. Hence, we sleep in, overeat, call our ex, etc.
Most successful changes share a common pattern. They require the leader of the change to do three things at once: Direct the Rider; motivate the Elephant; and shape the Path.
The weakness of the Elephant, our emotional and instinctive side, is clear: It’s lazy and skittish, often looking for the quick payoff (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being fit). When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs. Such change attempts get scuttled when 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. But what may surprise you is that the Elephant also has enormous strengths and the Rider has crippling weaknesses.