The Rider And The Elephant

      36 Comments on The Rider And The Elephant

We’re only two weeks into the New Year, which means millions of people are on a diet, hoping to fulfill a resolution to lose weight. Last week I wrote about how U.S. News ranked the popular diets. The low-fat, low-sat, low-flavor DASH diet was ranked #1, the Slim-Fast diet was ranked #13, and the paleo diet was ranked last. I finished that post with this comment:

So here’s what we’ve got with the U.S. News diet rankings: the same group of idiots who’ve been pushing low-fat, low-salt, low-meat diets for decades were asked to rank diets and – surprise! – they chose the low-fat, low-salt, low-meat diets as the best …

And that’s why the same people will be making the same weight-loss resolution next year. And the year after that. And the year after that.

Now and then some internet cowboy will pop up in a forum and make the (ahem) profound observation that all the popular weight-loss diets work equally well if people stick to the diet. Uh-huh. That’s roughly as enlightening as saying all alcoholism-treatment programs work equally well as long as the alcoholic doesn’t drink. Or that knee surgery is equally successful under no anesthesia, vodka anesthesia or general anesthesia, as long as the patient remains perfectly still for the procedure. That may be true, but I’m pretty sure the type of anesthesia influences the patient’s tendency to run screaming from the room.

You can lose weight drinking Slim-Fast shakes instead of eating, but you’ll probably be miserable the whole time. If your diet puts you at war with your own body, your body is going to eventually win. I wrote about that phenomenon early last year in a series I called Character vs. Chemistry.

Later in the year, I read a thoroughly enjoyable book about the psychology of happiness titled The Happiness Hypothesis. The author, a psychologist named Jonathan Haidt, presents an explanation of human behavior that I like so much, I’m borrowing it (with attribution) for the book I’m writing for kids.

As Haidt explains it, your body and your unconscious mind are like an elephant. Your conscious mind – the part of you that thinks and makes plans and vows – is like a rider on top of the elephant. We like to think the rider is in control. But he isn’t, at least not if he tries to guide the elephant somewhere the elephant doesn’t want to go – like, say, into a fire. Here are some selections from that chapter that I edited down:

The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

It will help to go back in time and look at why we have these two processes, why we have a small rider and a large elephant. When the first clumps of neurons were forming the first brains more than 600 million years ago, these clumps must have conferred some advantage on the organisms that had them, because brains have proliferated ever since. Brains are adaptive because they integrate information from various parts of the animal’s body to respond quickly and automatically to threats and opportunities in the environment. The automatic system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain and that trigger survival-related motivations.

Language, reasoning, and conscious planning arrived in the most recent eye-blink of evolution. They are like new software, Rider version 1.0. Automatic processes, on the other hand, have been through thousands of product cycles and are nearly perfect. When language evolved, the human brain was not reengineered to hand over the reins of power to the rider (conscious verbal thinking). The rider can see farther into the future, and the rider can learn valuable information by talking to other riders or by reading maps. But the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will.

Because we can see only one little corner of the mind’s vast operation, we are surprised when urges, wishes, and temptations emerge, seemingly from nowhere. We make pronouncements, vows, and resolutions, and then are surprised by our own powerlessness to carry them out.

Love it. That last sentence described me pretty much every January through April before I found a diet that doesn’t leave me feeling deprived. I’d resolve to lose weight, adopt some variation of a calorie-restricted, low-fat diet, and lose a few pounds … then give up after stalling, or finding myself unable to take the gnawing hunger anymore, or both. And then, of course, I blamed myself for being weak-willed.

I wasn’t weak-willed. I was human. I had put myself into a battle with my own body chemistry, and chemistry won. Or to use Haidt’s wonderful analogy, I was trying to drag the elephant to a place the elephant refused to go – because the elephant believed he was in danger. To repeat a quote from Haidt:

The automatic system was shaped by natural selection to trigger quick and reliable action, and it includes parts of the brain that make us feel pleasure and pain and that trigger survival-related motivations … When language evolved, the human brain was not reengineered to hand over the reins of power to the rider (conscious verbal thinking).

The automatic system – the elephant – is far older than the conscious mind and was shaped by the need to survive. If evolution has hard-wired one survival instinct into every living creature on earth, it’s got to be this: don’t starve. Starvation means death. In our conscious minds, we may believe going hungry for weeks on end is a fine idea if we’ll look good in a swimsuit by summer. But the elephant disagrees. And as Haidt puts it, the rider cannot order the elephant around against its will. So the elephant decides to run away and escape the danger.

Haidt doesn’t claim that the elephant makes it impossible to change our behaviors or reach new goals. (After all, the title is The Happiness Hypothesis, not The Hopeless Hypothesis.) His point is that the rider has to learn to work with the elephant, not simply try to order the elephant around. Then the rider and the elephant are both happy.

For people trying to lose weight, working with the elephant means adopting a diet the elephant doesn’t consider a threat. If you simply starve yourself, you’re dragging the elephant somewhere he doesn’t want to go. If you deprive yourself of what your body knows it needs – fat, protein, salt, vitamins, micronutrients, and yes, perhaps even some “safe starch” depending on your metabolism – the elephant will run away. If you drink a sugary shake that jacks up your blood sugar, then leaves with you low blood sugar after the insulin spike, the elephant isn’t going to be happy. Low blood sugar is one of those triggers for a survival-motivated behavior – the behavior in this case being run out and eat something, now!

