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The Elephant and the Rider

Managing Yourself, Psychology

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt introduced a useful analogy for thinking about behaviour change. Haidt argues that we have two sides: an emotional side (the Elephant), and an analytical, rational side (its Rider).

Haidt’s analogy has it that the Rider is rational and can therefore see a path ahead while underneath him, the Elephant provides the power for the journey. However the Elephant is irrational and driven by emotion and instinct.

If you’re familiar with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, you might also call these System One and System Two. It’s also not a million miles away from Steve Peters’ The Chimp Paradox.

Chip and Dan Heath also reference the rider and the elephant in their book Switch: How to change things when change is hard. They explain:

“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.”

Using this analogy it’s clear why adopting new behaviours can be so hard. We especially like it as it applies to changing behaviour from an individual point of view, but can also be applied to leading change in organisations.

What should we do to keep in control of the Elephant? As the rational Rider we might know where we want to go, but we need to motivate the Elephant by tapping into emotion. Finally to improve the chances of the Elephant staying on course, shorten the distance and remove any obstacles.

For a more visual approach to describing this analogy, watch this short video narrated by Dan Heath.

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