The elephant and the rider

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures. We sift the evidence, weigh the pros and cons, and take decisions based on clear understanding of the facts.

Except we don’t.

In his book the Righteous Mind, psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt explains that our thought process works like a rider sitting on an elephant. The rider is the rational, thoughtful mind. The elephant is the instinctive, immediately-reactive subconscious.

When faced with a new situation, or a decision to make, in the blink of an eye the elephant decides whether to turn left or right. Then the rational rider looks for information that supports the elephant’s choice. And rejects anything that implies the elephant was wrong.

The rider can’t change the elephant’s direction. Once the elephant has turned, the path is set in stone for a while.


This has huge implications for communication, change and how we influence one another.

If you want to set or shift someone’s mindset about something, you have to speak to the elephant first. Set up a situation that will provoke an emotional response in the direction you want.

If someone’s elephant has turned left, it won’t matter how cleverly you craft your memo to the rider explaining that they should have gone the other way. It’s already too late.

Thanks to Kristin Noelle from for letting me use her wonderful image.

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