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The Rider, the Elephant, and Storytelling

shikha's picture

Through the centuries, generations have passed on wisdoms about the mind. Recently cognitive and social psychology research has indicated that a lot of this wisdom was true. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt discusses ten such wisdoms and how they can be applied to our lives today. Haidt also discusses the evolution of certain parts of the mind. In this commentary, I will be focusing on the origins of the storyteller and how it advises and explains our intuitive gut reactions.

Buddha described the mind as a wild elephant, who will do as it pleases. Plato also used a similar metaphor, describing the soul as a chariot and the rational part of the mind as the charioteer, who must control the chariot. Similarly, Freud suggested that the mind is divided into the ego, the superego and the id. The ego is rational, the superego is committed to the rules of society and the id is the desire for pleasure. Haidt describes their interaction as that of a horse and buggy in which the ego is the driver trying to control the noncompliant horse and the superego is the father of the driver informing him about what he is doing wrong.

A division in the brain which is analogous to these metaphors is that between controlled processes and automatic processes. Automatic processes are those mental processes that occur automatically without our conscious control. Most of our mental processes are automatic. Controlled processes are those processes that require conscious effort, thus can only be done one at a time. Automatic processes developed as the brain evolved and became more and more efficient. Controlled processes however, evolved only after language developed as planning and analyzing different choices requires words. Since they have not evolved as much as automatic processes, they are not as perfect. Haidt compares these two processes to the rider and the elephant. The rider (controlled processes) developed to attend to the elephant (automatic processes). The elephant is responsible for quick and dependable actions, while the rider advice the elephant and helps make better choices, but cannot order the elephant to do something. In fact, if the elephant, which also consists of gut feelings, emotions, and intuitions, does something inexplicable, the rider makes up a story to explain the behavior.

This delicate balance and mismatch between the rider and the elephant can explain the irrationality with which humans often behave and the lack of willpower humans often exhibit. In a study conducted in 1970, children were asked if they would rather have one marshmallow now or two after a little while (assuming the child likes marshmallows). If the children chose the latter, the experimenter left for a few minutes instructing the child to ring a bell if he wants the marshmallow before he returns, in which case he will be given one marshmallow. However, if the child is able to wait the whole time, he or she will get two marshmallows. It was found that children who were able to wait longer possessed greater control over their desires and thus were more emotionally intelligent. As teenagers, they were able to better focus on their studies and went to better universities. These people have a skilled rider who knows how to control the elephant without aggravating it.

Storytelling was an idea often talked about during this course. Science was described as a storytelling process in which we explain a set of observations and revise the explanation if we observe something different. One of the tasks of the rider is to explain all behavior of the elephant; to tell a story about why it behaved the way it did. Our brain is constantly putting together everything it observes about the world and tells us a story about the world. Brand naming is an attempt to give meaning to an object and tell a story about it. When I look at a painting I know instantly whether I like it or not. However, it is only after someone asks me why, do I think what exactly it is about the painting that I like. Do I like the colors or the way it is painted or the theme of the painting? Liking or disliking the painting is my gut reaction from the elephant, which the rider tries to explain later. Similarly, morality is both an individual and a social story. The elephant immediately judges actions to be moral or immoral and the rider must come up with a persuasive answer describing why. Sometimes we cannot come up with a reason why an action is immoral, but we just know that it is. All of these are ingrained in our cognitive unconscious and we create stories to justify these feelings.  

The rider has evolved to serve the automatic processes of the elephant. It can see into the future and advise the elephant on choices. It is also a storyteller and creates stories to justify the actions of the elephant. Often these are stories that we not only tell ourselves, but also share with the world. Storytellers can learn from each other and contribute to each other’s stories. They and govern our interactions and shape the sort of people we are.




Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books, 2006.


Curious's picture

Is the The Rider and the Elephant metaphor from Buddhism?

I can't find a source that links this specific elephant metaphor to Buddha. Do you have a source? Looking for a source leads me to Jonathan Haidt. Is it in some Buddhist scripture?