COMMENTARY 978.5: Understanding Change: The Elephant and the Rider

It took me a long time to realize the limitations of logic. For much of my life, including a 20-year stint as a law professor, I relied on discourse and reasoning to understand and resolve problems. I believed that I should suppress feelings that could result in irrational behavior, and I had little patience for those who seemed to govern their lives by emotions.

Despite my intellectual resistance, life’s experiences forced me to accept the reality that the relationship between the head and the heart is much more complicated. Not only did I find that many people I dealt with were unable or unwilling to give up the demands and satisfactions of giving in to their feelings, I came to realize how often my own behavior was dictated by those same feelings.

In his excellent book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt uses a memorable metaphor to describe the conflicting forces behind human conduct. He labels the conscious reasoning self as a Rider sitting atop an Elephant, the emotional self. The analytical Rider is constantly striving to direct and control the emotional Elephant. Dr. Haidt acknowledges that training the Elephant is possible and useful, but the larger and more powerful Elephant will sometimes go its own way.

This concept is also the premise of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, another very valuable book by brothers Dan and Chip Heath. Haidt and the Heaths make a rational, convincing case that it doesn’t really matter how much my Rider thinks it’s wiser to let reason dominate feelings; it’s just not always going to be that way.

The answer: learn how to work with the Elephant. I’ll talk more about this next time. In the meantime, check out the Heath brothers’ website. You’ll find lots of good free downloadable stuff.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.


Comments 6

  1. Understanding change is valuable topic to discuss on.
    I will use the metaphor ” the catalyst of change ”
    Changes comes from the heart coordinated by the mind or brain.
    Evaluative tools of change is channelled down by reflection and the meditation.
    Change is manisfested or transported into course of action.
    And action is the behavioral change.

  2. Hello,

    Is there another commentator on radio doing short stuff like Mr. Josephson does?

    Several years ago, I believe on KNX 1070, or maybe KFWB, both in California, I heard a short story about how a dog does not complain. The dog does not need a cup of coffee in the morning, does not have a headache, does not nag, does not have a bad morning, and so on compared to how much of this and that humans do and need.

    Did you air this comment about the dog and humans?

    I love your work, and I think it is great.

    Should you know of another commentator doing similar work to yours, who might have aired the story of the dog and humans, please give me the name and/or a contact point. I shall be grateful for the information.


  3. Please Someone, what is the title of the commentary about the doctor who decided not to get his car fixed after the little boy hit it with a rock because he was trying to get someone to help him? So powerful, as all of Mr. Josephson’s work. Thank you, thank you.

    1. Not Everyone in Need Has a Brick 459.3

      A successful man known for his philanthropy was driving his new car through a poor part of town. He’d driven the route hundreds of times before on his way home.

      A young boy tried to flag him down. The man was in a hurry and didn’t want to get involved, so he pretended he didn’t see the child. A traffic signal ahead turned red, though, and as he slowed for it, he heard a loud crash. The boy had thrown a brick at his car, denting the trunk.

      The man burst out of the car and grabbed him. “You juvenile delinquent!” he screamed. “You’ll pay for this or go to jail!”

      “I’m sorry, mister,” the boy cried. “My mom’s lying on the floor in our apartment. I think she’s dying. Our phone’s been cut off and I’ve been trying for ten minutes to get someone to stop. I didn’t know what else to do! Take me to jail, but please, call a doctor for my mom first.”

      The man was filled with shame. “I’m a doctor. Where is she?” The grateful boy took him to his apartment, and the doctor administered CPR and called an ambulance.

      “Will she live?” the boy sobbed.

      “Yes, son, she will,” the doctor said.

      “Then it’s worth going to jail. I’m so sorry I ruined your new car. You can take me in now.”

      “You’re not going anywhere,” the doctor said. “It was my fault you had to throw a brick to get my attention.”

      The doctor made sure the boy was taken care of, and as he drove home he resolved not to fix the dent. He would keep it as a reminder that not everyone in need has a brick to throw.

  4. The head/heart matter would also seem to influence our interactions with others, as noted in this quotation from Jonathan Swift:
    “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

  5. God gave us both heart and mind and the Bible has many references, since they are two main factors that differentiates us from the rest of creation. It is senseless to trump one over the other, or nourish one and starve the other.

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