The Elephant and Rider Inside Your Brain

Elephant 300Why do our decisions not always make sense? In The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Hardy discusses the notions of the ‘divided self’ that have existed since ancient times. Such ideas include mind versus body, left brain and right brain, and even old brain and new brain. Most of these theories have been superseded but there is one that seems to be backed up by neuroscience: the concept of the automatic (subconscious) mind and the controlled (conscious) mind – or the ‘elephant and rider.’

This last one is of particular interest and can help explain behaviour in many situations.

What is the ‘elephant and the rider’ metaphor?

The elephant and rider are used to represent the division between the unthinking, automatic, emotional mind and the controlled, commanding mind.

Most rational human beings believe that they are in control of their decision-making: that the ‘rider’ in their brains controls the ‘elephant’. But the elephant has other thoughts. It is a powerful and stubborn beast and is not easily controlled by brute force – it must be trained to comply.

So, rather than the rider always controlling the elephant, the reverse often happens.

How does this affect the workplace?

Neuroscience demonstrates that emotions play a far more important role in decision-making than was previously thought – no matter how rational we like to think that we are.

As professionals, we learn NOT to express our emotions, so we mask them: we try to ignore the elephant. This is dangerous for two main reasons. Firstly, by attempting to control our emotional system, we effectively reduce our cognitive capacity and lose our ability to think. Secondly, masking such feelings as anxiety and distress eventually leads to burn out, as the elephant will always struggle to be seen and heard.

When it comes to customers in retail environments, we tend to think that they make decisions when the rider is calmly in control of the elephant. This is not necessarily the case. People often make profoundly irrational decisions when the elephant is charging.

How often have you returned home and thought ‘Why did I buy that?’ Was the powerful elephant in control at the critical moment?

Businesses designing and marketing products and services therefore need to consider the elephant as well as the rider.

How do we stay in control?

It is often very inconvenient for the elephant to be in control. How about when we need to make an important decision when the high stakes are high? We know we cannot tame the elephant by ignoring it, or by brute force – it is stronger and more stubborn than us.

You control the elephant by training and meeting its needs.  That way we can ensure a happy elephant that follows instructions, instead of a frustrated beast causing havoc.

Leaders therefore need to consider which emotions are sanctioned in their teams and how to create an environment more conducive to being able to express these emotions.

Which emotions so you talk about and which ones are taboo? It can be useful to encourage the labelling of emotions. Neuroscience has shown us that the ability to describe an emotion precisely reduces its intensity.

Leaders must steer groups away from always feeling that everything is under control. The elephant is never far from planning a stampede.

Next time you are wondering why people present a logical, ordered, rational face to the world but don’t always do what they said, think of the rider and the elephant and you may have the answer.

The team at NeuroPower is at the forefront of introducing new approaches to organisational development through the findings of neuroscience. We apply them to all types of businesses, developing high performing teams and enhancing leadership. Find out more at our website:

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