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Understanding the Complexity of Human Behavior. The Elephant and Rider. Insights from Day Crafting

The Problem: Unraveling Human Behaviour

How do we explain our odd behaviour – procrastination, resistance to change, difficulty changing or starting habits, intense emotional feelings and instant reactions? Your logical mind wants to act one way, but another part pulls you in a different direction. This internal struggle is a common experience, describing a fundamental aspect of human psychology and is relevant to the behaviour design central to Day Crafting. Sometimes, it is as if two distinct entities are within us: one driven by raw emotion and instinct and another governed by reason and foresight. What if both of these aspects could work together rather than in conflict?

Understanding this concept is crucial in self-improvement and personal development. The quality of our inner life and outward-focused actions and behaviours aren’t just about rational decision-making; deeper moods, emotions and motivations also influence them. Both the design for our days and our actual craftwork at the working surface benefit from this foundational appreciation of us as complex material.

Along with mindsets, identity and behavioural psychology, the elephant and rider analogy in Day Crafting helps us understand the qualities of the material we’re working with as craftspeople – us and the contexts we’re in.

Models: Contrasting Perspectives on Inner Conflict

Various frameworks help to encapsulate this duality by giving us an image or model – from Plato’s Charioteer and Horses (Phaedrus) to System 1 and 2, famous from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. There’s the survival brain v’s, the thinking brain, and the ancient brain v’s, the modern brain. Another well-known image comes from the book The Chimp Paradox by Dr. Steve Peters. He proposes a mind model consisting of the Chimp (emotions), the Human (rational thinking) and the Computer (subconscious autopilot). I first came across my preferred model, the elephant and rider, when reading Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis, although the model of elephant and rider goes back much further and appears first in Buddhist teachings. Further reading suggestions are collected at the end of the article.

I prefer the image of elephant and rider because it conveys a lot of information about the relative strengths of the two systems. The elephant is strong! The model stands out for its simplicity and practical application in daily life. The key to this metaphor is understanding how these two parts interact. While the rider might seem to be in charge, holding the reins, the elephant – with its immense size and strength – has the real power. If the rider and the elephant disagree on where to go, the rider is almost powerless to compel the elephant to move against its will.

A caveat.
One note of caution is that these analogies are not the truth. It might feel as if our thinking, feeling, and reacting processes are two entities, but leading neuroscientists like Lisa Feldman Barrett are sceptical and are systematically dismantling many traditional views. For example, Barrett’s work on emotions, in TED talks and books (How Emotions Are Made), is fascinating, challenging the idea that emotions are universally recognised, automatic and distinct entities. Instead, she posits that our brain constructs emotions in the moment by interpreting bodily sensations in the context of our current environment and past experiences.

In modern neuroscience, while the distinction between automatic and controlled processes is recognised, the understanding of the brain is more complex and less binary. Neuroscience focuses on specific neural networks, brain regions and their functions rather than broadly categorising thought processes into two systems. The brain’s activity is understood to be highly interconnected and dynamic, with multiple processes often co-occurring and influencing each other. And thinking isn’t just a brain process – The Extended Mind is another good read if this interests you.

With that caveat in mind, we will continue to explore how the elephant and rider shed light on our behaviour.

The Elephant’s Role in Cognition and Behaviour

Meet the elephant. It represents a collection of our brain’s ancient, automatic parts – our emotions, instincts, and subconscious desires. It’s powerful, often acting quickly and monitoring multiple tasks with little effort. Immediate needs and survival instincts drive this part of us – it doesn’t think much about the future and is more concerned with keeping us safe today and ensuring our place within our tribe. It does this constantly and is always interpreting, predicting and conserving energy use.

A lot of this automatic functionality goes on without our conscious mind being aware, but the elephant can be triggered – if it seemed fast asleep moments ago, now it is not. Triggers can include issues to do with power, territory, ego, dominance, sex, food, social position, security and parental drive. The elephant gives rise to opinionated, sometimes irrational ideas and behaviour and can be powerful in its reactions.

