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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

The Rider, the Elephant, and the Path

Updated: 2 days ago

 

Years ago, I was introduced to a Jonathan Haidt concept regarding how the mind, emotions, and behavior function. Later illustrated in a YouTube video, a narrator described:

 

Psychologists know that there are two systems in our brains, the rational system and the emotional system. Jonathan Haidt, who’s a psychologist at NYU [New York University], came up with a great analogy for these two systems. He said, ‘Think of your brain as a human rider atop an elephant.’

 

The rider represents the rational system—that’s the part of us that plans and problem-solves. The rider might do some analyzing and decide, ‘Hey, I wanna go that way.’ But it’s the elephant, representing the emotional system, that provides the power for the journey. The rider can try to lead the elephant or drag the elephant, but if these two ever disagree, who would you bet on?

 

The elephant has a 6-ton weight advantage, and it’s exactly that power imbalance that makes adopting new behaviors very hard. If you want this duo to head a new direction, you also need to think about the path which represents the external environment. This duo is more likely to complete a journey if you can shorten the distance and remove any obstacles in their way.

 

So bottom line, if you want to lead change, you’ve got to do three things. Give direction to the rider—knowledge of how to get to the destination. You’ve got to motivate the elephant, which means tapping into emotion. And finally, you need to shape the path to allow for easy progress. That’s how change happens.

 

Although there are elements of this analogy with which I disagree, I overall appreciate the concept. Adjusting the comparison to fit a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) frame, I offer the following.

 

The rider continues to represent the rational mind. Using logic and reason, the rider may influence the elephant which represents consequential feelings (emotions and bodily sensations) and behavior. These consequences are dependent upon what instruction is received from the rider.

 

For instance, if the rider uses a well-reasoned prescription in association with the elephant, the beast will likely respond accordingly. As an example, the rider may instruct, “Go this way,” as he motions in a particular direction, “because there’s a cliff up ahead and we don’t need to go over it.”

 

However, when the rider uses irrational beliefs in the form of demandingness, awfulizing, low frustration tolerance, or global evaluations, the elephant takes these rigid commands and runs with them. The results of the rider’s unhelpful assumptions may have devastating effects.

 

As an example, the rider may inflexibly command, “I must not make mistakes, others must also be perfect, and the world must never inconvenience me!” Unlike productive instruction, whereby averting catastrophe of tumbling over a cliff occurs, unhelpful musterbation causes the elephant to react erratically.

 

Regarding the path, I disagree with the notion that one can or even should remove obstacles which impede the rider and elephant’s journey. I simply do not see evidence of a rider maintaining enough control over others or the world as a whole in order to fulfill such a mission.

 

With little doubt, I suspect the feel-good idea of being able to manipulate one’s environment in such a way may be preferable to the challenge of facing discomfort with tolerance and acceptance. After all, it isn’t pleasing to think of how little control one has in this life.

 

Nevertheless, I operate in accordance with the is-ought standard—acknowledging reality rather than demanding that life ought to be any other way. Therefore, I advocate dealing with the path as it is rather than how one irrationally believes it ought to be.

 

Moreover, and contrary to what the narrator of the YouTube video stated, I don’t advocate “easy progress.” Progress, whether easy or not, is the goal.

 

In all, I appreciate Haidt’s contribution to the knowledge of how change works. With slight modification to fit an REBT frame, I use his illustrative example when working with people who are unfamiliar with how to effectively address their interests and goals.

 

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

 

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

 

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

 

 

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW

 

 

References:

 

Hollings, D. (2022, May 17). Circle of concern. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/circle-of-concern

Hollings, D. (2022, October 31). Demandingness. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/demandingness

Hollings, D. (2022, October 5). Description vs. prescription. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/description-vs-prescription

Hollings, D. (2022, March 15). Disclaimer. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/disclaimer

Hollings, D. (2023, September 8). Fair use. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/fair-use

Hollings, D. (2023, October 12). Get better. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/get-better

Hollings, D. (2023, September 13). Global evaluations. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/global-evaluations

Hollings, D. (n.d.). Hollings Therapy, LLC [Official website]. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/

Hollings, D. (2024, January 2). Interests and goals. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/interests-and-goals

Hollings, D. (2023, May 18). Irrational beliefs. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/irrational-beliefs

Hollings, D. (2023, September 19). Life coaching. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/life-coaching

Hollings, D. (2023, January 8). Logic and reason. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/logic-and-reason

Hollings, D. (2022, December 2). Low frustration tolerance. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/low-frustration-tolerance

Hollings, D. (2022, March 25). Rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/rational-emotive-behavior-therapy-rebt

Hollings, D. (2024, January 4). Rigid vs. rigorous. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/rigid-vs-rigorous

Hollings, D. (2022, October 7). Should, must, and ought. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/should-must-and-ought

Hollings, D. (2023, May 24). Stop musterbating. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/stop-musterbating

Hollings, D. (2022, December 14). The is-ought problem. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/the-is-ought-problem

Hollings, D. (2023, February 16). Tna. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/tna

Hollings, D. (2022, November 15). To don a hat. Hollings Therapy, LLC. Retrieved from https://www.hollingstherapy.com/post/to-don-a-hat

Rare. (2015, April 2). The elephant, the rider and the path - A tale of behavior change [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/X9KP8uiGZTs?si=VufYyQ3tbb-T4TAy

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Jonathan Haidt. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Haidt

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