Our elephants make our decisions, writes Jonathon Haidt. What he means is we don't, as we flatter ourselves, make enlightened, reasoned decisions. Rather we act from an old, deep part of the brain, far faster than we could think things out.
He has named the old brain the elephant; the newer, brighter, thinking cortex he calls the rider. And the rider's function is to do our PR. It's our spin doctor, explaining our actions not only to our friends, but more crucially to ourselves.
We know that at some level. We talk about “gut feel” and intuition. Is that why women are told, condescendingly, that we have women's intuition? Women do tend to be more microscopically aware of our feelings, just as we see finer distinctions of colour.
I always run a decision past my gut. My husband has a very good instinct, which he usually can't explain. But if he says “wait a few days” or “go for it” I listen and I never go against his gut.
I really like the idea of the elephant and the rider. It works when interacting. “Is his elephant upset?” I ask myself. Or, more interesting, “do their elephants like each other!”
It explains why, when I think of really happy couples we know, often they seem an odd match. One is more intellectual, the other purely practical; one paints, the other is glued to sport. But in every case there is a strong, deep bond. You can feel it rock-like as in Corinthians 13 it “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” The power behind the old man caring for his Alzheimer's wife or the tired woman pushing a wheelchair.
I often say to my husband that I love him “beyond reason.” I can't say why or what, it is just there, right and entrenched. Our elephants mesh.
As for riders, they are clever, very clever at inventing explanations for our actions, particularly those we aren't so proud of. If you've ever been on the receiving end of a teenager making a case, you have seen it in action. Let alone a politician!
I catch myself in the act sometimes, if I am very quick, as my gymnastic rider rearranges my motives – cognitive therapy for the elephant?
Thinking in terms of the elephant makes other people's reactions make much more sense – and much less hurtful. All they are doing is protecting their elephant.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt