How is it that you can want to stop smoking but still continue to smoke? Or want to eat healthily, but still give in to the temptation of junk food? Or resolve to be a better person, but still find yourself getting irritable?
Much has been written down the ages about how puny will power is when compared to our habits and desires, especially over an extended period of time. Sooner or later, our attention strays or our resolve weakens, and old habits reassert themselves.
The best metaphor I have seen for this mismatch between conscious intentions and unconscious behaviour comes from Jonathan Haidt’s excellent and very readable book The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science. He likens these two aspects of our selves to an elephant and its rider. The rider represents the ‘controlled’ processes of the mind, the planning and reasoning that takes place one step at a time in conscious awareness, while the elephant represents the hundreds of automatic operations we carry out every second outside of conscious awareness.
The elephant has been around a lot longer than the rider. It includes emotions, gut feelings, and visceral responses, and, like Pavlov’s dog, responds to stimulus control, whether the stimulus-response pairings are innate (like the startle response) or learned (like the urge to answer the phone when it rings).
The rider, by contrast, has very little influence on behaviour. Although he can look into the future, imagine hypothetical scenarios, and make plans, he cannot order the elephant to do anything. Essentially, the rider is an adviser. Usually, though, we don’t realise this: we think either that we are in charge of the elephant, or (perhaps more often) don’t realise there is an elephant, and then are baffled or give ourselves a hard time when we don’t stick to our resolutions and don’t carry out the actions that we know we “should” be doing.
Problems occur when rider and elephant are not operating in harmony. The great hypnotherapist Milton Erickson used to say that the reason his clients had problems was because their conscious and unconscious minds were out of rapport.
In a direct contest between the rider and the elephant, the elephant will win every time. It’s a lot bigger and stronger, and, as Haidt points out, our automatic processes have been honed over millions of years of evolution to work pretty much perfectly. The controlled processes, by contrast, are a recent development – ‘Rider 1.0’ – and still have some bugs to be ironed out.
It is possible, though, for the rider to use his ingenuity to train the elephant in various subtle ways, to distract it from harmful stimuli, and to refocus its attention on more productive goals. Nor should the flow of information be just one way. The elephant is aware of much more of what is going on in the surrounding environment than is the rider, so listening to what the elephant can tell us (in the form of feelings, intuitions, dreams and even physical symptoms) can help us to make much better plans and decisions.
In future articles I’ll be exploring the nature of the elephant/rider relationship further, and outlining some practical ways in which our conscious minds (the rider) can both influence and learn from our unconscious minds (the elephant).
Haidt’s book is about much more than this, by the way. Despite being easy to read, it’s so rich in information, useful perspectives and research information that I expect I’ll be integrating some of its implications and thinking about the many ways in which they can be useful for some time to come. Highly recommended!
Another blog posting mentioning the elephant/rider idea:
Leadership by and for rider/elephants by Dave Shearon on Positive Psychology News Daily