“The Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has explained that humans have two ways of thinking and behaving. System 1 is fast, automatic, instinctive, driven by emotion, and more prone to unconscious factors. System 2 is slower, deliberate, logical, and more driven by our conscious will. Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at New York University, has a clever metaphor to describe the way these two different systems interact. In explaining the distinction between our automatic or emotional behaviors and the part of our nature that is deliberate, Haidt compares a human being to a rider on the back of an elephant. The elephant is the intuitive or emotional side of ourselves that we cannot (easily) control. The rider represents the rational and deliberate parts of our behavior that we can control. Haidt describes:
I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.
This metaphor can be instructive if we are trying to help people (including ourselves) behave better. The trick is to lead the elephant to places where he is likely to be on his best behavior (or to avoid places that bring out his worst). If you are trying to kick a drinking habit, it’s best not to let your elephant wander into a bar. Once inside the bar, it will be very difficult to control an alcoholic elephant.