The Elephant and the Rider: The psychology of change

by Dr. Jade Teta ND | Follow on Twitter

Who’s in control?

ONE OF MY FAVORITE BOOKS ON the psychology of change is Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. When they talk about the difficulties of changing habits, they use the analogy of a rider perched atop an elephant.

The rider is analogous to the conscious/logical/rational mind while the elephant represents the subconscious/feeling/emotional mind. The rider is the part of the mind that plans, makes preparations, solves new problems, and sets goals. The elephant is the part of the mind that is responsible for motivation, habitual beliefs, running routines, and emotional fears.

The rider and the elephant as it relates to the psychology of change. Who's in control?

The rider and the elephant as it relates to the psychology of change. Who’s in control?

The subconscious mind is the one that is really in control. It has been said that the conscious mind processes 2000 bits of information per second while the unconscious mind processes about 4 billion. This is a scale of magnitude that is really difficult to understand.

If the unconscious mind was the size of the earth then the subconscious mind might be a boat floating in the ocean of that earth. While this may not be exactly accurate, at least you get the point that there is a HUGE difference in processing potential. The point is, the unconscious mind is the one that is really in control. If it is not working for you, your change efforts are doomed to fail.

“The unconscious mind is the one that is really in control. If it is not working for you, your change efforts are doomed to fail” <– CLICK TO TWEET.

You may be the conscious rider of the unconscious elephant, but if the elephant decides it does not want to follow your directions, you don’t have enough strength to stop it. Now you are getting an idea of why change is so hard. This is analogous to trying to use willpower (the rider) against emotional and psychological drives (the elephant). In order to make this battle easier, there are some things to be aware of.

There are three major aspects to change. If you hope to make real change you have to attend to all three of these areas. Here is a brief overview summarized from Switch to help you understand the change process:

1) Direct the rider

The rational mind needs very clear directions. It can be easily overwhelmed and is not able to focus on but a few ideas at a time. The rational conscious mind is not good at multitasking and can easily suffer from paralysis by analysis. As they say in the book, “What may look like resistance is often times a lack of clarity”. To direct the rider you need to give clear, concrete direction to your conscious mind and not allow it to get sidetracked with too much detail.

“What may look like resistance is often times a lack of clarity” <– TWEET THIS

Action to take: Define your purpose and where you want to head. Make sure you are crystal clear on what you are trying to accomplish.  Now plan the individual steps it is going to take to get there. Draw yourself a detailed map. The detail is absolutely key. Remember, if the steps are not clear you will quickly become resistant and disoriented. Know your path, and try to anticipate all the things you will need to travel it and all the twists and turns along the way.

2) Motivate the elephant

If you want change you have to keep the elephant focused on the reward at the end and help your mind understand the benefits of the long term payout versus short term pleasure. In order to do this you have to keep focused on the end goal and help give yourself baby steps along the way. This is why the planning part above is so important. The elephant can be your best friend or worst enemy, because if it decides on a different path you will be powerless to stop it. Control its emotional state and work on helping it build new habits. If you allow it to focus on past failures, the elephant will become scared and skittish. This is what the phrase “fear of failure” is speaking to.

Action to take: Research has shown that willpower is exhaustible just like a muscle. “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion”. Research has also shown that old thinking habits are changed faster when they are given new habits versus just trying to stop old habits. So, focus on one thing at a time. In other words, make sure the elephant has one new thing to think about not 10 new things. And make sure you replace old habits with new habits that can take their place. Too often people replace something with nothing (i.e quitting smoking cold turkey). Instead replace something with something else (i.e smoking breaks with walking breaks, water breaks or push-up breaks).

TWEETABLE –> “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion”.

3) Shape the path

You can have a very clear rider and motivated elephant but if the path they are traveling is fraught with pitfalls, scary animals and too many alluring distractions they won’t succeed. Either the rider will get sidetracked or the elephant will become exhausted, scared or overwhelmed with the desire for immediate reward.

Action to take: Design your life in a way that assures success. “What looks like a problem with the person is often a problem with the situation”. Spend Sunday prepping your food and then storing away the individual prepackaged meals reducing the need to cook or decide what is for dinner (this helps the rider plan and keeps the elephant focused). Eat small frequent meals to control hunger and cravings to reduce the elephant’s urges. Put a change of clothes in the car and change your driving route home so you go by the park or gym. Replace your couch with a stationary bike. These are all examples of “shaping the path” the rider and elephant will travel.

“What looks like a problem with the person is often a problem with the situation” <– CLICK TO TWEET

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath speaks to the psychology of change. Click the image to purchase your copy.

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath speaks to the psychology of change. Click the image to purchase your copy.

So to make change:

1) Get clear on what you want and focus on the steps to get there. Let nothing else sidetrack you, and try not to bother yourself with all the details.

2) Focus on one step at a time and the feelings of success, as well as the strengths you possess that will help you get there. Don’t dwell on past failures and give yourself a lot of small wins to build confidence overtime.

3) Design your life to be as easy or easier than it currently is. Remove all distractions and get your support system on your side. Create strategies that make the journey easier.

Learn more about the change in relation to the Transtheoretical Model here.

About the Author
Dr. Jade Teta ND

Dr. Jade Teta is an integrative physician specializing in natural health, fitness and body transformation. He is the co-author of The Metabolic Effect Diet. He completed his undergraduate training at North Carolina State University, earning a bachelors of science in biochemistry. He then went on to study at Bastyr University in Seattle, Washington completing his doctorate in Naturopathic medicine. Dr. Teta has worked in the fitness and weight loss fields for over 20 years, and is the co-developer of the rest-based training system for personal training and group exercise. He is also the co-founder of the Naturopathic Health Clinic of North Carolina and of the health, fitness and international fat loss company, Metabolic Effect. His background in natural medicine, along with his fitness expertise, has defined his healthcare specialties of hormonal weight loss and functional medicine approaches to chronic disease.