So to quote again from my post about how U.S. News ranked the diets:


Paleo vs. Slim-Fast … or as the U.S. News panel of (ahem) experts would label them, the worst diet vs. one of the better diets.

Hmmm, I wonder which of those meals would satisfy the elephant and which would leave it feeling deprived and threatened?


36 thoughts on “The Rider And The Elephant

  1. Anon

    You need to read his second book too – The Righteous Mind. He goes more into depth with the rider and elephant and much more. I found it quite mind blowing, in a “this explains everything” way.

  2. Bret

    Great analogy. The body always wins when the demands imposed on it by will power are excessive.

    Lately, I have gravitated toward a penchant for frequent exercise as a strong metabolic booster. Not in the calorically obsessed manner of The Biggest Loser et al, but with evolution in mind. In modern life, I feel it is way too easy for many (maybe most) of us to spend all day and all night sitting, even though we are really busy. I feel when I make time for exercise — whether sprints, strength training, long walks, or a combo thereof — I tend to eat better and sleep better.

    Our ancestors stayed busy by walking around, picking stuff up, climbing, and occasionally sprinting. I feel if we can at least partially recreate that element of our biological history, along with a firm resolution (for lack of a better word) to eat only whole foods, then we are at a much greater advantage for attaining and maintaining appropriate body weight & composition.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      “Pssst … Hey, Elephant. Yeah, it’s me up here. Let’s head out for a juicy steak with a side of broccoli.”

      My elephant responds positively to those whispers.

  3. lemoutongris

    Oh come one. Give those “experts” some credit. After all, they all go their diplomas because they regurgitated the knowledge they were taught well enough.

    Besides, as for climate, the science for food is settled and doubting it makes you a child-killing, puppy-eating denier that needs to be restrained

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Exactly. If you “deny” anything The Anointed have declared a settled issue, it means you also deny the Holocaust … or something like that.

  4. Glen Nagy

    Everyone who says all diets, low carb and low fat included, do about the same in the long run forget one thing. In these studies if you asked all the people on the low carb diet if they thought the low carb diet was healthy 95% of people would say no. Their doctors, family, friends and the media have been telling them for the last 40 years that if they eat fat they will die from a heart attack. Is it any surprise that after they have great success for 6 months of a 1 year trial they start cutting back on fat and eating more carbs? They are thinking ” now that I’ve lost some weight, maybe I should eat less fat so I don’t die of heart disease”. This is a huge bias against low carb diets in any RCT done in the last 40 years. How successful would any “stop smoking” program be if 95% of the people in the program thought they would die younger if they kept on the program even if they quit smoking? Many people who quit the low carb diet didn’t quit because they found it to hard and unappetizing. They quite because their doctor told them if they didn’t quit they would die of a heart attack.

    1. Thomas E.

      Life is interesting, people and their decisions often amuse me, and cause me much thought. Of late, over the last few years I’ve turned my attentions to myself a bit more. And with reasonably good outcomes 🙂

      So, after about a 1.5 years of first cutting down sugar, then lowering carbs, then cutting out sugar, wheat and most carbs, I’ve lost 60+ lbs. So far, sounds like the model patient right?

      Well, except, despite absorbing a lot of what you (Tom N.) have said (and thanks again for all the effort you put in), Dr. Robert Lustig, Gary Taubes, Dr. Peter Attia, Sean Stevenson, Jonathan Bailor, Dr. Terry Wahls, and so on, have said and written, I still suffer.

      That might sound melodramatic, but I can’t completely stop my self from turning to the “eat less, exercise more” mantra. It is interesting to see how such a thing can be so ingrained into your psyche. It also is really interesting to see the reactions of people, when you mention the fact that sugar and wheat are not really that good for you. And consumption of one or both may be directly responsible for illness.

      It really looks like it shakes people to their core. The discussion quickly appears to be one resembling convincing an adamant atheist god exists, or conversely, a steadfast Christian (or other religion) that god does not exist. It really appears to be that polarizing.

      And then, the comes in the doubt. The notion that all of the good food made for other people, could have actually hurt them. Never!

      And finally the thought, that their lives have been a complete lie, all the good times centered around food, are gone, as that food is now taboo. And those fun times can no longer happen as complete food groups have to be removed from the diet. Granted, pies, largely assumed to be a food group by many people I know, probably should not be held in such a high opinion 🙂

      There is so much emotion in what we eat. Probably not news to anyone reading this.

      Which turns to an issue for which I still suffer. It may be a lot easier for many people to work with the elephant. But mines keeps on pointing me to the chocolate, soda and other such things. With over 40 years of bad habits behind me, turning the elephant is not such an easy of a task, a lot of inertia there. And I sometimes get jealous when I read how people desire for junk food just vanishes over time when switching to the low carb/paleo’esk diets.

