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The Mental Health Lab

The Rider and the Elephant: Behaviour Change

Putting animal ethics aside for the sake of a fictional analogy, the Rider and the Elephant travel along a road towards the Rider’s intended destination but they are unlikely to reach that goal? Why? What can we do to make it more achievable?

According to Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, behaviour change often fails because our rational side (the Rider) can’t keep our emotional side (the Elephant) on the road long enough to achieve our goals.

The Rider and the Elephant analogy helps us to understand how we enable behaviour change with the people and communities we work with, in an effective sustainable way.

If you want to achieve sustainable behaviour change, we need to work to appeal to both the Rider and the Elephant aspects of the communities we support; Working with the Riser enables us to develop rational planning and direction, and working to empower the Elephant side gives emotional energy.

There is occasionally a roadblock though if the Rider and Elephant disagree about which way to move and where to go, there’s a big problem.

When people try to change things, they’re usually tinkering with behaviours that have become automatic, and changing those behaviours requires careful supervision by the Rider. The bigger the change you’re suggesting, the more it will sap people’s self-control. And when people exhaust their self-control, what they’re exhausting are the mental muscles needed to think creatively, to focus, to inhibit their impulses, and to persist in the face of frustration or failure. In other words, they’re exhausting precisely the mental muscles needed to make a big change.

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis

According to Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the book Switch, there is a basic three-part framework built upon the story of the Rider and the Elephant, that can help us to support behaviour change:

  1. Direct the Rider. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. So provide crystal-clear direction.
  2. Motivate the Elephant. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. The Rider can’t get his way by force for very long. So it’s critical that you engage people’s emotional side—get their Elephants on the path and cooperative.
  3. Shape the Path. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. The authors call the situation (including the surrounding environment) the “Path.” When you shape the Path, you make change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant.

So roll out the SMART goals so we have some clear direction and make sure that their environment is supportive of them achieving success – that the road is clear for both the Rider and the Elephant.

For motivation or to break down both rational and emotional opposition, try out ‘The Miracle Question’ (see Solution Focused Brief Therapy): “Suppose that you go to bed on Saturday night and sleep well. At some point, in the middle of the night, while you are asleep, a miracle happens and all the troubles that brought you here are resolved. When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first small sign you’d see that would make you think, ‘Well, something must have happened—the problem is gone.’?”. Ask them what would that look like, sound like, feel like?

Previously, we looked at Positive Deviance and how we can work backwards from behaviour outliers to build upon those exceptions.

Taking a leaf from the Solution Focused Brief Therapy approach, we can often discover the outliers simply by asking the right question in the right way: The Exception Question: “When was the last time you saw a little bit of the miracle, even just for a short time?”, (can you think of any previous time where the problem wasn’t as big or you had a more positive experience?).

Once we have identified that the person already has these skills, or experience to achieve their goal, they are more likely to be able to take the Rider and the Elephant along that road to the finish line.