You might also see it as the source of some authentic truths and unspoken drives we don’t normally acknowledge. You might welcome its influence when you need those aspects of you to keep you safe or negotiate in threatening situations or with powerful people.

The elephant’s two voices.
Other than when it’s ‘asleep’, I’ve begun to think of the elephant as having two voices. Voice one is loud and unmistakable and very hard to ignore. When the elephant hijacks us, we know it. We were upset for two days because of the hurtful thing that was said to us. We can’t get an emotional idea out of our heads; our thoughts feel captured. We’re instantaneously furious about something but later aren’t sure why – or we barely manage to contain the string of critical, lewd, lusty, envious or angry voices we hear internally.

Any of these can relate to your personal collection of elephant triggers mentioned above. Anger over your sense of your territory being invaded is as much an elephant survival reaction as a desire to care for or touch cute babies and pets (parental drive). (When I became a parent of such a baby, I was interested in the (verging on inappropriate) elephant behaviour of strangers who would approach my child and assume it was okay to enact a little cooing and touching ritual.)

I’m becoming more aware of the elephant’s voice two, which is quiet, subtle and easier to ignore – doing so might be a mistake. Often, we don’t ignore the elephant’s voice two. Whenever you become consciously aware of a bodily need, such as thirst, hunger, discomfort or the first hints at an illness – that might be the elephant calmly communicating a need that it wants you to remedy, and you grab a glass of water.

We don’t find the message that we’re thirsty controversial, but I think we are less accepting of some more complex voice two messages from the elephant that appear in our conscious such as: I don’t feel like it, or when our behaviour finds procrastination or distraction a much easier option than what we’re supposed to be doing. Instead of listening to this voice, we tell ourselves we’re lazy or lack self-control or discipline.

It might appear like this – we’re aware of some low-level behaviour, mood, reaction or feeling in ourselves that we (the rider) find irrational, and our response is self-criticism (sometimes not without justification).

In Day Crafting, the elephant is a significant part of our motivation and ability to focus at the working surface; our emotional state influences our approach to tasks. It shows up in our difficulty with unexpected or spontaneous decision-making and our struggles with forming and resisting habits. When we can’t focus or are tempted to procrastinate, the elephant speaks to us in voice two. It is saying that it wasn’t consulted at the planning stage of this activity, and it either isn’t ready to do it or doesn’t want to.

When I hear Day Crafting Apprentice riders in the full throws of self-condemnation for their procrastination or irrational behaviour, I have this image of a rider whipping an elephant with a straw. Good luck with that. You’re wasting your time, and it’s unkind. Sometimes, when you’re feeling (what modern, productive society might call) lazy, distractible, don’t feel like it or just too tired, and you’re tempted to find a technique to power through, you might be ignoring powerful self-preservation instincts. If you ignore them long enough, the elephant might resort to voice one.

It is easy to see the elephant as the problem, but a lot of issues I see with Apprentices are due to the situations their riders have gotten themselves into that have disregarded the elephant – you didn’t do enough to prepare the task so that all of you was ready, or you didn’t figure that your elephant was never going to want to do it anyway. Perhaps the rider is the problem.

Now is an excellent time to point out that Day Crafting, as a detailed methodology, has been formulated from the ground up to be elephant-friendly. No thwacking is necessary.

The Rider: Navigating Logic and Control

Perched atop the elephant is the rider, symbolising our newer, rational brain – the seat of logic, self-control, language, planning, moral reasoning and conscious thought. The rider attempts to guide us in making plans and decisions with our long-term wellbeing in mind (it is in charge of reading this now). However, this control is often flimsy if it hasn’t allowed for the elephant, whose immense power can easily overwhelm the rider’s directives.

These higher cognitive functions are predominantly associated with the prefrontal cortex, but this understanding is evolving. The rider’s cognitive processes are not isolated to the prefrontal cortex. They involve complex interactions with other brain areas, such as the limbic system for emotional processing and the parietal cortex for sensory information integration. Regions involved in language processing, such as Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, contribute to the rider’s ability for abstract thinking, reasoning and complex communication.

The prefrontal cortex, particularly in its current form, is a relatively recent development in evolutionary terms. It’s one of the most distinctive features of the human brain, especially in its size and complexity compared to other animals. The brain’s surface wrinkles are a design solution to fitting more brains into a cramped space. The advanced development of the prefrontal cortex and its associated cognitive abilities have played a crucial role in the evolution of human intelligence, social structures, and culture.

Understanding of the brain, including the functions attributed to the rider, is continually evolving. Neuroscientific research is still uncovering how various brain regions interact and how these interactions influence behaviour and cognition. Brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to change and adapt throughout an individual’s life, suggests that the functions of the rider are not fixed but can be developed and altered based on experiences and learning. One of the most significant challenges in neuroscience is understanding consciousness – a vital aspect of the rider. The nature of consciousness, how it arises from neural processes, and its exact relationship with brain function remains one of the biggest mysteries in science.

Another way to express some of this science more bluntly is to highlight work-in-progress state of the rider (in evolutionary terms). If the elephant were software, it would be a reliable, multi-tasking, rapid operating system. The rider, by comparison, would be beta software, not entirely stable version 1, yet it thinks it runs the show.

The rider is broadly responsible for logical thinking, language and decision-making. The rider weighs up the pros and cons of the job you’re applying for or the project you are interested in. It considers places to live, cars to drive, future leisure activities and schools to go to, and it thinks it’s good at all of this whilst suffering from a constellation of biases. The elephant isn’t much consulted. Day Crafting really does get to grips with this.

The rider is sometimes relegated to explaining or rationalising the elephant’s impulsive actions. Books like Predictably Irrational, Thinking Fast and Slow, Happiness Hypothesis and Stumbling on Happiness are all entertaining books on these aspects.

Elephant and Rider in Action: Observing Real-world Phenomena

An individual is more or less integrated in their self-understanding and more or less integrated in their orientation (are their elephant and rider understanding each other and facing in the same direction). People who are integrated and oriented can be formidable – not always in a good way. I can think of political debates between somebody who is all logical and reasonable rider (with a well-suppressed elephant) against a political opponent whose elephant is out, proud and given full reign. We can’t be surprised when a startling number of the broader tribe see the latter as strength.

If someone is not in touch at all with the elephant aspects of their behaviour, they’ll struggle to articulate or express the semi-conscious instincts of the elephant. They’ll be someone who answers, I don’t know, to self-examination questions. Why did you say that? Why did you react that way? Why don’t you feel like it? ... I don’t know.

Here are some other typical examples. Consider the struggle to start a new exercise routine. The rider knows it’s beneficial, but the elephant resists the immediate discomfort. A more mundane example of their role could be seen in a typical task such as planning a trip. The rider does all the thinking, one topic at a time, to work out the itinerary and logistics. In contrast, the actual driving and all the automatic actions it requires are down to the elephant – the dynamic manifests in various aspects of our lives. The Day Crafting workbooks are full of relevant examples in context from work to rest, self-care to adapting to change.

Here’s how the model could apply to some famous psychological experiments.

The Marshmallow Test: In this famous study by psychologist Walter Mischel, young children were offered one marshmallow immediately or two marshmallows if they could wait 15 minutes. The children struggle between their elephant desire for immediate gratification and their rider’s rational understanding of delayed rewards.

The Asch Conformity Experiment: In this classic study, participants were asked to judge the length of lines in a group setting. Even when the answer was obvious, many participants conformed to the incorrect answers given by others in the group. This illustrates the power of social influence on our elephant, overriding the rational judgment of the rider.

The Paradox of Choice: Research has shown that having too many options can lead to decision paralysis and dissatisfaction. This occurs when the elephant becomes overwhelmed by the abundance of choices, and our rider struggles to analyse and evaluate each option, leaving us feeling stuck and dissatisfied.

The IKEA Effect: Studies have found that people place a disproportionately high value on items they have assembled themselves, even if the result is imperfect. This highlights the elephant’s emotional attachment to our creations, which can sometimes override the rider’s rational understanding of their objective value.