      It is funny, I’ve started many comments over the months. Good therapy, most have been deleted though. Think I submit this one. Time to go back to work, the rubermaid container that was full of raw broccoli, cauliflower and kale is pretty well empty.

      1. Tom Naughton Post author

        I wish you well on the journey. If you haven’t already read it, you might get some ideas from “The Mood Cure” and “The Diet Cure,” both by Julia Ross. She recommends specific supplements that can reduce the craving for sugar. She understands that this is about chemistry, not character.

    2. Cameron Hidalgo

      I had a coworker with Crohn’s disease. Like many sufferers he was very thin and his bathroom time was not fun for him. I got him onto LCHF and his irritable bowels became less so. He also started packing on the weight. Good healthy muscle, not just a larger belly.

      After a month he switched back to a wheat based diet on his doctor’s recommendation. The same doctor that had been worried about his low weight was now telling him he was gaining weight too quickly. Needless to say his health deteriorated once more.

      I still find it amazing that despite the personal evidence that low carb improved his life, he still was willing to follow doctor’s orders.

  5. Galina L.

    Yes, most diets will result in a weight loss(rider pushing hard his elephant), but then what? Elephant is having more liberties. Keeping the result is the real problem.

    1. Arturo

      I would add in the visual gag of the elephant seeing a mouse in its path, trumpeting in terror, then running like a bat-out-of-hell in the direction it came from. Seems a fitting analogy for a yo-yo diet.

  6. tony

    Great post Tom. Excellent imagery of character v. chemistry.

    Why do fools state “all concentration camp prisoners lose weight” but are oblivious that survivors regained the weight?

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Indeed. Or that they were utterly freakin’ miserable while being starved and probably left the camp (if they left) with screwed-up metabolisms.

      1. Rae Ford

        They were also left with failing organs and osteoporosis. When the body doesn’t get what it needs from food it starts to cannibalize its own tissues.

        1. Walter

          Yes, I was familiar with a woman who managed to keep herself thin on a low calorie high carb diet for years. The psychological results of being a concentration camp guard over one’s elephant are not pretty.

  7. Pedro

    I feel the same way about jobs. Even if my mind wants a certain job to make more money, if I don’t enjoy myself my body will ultimately make it impossible for me to accept said job and ultimately make me quit.

  8. J. B. Rainsberger

    Just a little follow-up, Tom; nothing related to this particular article.

    I found Fat Head in 2011, it renewed my interest in eating low-carb, helped me start again, and now it’s going on four years later, and a I’m still about 125 pounds down, I’ve kept it off well over a year, and managed to enter my 40s at “normal weight”, which I hadn’t managed to sustain since the age of 10.


  9. Josh

    This reminds of an encounter with a dietician years ago. She advised me to avoid butter and replace it with some brand of a ‘diet spread’. The spread had a long list of unpronounceable ingredients in fine print. Even though I had never even heard of LCHF and the Fathead movie was just a fleeting thought in Tom’s head, I remember thinking “How can this chemical feast be better than butter?”

    And don’t get me going on the nutritionist who recommended I use high transfat margarine in place of butter.

    When are they going apologize for giving such bad advice?

      1. Walter

        Or just deny they ever said that and push the latest substitute for saturated fat, which will belike prove even deadlier than trans-fats. It seems to be that each new food introduced is deadlier than the last.

  10. Dave

    Good analogy! There may be something to this science thing after all!

    I used to wish I had more willpower in the past. I simply lacked the mental wherewithal to make myself do things that I knew needed to be done. As I learned later, the brain uses up quite a bit of energy. If I ate less and ate the wrong kinds of food, my willpower would dissipate. Volatile blood sugar (periods of low blood sugar without the ketones to back it up) does a number on the brain’s higher functions.

    I guess one could say that if the rider goes to sleep, the elephant does whatever it wants.

  11. Sonya

    An apology from the smart ones? About as likely as getting a reduction (in my wildest dreams, a refund) of medical/insurance premiums or excess, because one is overweight. Although my GP told me the other day about latest research from some cardiologists about a group in society who could be healthy yet overweight. I had the usual check up (all in perfect health at 122kg) and my GP said I was one of a number of her patients that were overweight yet healthy. She fully supports cutting the grains out/paleo eating.

    I just want to add that I have had great results with my trial of eating resistant starch with probiotics. Within four days of starting it in November, the effect that wheat had was significantly reduced. That’s not to say I will be eating wheat willy nilly, but it’s good to know if I go out to someone’s home for dinner and can’t avoid wheat, I won’t be regretting it for days.

    Eight days down on my lifestyle plan of eating unprocessed food (other than coffee, cream and butter) and I have lost 4kg. I am enjoying my new cookbook by Chef Pete Evans (just released this month) on paleo cooking. …well I would enjoy it if I didn’t keep loaning it out….

    Keep going with the blog Tom, we are hearing you loud and clear here in New Zealand. I’m applying your comments on ‘Slimfast’ to a friends obsession with ‘Isagenix’.

  12. Ken Row

    Have you read “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath?

    It uses the rider/elephant/path analogy regarding bringing about change.

    The path represents changes that remove the elephant’s choice.


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