One of the main ideas of the book is that knowledge is not enough to change behaviour. In their words “we have all encountered crazy shrinks, obese doctors and divorced marriage counsellors.” They explain that there are two systems to us: the emotional side where we feel pleasure and pain, and the rational side, which reflects, deliberates and analyses the world.
Think of our emotional side as an elephant, and the rational side as the elephant’s rider. On top of the elephant the rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader, but the rider is very small compared to the elephant. Anytime the elephant and the rider disagree about the direction to go, the rider is going to lose because he’s completely overmatched.
Most of us are very familiar with situations in which our elephant overpowers our rider. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever overeaten, procrastinated, skipped the gym, or said something snappy in anger. Most of us rely on our rider (willpower) to control the powerful elephant, and most of us are surprised when this doesn’t work!
The elephant’s weakness is that it is often looking for the quick payoff – the smooth chocolate cake, the warm bed in the morning (instant gratification in other words), but the elephant also has many strengths – emotions like love, compassion, sympathy, and loyalty come from the elephant, as does wanting to protect kids against harm or stand up for yourself. When you make a change you need the elephant’s energy and drive.
The rider’s strength is the ability to think long term and to plan. However the rider often over analyses and over thinks (think of people you know who can’t make up their minds on what to eat for dinner when choosing from a menu).
If you want to change, you have to appeal to both the rider (who provides planning and direction) and the elephant (who provides the energy).
But that’s not all!
The final part of change is shaping the path that the elephant and rider are trekking along, in order to get to their destination. Many people underestimate this crucial part of change and forget that there are changes they can make to the environment that help them. Continuing the analogy, the path should be cleared of things that could spook or tempt the elephant (mice!) or the elephant has to be trained to deal with them.
This book is one of the most readable on emotional intelligence that I’ve come across. If you know how to direct your rider, and how to motivate your elephant, and keep them both on the path, you can make changes in whatever sphere of your life you’d like to.