The Bystander Effect: In emergency situations, individuals are often less likely to offer help when more people are around. This counterintuitive phenomenon can be explained by the elephant’s emotional reaction to social cues and the diffusion of responsibility, which can overpower the rider’s rational understanding of the need for assistance.

Relevance to Day Crafting: Practical Applications

In Day Crafting, understanding the elephant and rider, in other words, understanding crucial aspects of how we design, prepare, experience and review days is fundamental. As a bundle of theories, it is also straightforward to understand and rewarding to apply.

The Day Crafting Workbooks provide numerous applications: designing tasks in an elephant-friendly manner, using small, non-threatening steps to coax the elephant, or preparing the environment to prevent elephant-led disruptions. Recognising and harmonising the elephant and rider’s needs and strengths is critical to crafting a fulfilling and productive day. We need both aspects of ourselves.

With the quick learning cycle of design, craft and review, you can incorporate the elephant’s needs into the rider’s planning for a balanced approach, creating tasks and routines that appeal to the elephant to ensure better adherence.

Elephants resist change and like habits because they save energy, but Day Crafting introduce small, non-threatening changes that the elephant can accept, leading to significant long-term transformations. By understanding and applying the elephant and rider analogy within the Day Crafting framework, practitioners can achieve a harmonious balance between their emotional and rational selves, leading to more productive, fulfilling, and balanced days.
Crafting in Harmony

When you identify the dynamic of the elephant and rider in your actions and behaviours, you might wonder if change or improvement is possible. You should be able to focus at the working surface or say no more easily. Perhaps you’d like to temper your emotions or resist unhealthy habits. Most of us can identify some seemingly rigid behaviour that we’d like to change, but we’re daunted by the prospect of having tried and failed before. Is change even possible? In Day Crafting, taming or softening the elephant’s strength helps balance our uninhibited instincts and rational thoughts.

The encouraging evidence is that change and elephant training are possible, and there are a variety of techniques to try. In this context, the material we’re discussing as craftspeople isn’t stone or metal but more like clay or wood. Its shape can be changed but gradually and carefully. I’ve been collecting overt elephant training methodologies for a long time, but here’s an interesting diversion that applies the model to an organisational level.

Kaizen is an elephant-friendly management technique originating from Japan that recognises that when a significant change is necessary for an organisation, it is better to make continuous, incremental improvements in processes, efficiency and quality rather than dictate big dramatic shifts.

Kaizen encourages small, incremental changes rather than large, disruptive ones. This approach is more acceptable to the elephant, which takes comfort in routines and resists sudden change, which it thinks might not be safe. Kaizen’s step-by-step approach reduces the perceived threat of new initiatives, minimising resistance from employees and departments accustomed to specific working methods. Kaizen also values the tacit knowledge and experience of the employees, from the shop floor to the executive suite. This draws on elephant strengths of intuition and experiential learning and integrates these into the organisational improvement process.

If you want to develop more harmony between your elephant and rider, here are some practices to try.

Mindfulness and Meditation

  • Daily Practice: Incorporate 10-20 minutes of mindfulness or meditation into your daily routine. This practice helps in observing the elephant’s impulses non-judgmentally.
  • Breathing Techniques: Use breathing exercises to calm the mind and reduce the elephant’s immediate emotional reactions.
  • Mindful Observation: Regularly take moments throughout the day to observe your surroundings, thoughts, and feelings without reaction, understanding the elephant’s nature.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

  • Identify and Challenge Distorted Thinking: Recognise the elephant’s irrational or exaggerated thoughts and challenge them with rational counterarguments from the rider.
  • Behavioural Experiments: Conduct small, controlled experiments to test the reality of the elephant’s fears or assumptions.
  • Problem-Solving Skills: Enhance the rider’s ability to deal with problems the elephant finds overwhelming.

Journaling for Self-Reflection

  • Daily Reflections: Write about your day, focusing on moments when the elephant was in control and how the rider responded.
  • Gratitude Journaling: Keep a gratitude journal to cultivate positive emotions, reducing the elephant’s focus on negative aspects.
  • Emotion Tracking: Track your emotions and triggers over time to better understand the elephant’s patterns and how to prepare for them.

