The Battle For Better Choices: Emotional Brain vs Rational Brain

Vegetables or ice cream? Exercise or television?  Why is it so hard to resist temptation?

In his book The Happiness Hypothesis psychologist Jonathan Haidt introduces us to his elephant and rider metaphor which helps shed some light on this question.

The elephant represents our emotional brain, an automatic system controlled by desires, rewards, fears and survival. The rider represents our rational brain a controlled system which allows us to learn information, create new ideas, set goals and plan for the future.

The balance of power between rider and elephant plays a large part in shaping our daily decisions and is typically skewed towards the latter.

“The automatic system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action… the controlled system in contrast is better seen as an advisor. It’s a rider placed on the elephants back to help the elephant make better choices… but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will.” Jonathan Haidt

Ultimately if the elephant decides to do something there is little the rider can do to stop it. This isn't great news from a fitness standpoint because the elephant in most of our brains prefers cookies to broccoli and dislikes the discomfort of hard exercise.

Here is a classic example we can all relate to. The rider in our brain sets the alarm for an early rise with the goal of accomplishing X, Y, Z and bossing the day ahead. However when 5 am rolls around the elephant immediately overrides our good intentions. It's dark, it's cold and the elephant is far too comfortable and sleepy... screw X, Y and Z. 

So how do we create change and consistently make better choices?

We need to get the elephant and rider working in unison. One strategy for doing this, introduced by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch, is to shape the path or control our environment in ways which funnel the rider and the elephant in the same direction.

Some shaping the path examples include:

  • Emptying cupboards of junk food / stocking up with healthy foods
  • Creating a weekly shopping list / meal plan
  • Buying food online (so you are not exposed to the tempting treats)
  • Batch cooking nutritious, satisfying meals so they are always on hand
  • Scheduling workouts like you would an important meeting
  • Eliminating the gym commute by exercising at home
  • Not buying a metro/underground pass so you are forced to walk
  • Sharing your workouts and fitness goals with a friend

Putting measures in place to control and manipulate the environment lessens reliance on willpower, a finite resource which more often than not proves insufficient for lasting change.

Or as Chip and Dan Heath put it:

“If you want people to change, you can provide clear direction (rider) or boost their motivation (elephant). Alternatively, you can simply make the journey easier. Create a steep downhill and give them a push.”