Who’s in charge, the elephant or the rider? These riders look perfectly in control, despite elephants being such large, smart, powerful creatures. But for Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, the image of riders and elephants describes how human beings think. And it’s the elephants who come out on top.

Human minds have instant reactions to everything they perceive. It’s what Daniel Kahnemann calls “thinking fast”, as opposed to our more reasoned “thinking slow”. Haidt’s more colourful image is of the elephant as the emotional, intuitive response and the rider as the controlled, reasoning process. His research shows that the elephant has the biggest say when we make moral judgements. It immediately leans toward or away from a person or idea and that influences what we think and do next.

Riding elephants

We like to think our moral and political beliefs are firmly based on sound reasons, but we can’t help beginning with our gut reaction. We “just know” something is wrong or right, nice or nasty. Finding reasons for our intuitive response comes later.

Psychology professor Tim Gilovish suggests that when we intuitively want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” We search for any evidence to back up our intuition and even a single bit of pseudo-evidence is enough to give us permission to believe. (He glanced my way, he must love me!)

When we instinctively don’t want to accept something, we ask, “Must I believe it?”. We search for contradictory evidence, and a single reason to doubt the claim is enough for us to dismiss it. (There was an error in that climate change report, the whole thing’s rubbish!)

“If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch – a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed.” Jonathan Haidt

Those gut reactions, like elephants are powerful and hard to ignore. That’s where the rider can exercise control. The rider can look at all the evidence and assess whether the elephant is heading in the right direction. The rider is open to changing instinctive moral and political judgements if there are good reasons for it.

The rider tries not to dismiss an idea simply because it’s voiced by someone the elephant dislikes, or to excuse bad behaviour from someone who’s admired.

Who’s in charge of YOUR thinking, the elephant or the rider?

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