The Rider, The Elephant and the Path is a behavioural psychology model originally presented by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis”. It is an important concept to understand when it comes to creating change in habits, either for the better or the worse, and will guide this article. Change is hard, goes against our nature, our physiology, emotions and psychology, and this is particularly true for big change, e.g. starting to eat healthier or introducing high quality strength training to ensure your long-term health. Just think about how little humans have evolved over the last several thousand years. With the inventions of ‘smart phones’ some would argue we are actually regressing now!
Through my many years of experience working with a vast array of clients, with goals ranging from the international sporting stage to injury recovery, fat loss and general health & fitness, I have come to realise that all the physiology, anatomy, biomechanics, chemistry and nutritional knowledge is completely useless without a thorough understanding of human psychology, emotion and the process of change. A significant part of my ongoing drive to learn and grow as a professional performance coach is focussed on improving this understanding, in addition, of course, to staying up to date with all the latest sports science and nutrition body of knowledge. I am busy!
While the intentions to change are often thereand the drive and will power are strong when that goal for change is set (to lose this or gain that), eventually the parts of the brain making all the conscious decisions are overridden by our deeply engrained values and emotions, and sabotaged by the environment around us. If you are unable to stay on track with your goal, whether it be healthy eating, consistent training, or implementing stress management protocols, it has nothing to do with weak ‘will power’, or ‘not wanting it enough’. It doesn’t work because goals generally only ever address the conscious intent to do something. This is unfortunately the way most of the fitness and health industry works, and thinks, when trying help people reach goals/recover from injury – give them a recipe, get them to ‘want it’, and if they fail then they have weak will power or don’t care enough.
If long term positive change is to take place, the conscious intent will play a role, but the individual is at the mercy of emotions and the environment. Throughout this article, I will explain what is meant by the Rider, the Elephant and the Path and how they relate to setting and reaching health and fitness goals.
You can learn more about why short term diet and fitness plans fail in my article here.
The brain has two independent systems always at work. First, there is the known emotional side, the ‘Elephant’. It’s the part of you that is instinctive, that feels pain & pleasure and is primal. Second, there’s the rational side, the ‘Rider’, our reflective or conscious system. It’s the part of you that deliberates, analyses and considers the future. Freud termed these two parts the “selfish id” and “conscientious superego”.
If you’re contemplating change to improve your health and reach a goal, the Elephant is the one who gets things done. To make progress toward your health and fitness goals requires the energy and emotional drive of the Elephant. And this strength is the exact opposite to the weakness of the Rider (will power), overanalysing and overthinking things.
If you want to change your health, you’ve got to appeal to both. The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy. So, if you only address the Rider in your goal setting for change, but not the Elephant, you will understand what you want to achieve, but without motivation. If you only address the emotional component, the Elephant, but not the Rider, you’ll have the passion and energy to reach your goals, but without direction. In both cases, nothing changes, a reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider ensures this. But when you target goal setting and habit change with the Elephant and Rider working together, change can happen and become long-term.
The Rider – The Conscious Thought
Anytime you set a health & fitness goal you are initially using your conscious thought, the Rider. You are making a plan, pointing your will power in a targeted direction, “I will start doing coaching sessions because I want to get healthy/lose weight/recover from injury”, “I will start eating healthier, make my own lunch, eat less junk”. The Rider is now tugging on the reigns of a huge animal, trying to steer it down a particularly narrow pathway. And while you might be able to get away with this for a while through ‘will power’, eventually that Rider is going to tire. Think about it! If it requires a little human to tug a 10-tonne elephant to it every single time to get to the gym, how long do you think it will take before you just stop going and let the elephant have its way?
So, the Rider is the will power, the decision maker and guides direction, but they tire. If your goal setting and habit change is to be successful we need to engage more than just the Rider. Establish your goal with conscious thought, but now to be successful, we must tap into the animal within.
The Elephant – The Emotional Being
The Elephant is powerful, it’s sometimes (even frequently!) irrational. It is ruled by primal instincts that will eventually win out. To our conscious brain the Elephant doesn’t always make sense, seems to go against what we think we want, sabotages our goals. I am sure there are many people, including me, who have said “I am going to make a conscious effort to eat more vegetables/only eat junk once a week at max”, and then you still eat that ice cream, or give in to the cake at the office for Susan’s birthday. That’s the Elephant.
To be able to allow that Rider to take you where you want to go with your goals, you need to motivate the emotional side. Self-control is an exhaustible resource. You need to really understand the ‘why?’ you want to achieve your goal, beyond the superficial, tap in to your emotional drive.
The Path – The Environment Around You
If you sit locked in a room full of cookies with nothing else to eat, no matter how well you have addressed the Rider and the Elephant, you will eventually eat those cookies. That’s the Path.
Once you have set your goals, have understood and addressed the ‘why?’, the final piece is to shape the environment. Say you need to control your snacking before dinner, if you don’t buy those snacks and have them in your house, you can’t eat them then. If you haven’t addressed the Rider and the Elephant then you will always buy those snacks on your grocery run, thus effecting your Path.
Wrapping it all up – A Common (very simplified and accelerated) Example To Link It All Together
Change is hard, and there are so many internal battles that can get in the way of making positive changes. However, if Coaches and clients alike have a better understanding of the 3 critical factors to create change there will undoubtedly be more successful journeys.
I want to finish this article with a common example putting the Rider, The Elephant and the Path in to action.
“I want to lose weight” – Ok great, now let’s get specific to guide the Rider.
“I want to lose 15kg over the next 12 months” – Perfect, now the Rider knows where to go. Let’s have a chat to the Elephant then before we set off. Why do you want to lose 15kg?
“I have young children and my knees hurt already running around with them” – Good, now we are getting closer to the Elephant, why does being able to run around with your children matter to you?
“I want to be able to be a good example to them. I want to be healthy and active so I can see them grow up” – There’s our Elephant, great. The Rider knows where to go, the Elephant is motivated to take the Rider there, what does the Path look like, what are the barriers that you see getting in the way of this journey?
“Work, it’s just crazy, I don’t have enough time to exercise, I eat at my desk, and just snack to get through the afternoon as I am tired” – That’s a hard Path to take indeed. Ok, let’s pick one thing together that you can do to improve the start of this Path, we are just taking the first steps. Was there a time in your life when you were able exercise and eat healthy?
“Yes, I used to have a colleague who I would go for a walk to get coffee with whenever the biscuits came out at work” – Great, so you already have some skills to shape your Path. I want you to find a buddy in the office, and together go to a different café each day, exploring the city, do you think you could do that most of the time?
“Absolutely, Steve is always bugging me to go with him”
And were off on that Path!
Written By Co-Founder and Head Performance Coach David Smith
- Haidt, Jonathon. The Happiness Hypothesis. 1st Basic Books, 2006. Print