Elephant and rider: why don’t I do what I want me to do?

We often have a model of ourselves that has the brain in control as the executive centre. Information comes in, is considered and decisions are made. If I scratch my ear it’s because I’ve detected an itch and chosen an appropriate response. It’s almost like we have an army of specialists in lots of departments looking after each of our mind and body functions. There used to be a cartoon where they all wore white coats.

There is though another model, which I find people often recognise as more realistic: the elephant and the rider. You can see this pair lumbering through the jungle and hear an incessant chatter coming from the rather officious rider who thinks he’s in control.

“I’ll keep on walking this way for a bit, oh no, maybe not, I’ll head off right towards this water and [whoa!] knock over this tree and have a drink, no have a bathe and [oops!] fall down and roll over in the mud . . .”

It’s funny because we can see that the elephant is doing pretty much whatever he wants to do and that the rider is just making things up as he goes along in an effort to pretend that he’s in charge. It rather sounds like me shopping or going to Five Guys.

What’s he’s actually doing is known as confabulating. Post rationalising decisions in the top of the mind that have already been made in the lower, less conscious part. This is similar to the idea of System 1 and System 2 thinking popularised in Danial Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. The idea here is that some of our thinking is fast, easy and spontaneous (System 1) and some is slow, effortful and deliberate (System 2).

The elephant and rider metaphor suggests that we’re actually much more inclined towards System 1 (fast) and that System 2 (slow) is as often as not just playing catch up. The elephant might move slow but he thinks fast. Back in 2008, researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig carried out experiments using MRI brain scanners where they asked subjects to make simple binary decisions using a button on either their left or right hands. Incredibly, the decision could be detected by the scanner up to seven seconds before a conscious preference was expressed by pushing one of the two buttons.

Jonathan Haidt explores some of the implications of this in his excellent book The Happiness Hypothesis. One thing that he highlights is that modern neuroscience is substantiating some very old philosophical ideas. The elephant and rider metaphor actually comes from the 2nd Century BC. What this proposes is that most of our innate intelligence sits in the silent elephant, and not the bothersome rider. This flips the traditional view formulated by René Descartes that has underpinned many Western and post-Enlightenment assumptions.

If you ever watch football you’ll be familiar with the expression “he had too much time to think about it”. A player applying his thinking mind often makes worse choices than when he acts instinctively: “I just put my foot through it”. Cognitive scientists are increasingly forming a consensus that highly intelligent decisions about creativity, problem solving and insight come from the pre-verbal mind and that the role of our narrator is just to explain and justify these things to other people, and almost as a by-product of this ability (i.e. language) to ourselves.

What does this mean in a coaching context?

Two things stand out. The first is to acknowledge and respect gut instinct. We do “think things through” but this is much more of a commentary and articulation of understanding and decisions being made at a deeper level. Listen to your body and go with your feelings; scientists are increasingly siding with Obi-Wan Kenobi and your grannie.

The second is what to make of the rider – what is this voice inside my head and what is it doing? It’s a huge pre-occupation and making sense of it is what most people want to do in coaching.

Well, mostly it’s making up stories. Some of them are extremely useful, especially as they provide a way to explain and persuade ideas to other people.

But we also use it to explain and rationalise things to ourselves and this is where things can get complicated. What we really want and need is a coherent and meaningful narrative that makes sense. When things don’t make sense we can suffer doubt and anxiety. A response to this can be to go back to the safety of our narrative and deny reality.

“[The mind] has become, through an interlocking series of evolutionary accidents and coincidences, primarily a mechanism for constructing dubious stories whose purpose is to defend a superfluous and inaccurate sense of self”.

 Guy Claxton, Wholly Human: Western and Eastern Visions of the Self and Its Perfection.

At the start of this article the rider didn’t really want to turn off the path and go to the watering hole but he persuaded himself that he did. If the story that we tell ourselves is that I never make mistakes about sales projections then if I’m being told that sales aren’t meeting my projections, the data must be wrong. And if the data isn’t wrong, then the methodology for collecting it must be wrong. I can’t be wrong. Because if I am then nothing makes sense anymore and I can’t cope with that.

This is called sedimentation of fixed beliefs. It happens all the time; we believe things because they’re necessary to sustain the coherence of our narrative, our self-talk which we prioritise over events in the real world. Taken to extremes this can lead to delusion and fantasy as brilliantly portrayed in the book and film Shutter Island.

The better response is to hold off our anxiety and determination for things to snap into the familiar and re-assuring focus of what we have known to be. We might be right but we can also consider alternatives. In fact as we accommodate new information and experiences (my sales forecasting can sometimes be incorrect) we build up a more complex understanding of the world that is closer to reality and consequently more helpful.

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