Habit Formation and Modification

  • Small, Incremental Changes: Introduce small, manageable changes in your routine that don’t threaten the elephant but gradually lead to significant transformations.
  • Cue-Routine-Reward Cycle: Understand and modify this cycle to form new, healthier habits that align with both the rider’s goals and the elephant’s needs.

Elephant-Friendly Project Strategy

  • Short-Term Rewards: Incorporate immediate, tangible rewards in your intentions to satisfy the elephant’s need for instant gratification.
  • Align Intentions with Emotional Desires: Frame your intentions and objectives in a way that resonates with your core emotional desires, making them more attractive to the elephant.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

  • Recognise and Label Emotions: Learn to identify and name your emotions, a practice that can diminish the intensity of the elephant’s reactions.
  • Empathise with Yourself: Practice self-compassion and understanding towards your emotional responses, reducing internal conflict.

Further reading.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters
How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
The Extended Mind by Annie Murphy Paul
And any of the Day Crafting Workbooks by Bruce Stanley


The Practice

More journalling exercises for personal reflection

Reflect on a Personal Experience:

  • Journal Prompt: Reflect on when your emotional and intuitive side, the elephant, overpowered your rational thinking, the rider. Could you describe the situation and its outcome? How did you feel, and what did you learn about yourself?
  • Learning Goal: To increase self-awareness and understand the dynamics between your emotional intuition and rational decision-making in real-life situations.

Harmony Between Emotion and Rationality:

  • Journal Prompt: Recall a moment when your elephant and rider worked in harmony. Describe the experience, how it felt, and the result of this alignment.
  • Learning Goal: To recognise the benefits of aligning your emotional intuition with rational thinking and motivate yourself to foster such alignment more often.

Recognising and Managing Elephant Hijacking:

  • Journal Prompt: Consider signs indicating your elephant is taking the lead. What strategies can you use to bring back rational control? List situations and the techniques you might employ.
  • Learning Goal: To enhance your ability to identify when emotions are driving your decisions and to develop strategies to regain a balance of rational control.

Training Your Emotional Self:

  • Journal Prompt: Consider ways to better align your emotional responses with your rational decisions. What habits or practices can you adopt to foster this harmony?
  • Learning Goal: To discover practical techniques for encouraging a productive partnership between your emotional intuition and rational thought processes.

Interacting with Elephant Driven Individuals:

  • Journal Prompt: Reflect on approaches to effectively communicate with others when their elephants lead them. How can you respond constructively?
  • Learning Goal: To improve your communication skills and engage empathetically and effectively with those acting primarily on emotion.

Cultural and Social Influences:

  • Journal Prompt: How do cultural and social contexts affect your emotional and rational sides? Reflect on specific influences and their impact on your decision-making.
  • Learning Goal: Understanding how external factors shape the interplay between intuitive emotions and rational thoughts.

Decision-Making Under Pressure:

  • Journal Prompt: Analyse a high-pressure situation where you need to make a decision. How did you manage your emotional and rational responses? What could be improved?
  • Learning Goal: To develop skills for making balanced decisions under stress and acknowledging emotional and rational contributions.

Supporting Team Dynamics:

  • Journal Prompt: Reflect on how you can help others manage their elephant and riders in a team setting. What actions can foster a supportive environment?
  • Learning Goal: To enhance teamwork and collaboration skills by understanding how to aid others in balancing their thinking fast and slow.

Mindfulness and Balance:

  • Journal Prompt: How does practising mindfulness affect the relationship between your elephant and rider? Explore the benefits and how you can incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine.
  • Learning Goal: To comprehend how mindfulness practices can help achieve a balance between elephant and rider, with practical applications for daily life.

Navigating Difficult Conversations:

  • Journal Prompt: Consider a challenging conversation or conflict. How can understanding the dynamics aid in resolving these situations?
  • Learning Goal: To enhance your conflict resolution skills through an informed approach considering both elephant and rider.


Written by Bruce Stanley on Sun, January 21, 2024

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