The Elephant and The Rider Metaphor

Jonathan Haidt describes the Elephant & Rider metaphor in the Happiness Hypothesis. The elephant is all of the machinations of emotions and neuropeptides and unconscious and subconscious processes. It holds our implicit bias. Everything that happens before word gets to the rider is done by the elephant - fear, physical and emotional calculus. Let's call this all Elephant Calculus. I've been trying to come up with a name for the preconscious elephant decision making process. RSA Animates video featuring the Elephant & Rider.

Here are some quotes from the book:

p. 9 - You will catch the rider confabulating in later chapters.

Confabulating is the process of the rider taking credit for making decisions and inventing stories about why they were made. So, no immediate free will, only reacting when we can be as contemplative, then we have bit of free will. We can only "live our values" thru training the elephant such that its calculus and behavior match our values. Elephant Calculus. The extent to which we have trained our elephant is the extent to which we have free will. For planning, we can imagine and articulate alternatives. Elephant has an automatic "like-o-meter" and negativity bias. There is a lot of overlap between Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow with the fast thinking done by the elephant and the slow thinking done by the rider.

p.18 - Avoid a conflict of wills with the elephant. [jch: The elephant's will power requires no effort. Instead, train the elephant! Step 1 - shift your attention

This metaphor has legs! (6 of them)

Good Articles about the metaphor:   The Elephant and the Rider : Sources of Insight ,


The FANTASTIC PBS series Hacking Your Mind used the concept of autopilot, which to my mind is nearly synonymous with the Elephant, except, that it might imply that when you, the pilot takes the controls, you actually have total control.

Schopenhauer subconscious motivaitons

An early version of the Rider and the Elephant is Schopenhauer's subconscious. According to Michael Gazzaniga, in The Consciousness Instinct, Schopenhauer introduced the notion of the subconscious to Western Philosophy. From page 45:

"Schopenhauer was a philosopher who was focused on the motivations of the individual. He concluded that they aren't too pretty: humans are motivated by their will and not by their intellect, though they may firmly deny it. In his 1818 publication, The World as Will and Representation, he came to the conclusion that "man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants." In essence, not only is the will (i.e., our subconscious motivations) in charge, but the conscious intellect does not realize it. Schopenhauer made this clear when describing the will as blind and strong and the intellect as sighted but lame: "The most striking figure for the relation of the two is that of the strong blind man carrying the sighted lame man on his shoulders."

Thinking, Fast and Slow

The metaphor corresponds to Systems 1 and 2 described in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. As Haidt says here:

The Elephant and the Rider Metaphor in Neuroscience

Hakwan Lau refers to the Elephant and the Rider Metaphor in his book In Consciousness We Trust

Must Reads: Social Conquest of Earth, Righteous Mind, Happiness Hypothesis, Consciousness: Confessions, Blank Slate, Neuroscience of Human Relationships, Human: What Makes us Unique. Info Viz & Perception, On Intelligence, The Quest for Consciousness, The Stuff of Thought and YON's Book Notes

created 2012.04.28 YON