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The Elephant and the Rider: Gaining Control of Your Thoughts and Actions

What is the elephant and the rider?

You're hungry, tired, cold and thoroughly done. When faced with adversity, do you react the same way you would with a full stomach or when you're full of patience early on in your day?

It's easy to go through the days getting pulled from pillar to post like a chimp on autopilot, automatically reacting to external forces and hoping for the best.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has an interesting analogy. Imagine for a second an elephant. Upon the elephant is a rider. These two represent two sides of our thinking. The limbic system runs your basic instincts, food, water, sex and sleep. The neocortex, the other side, is what sets you as a human being apart from any other animal on earth. It gives you rational thinking. In essence, it stops the limbic system from taking control. It makes sure you don't act like a monkey. It helps you see future consequences and avoid hurling poo at strangers.

Haidt uses the example of a wild elephant being your limbic brain, with your neocortex being the rider, trying to control the elephant.

As the rational rider, you have a big challenge. You have an unwieldy beast that is much stronger (but thankfully not smarter) than you that has very primal desires. Desires that often aren't in your best interest. These desires come from hardwiring that is massively outdated.

Our environments evolution has outpaced our own. We evolved in small tribes of people of no more than 100. Man evolved to gorge on sugars and carbohydrates as they were finite we needed to get in as many as possible. Those that were mistrusting and pessimistic did best surviving conflicts with the elements and enemies. So they came up with strategies for survival.

Survival being the keyword, they scrapped by, persisted and grinded, striving for more. Fast forward to today, and we have that same hard wiring. Some of it serves. It means we persevere and improve, our societies are cleaner, safer and fairer. But lots of us are being walked through modern life by our outdated elephant, and this causes trouble. We aren't adapted to modern-day thriving.

It's no wonder our societies are riddled with anxiety, and people that have achieved so much still feel depressed and disillusioned. It is because the elephant is walking the rider, not the other way around.

So how do we gain more control?

You are the rational being and as the Stoics argued, you have the freedom to choose your emotions and reactions. The driver in charge of your destiny. Even if it may not feel like it. This understanding of which thoughts are your primal desires that can be tamed and which thoughts are your own is crucial. With it you can carefully consider others, your future and what's actually best in any given moment.

Don't be fooled though, it isn't an overnight decision. It's not as simple as telling the wild elephant to turn and go neatly past life's obstacles at your first command. Your elephant will resist. It will want you to persist with bad habits, and make hedonistic decisions that hurt others.

On your journey through life, aim to accept and understand the elephant. This is half the battle.

Consciously pause before you react. Ask yourself, 'is this the elephant or the rider talking?'. Reflect and think rationally. 'How would the best version of yourself behave here?' Would they resist the overreaction? Holding their tongue and silencing the mean words before automated verbal diarrhoea ensues. Would they turn down the appealing offer from an attractive stranger because they have a family back home?

We are all born with an elephant and a rider. We all have the choice of who will control the journey. Pursuing rational thought and continuous improvement is the answer to a happier, healthier life.

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