Tools & Templates

Talk to both the Elephant and the Rider if you want to succeed with change

Do you have a feeling that change is always difficult? Your coworkers don't want to change anything and are in fact fighting the change? Perhaps you, yourself, react negatively to changes, once in a while?

But how is it, that there are changes that we really want? That we may in fact look forward to? Like when you were getting married or the way you looked forward to the birth of your fist child? Here, the resistance against change wasn.t that great, right? Despite the fact, that these are probably two of the biggest changes one can experience.

That is why Dan and Chip Heath calls change schizophrenic. Change is schizophrenic because the things happening inside of us, when facing change, is governed by two often contradicting forces.

In their book SWITCH: How to Change Things When Things are Hard, they call the two forces The Elephant and The Rider. Freud called it The Id and The Superego, others called it the “doer” and the “planner”. All of these terms describe the two systems that are working within us simultaneously.

The Elephant corresponds to the Id or the “doer”: The part of you that acts, is governed by emotions, possess the energy and gets things done. Meanwhile, the Elephant is also lazy and have a tendency of going for the quick reward. The Rider, on the other hand, is reason, your self-control and the side of you that would decide that it's time to lose weight, for instance. While the Elephant would like another piece of cake. However, the Elephant isn't always the bad guy. Because the Rider has a tendency of overthinking and overanalyzing everything and freeze up when action is required.

“[…] our emotional side is an elephant, and our rational side is its rider. The Rider, perched atop the Elephant, holds the reins and seems to be the leader. . The Rider’s control is precarious, though, because he’s so tiny relative to the Elephant. Anytime the 6-ton Elephant disagrees with the direction, the Rider is going til lose. He’s completely overmatched.”

- Chip og Dan Heath: SWITCH: How to Change Things When Things are Hard (2009)

If you want to succeed with your change, you must appeal to both. The Rider delivers the planning and the direction while the Elephant provides the energy.

Also, the Rider and the Elephant must act in an environment that is affecting their action patterns. This environment is named The Path by the Heath brothers. In fact, the lack of ability to change is often not because of people, but instead the situation, or the Path, they find themselves on.

In an experiment with unknowing cinema guests and popcorn it turned out that no matter the (poor) quality of the popcorn that was handed out, the people with the largest cups ate the most. It was not the individuals’ fault but solely a matter of the situation they were put in, which meant a great deal to the amount of popcorn they consumed.

How to become less schizophrenic and make the two cooperate

The Heath brothers has created a template for how you best affect both Elephant, Rider and Path.

In order to successfully change something, you must do these three things simultaneously:

  1. Direct the Rider. Tell him exactly where to go. Make it clear.
    • Find out what works and copy it.
    • Forget “the big picture” and think of a specific behavior.
    • Be clear about where you are going. Change is easier when you know where to go and why it is worth the effort.
  2. Motivate the Elephant. Show it why, talk to its emotions.
    • Find the feeling. It's not enough to simply know something. You must also feel it.
    • Minimize the change so much that it does not frighten the elephant.
  3. Shape the Path. Remove obstacles – make the choice easy.
    • Adapt the situation. When the situation changes, the behavior follows.
    • Make it a habit. This way the change becomes “free” and doesn't drain the Elephant’s willpower.
    • Behavior is contagious, so spread it!