Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How can I get the Elephant and the Rider moving together?

Most of us are familiar with the concept of left brain / right brain. One side is emotional and the other rational. In their latest book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Dan and Chip Heath use the metaphor of an Elephant and a Rider to describe our thinking. The Rider is our rational side who can either direct or find himself at the mercy of the emotional Elephant. Here’s the way they describe it:

“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.”

“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.”

“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 syas 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.”

We all know what happens when the Elephant takes over:

“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.”

Here’s the big take away:

Change Can Come Easily When Elephants and Riders Move 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.”

Switch is filled with examples of how to get the Rider and Elephant on the same path:

First you have to Direct the Rider:

  • Follow the Bright Spots - Investigate what's working and clone it.
  • Script the Critical Moves - Don't think big picture, think in terms of specific behaviors
  • Point to the Destination - Chang is easier when you known where you're going and why it's worth it.

At the same time you must Motivate the Elephant:

  • Find the Feeling - Knowing something isn't enough to cause change. Make people feel something.
  • Shrink the Change - Break down the change, until it no longer spooks the Elephant.
  • Grow Your People - Cultivate a sense of identity and instill the growth mindset.

And both Rider and Elephant move better when we Shape the Path:

  • Tweak the Environment - When the situation changes, the behavior changes. So change the situation.
  • Build Habits - When behavior is habitual, it's "free" -it doesn't tax the Rider. Look for ways to encourage habits.
  • Rally The Herd - Behavior is contagious. Help spread.

So if you are facing change - in your church or in your life - here's the big question:

“How can I get the Elephant and the Rider moving together?”


  1. Thanks for the quick overview. I bought the book its quite interested. I am still reading