The Elephant in the Room – Do Our Brains Work for or Against Us?


Who’s riding what?

We’re being taken for a ride

Dr. Jonathan Haidt (pronounced “hite”) is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s School of Business.  His doctoral degree is in social psychology, and his interests include the fascinating field of moral psychology (which overlaps with philosophy).  Dr. Haidt’s most recent book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion” is a non-judgemental and fascinating examination of the inner workings of our minds, particularly the machinery that drives our political, social, and moral proclivities.

Among Dr. Haidt’s many insights is his comparison of the relationship between our conscious and subconscious minds to a rider and an elephant, respectively.   As he defines it, the elephant is all of the factors that influence our thoughts and behaviors below the level of conscious thought,  including our limbic systems which secrete and process neurotransmitters like serotonin, cortisol,  and dopamine .

He chose the elephant to represent the mysterious realm of the subconscious because they are big and powerful.  Dr. Haidt believes that the rider in his model accounts for about 1% of our behaviors and attitudes.   The rest is all elephant.

Until pretty recently, the neurosciences have not seemed  interesting to me.     After The Righteous Mind, I’ve been willing to set aside some of my biases and  pay closer attention to the mind sciences.   Maybe they’re not getting precisely the right answers, but at least they’re asking some very intriguing questions.

When I read Dr. Haidt’s description of the rider and elephant, I was perplexed and initially skeptical.  The idea that rationality would have so little control of my actions and decisions is deeply unsettling.  And that may be because the elephant doesn’t want me to know the extent of its influence.   But there’s something about the concept that seems accurate; it resonates in an uncomfortable way.

After reading The Righteous Mind, I undertook a little casual research.  I learned that Dr. Haidt’s model is well supported by his fellow neuroscientists, past and present.  Freud didn’t invent the idea of the subconscious, but he popularized it, and his work formed the basis for many of the later studies of the concept.  There seems to be no scholarly debate about the validity of the notion that we have both a conscious and subconscious mind.  Whatever scholarly debates still surround that idea seem to have more to do with the degree of control the elephant exerts over the rider and vice versa than with whether the concept is valid.  And  Dr. Haidt’s estimate is apparently not particularly controversial.

What we perceive as the rational, conscious mind is a great mystery.  For most of my life, I’ve assumed that it was the most important aspect of my existence and that my decisions and actions were directly guided by it exclusively.   When I read the book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, I had to revise my understanding.  What I’ve thought of as impulse and intuition is much deeper than I’ve conceived it, and far more influential in my decision-making.

You may be wondering how the elephant might influence you in an unexpected or even an unhelpful way without you noticing.  One very good example is a phenomenon that the neuroscientists call “motivated reasoning”.   That’s the name for the process you go through when you’re presented with information that is at odds with a belief that you hold strongly.  Our elephants are very good at helping us to find reasons to disregard information that challenges cherished belief.  In examing this phenomenon, researchers presented subjects with a phony “scientific” study that puported to show a link between caffeine and breast cancer.    Women who were enthusiastic coffee drinkers found more errors in the study than women that were not, thanks to their elephants working behind the scenes to motivate their minds to continue to believe what they wanted to believe.


In Dr. Haidt’s scenario, our very big and influential subconscious mind knows its rider intimately, but we, the riders,  have only glimpses of it.  We sense its intentions only vaguely.  We don’t know exactly where it wants to take us or whether it will ultimately act in our best interests but we do know that sometimes it doesn’t.

Very Puzzling

Taming the Beast

As a geologist, I can’t advise you how to tame the elephant.  Actually, I’m pretty sure that it can’t be tamed.  I’ve come to believe that improving our understanding of it is vital, though, if we hope to have healthy relationships and reasonably predictable and stable lives.

Researchers like Dr. Haidt have made great strides in that direction.  Start by reading his bookThe Righteous Mind“.   It will give you insights into why you think the way you do, and it will give you empathy towards others with whom you disagree, whether it’s about religion, your favorite author, or politics.

I’m not claiming that I’ve mastered the elephant, or even that it can be mastered.  The elephant is complex and more than a little devious.  Scientists have spent lifetimes trying to develop tools that will help us wrest a little more control from these mighty beasts with only moderate success.

The less we know about it, though, the wilder the ride can be.  My advice is to start learning what you can now.  You’ll find that the knowledge you gain will improve just about every aspect of the ride.