Yes, I know that's a camel. But I've never ridden an elephant. And there's also the fact that I can't yet say that I've completely tamed my elephant. I'll post a picture of that when I do.

What am I talking about? In his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt introduces a metaphor called the Elephant and the Rider, where our emotional side is the Elephant, and our rational side is the Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader, but the Rider's control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Any time the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He is completely overmatched.

But is he? From an evolutionary perspective, our rational side, our reason, our sapiens (a latin word meaning wise), came along quite late to the game - well after our emotional response system had taken billions of years to develop a pretty sturdy system that seems to work for all other animals on the planet. From a simple perspective of elapsed time, it seems hopeless that our reason can ever catch up to our emotions. That is the case that Jon Haidt is making. But that is not the way that evolution works. New mutations and adaptations come along and they quickly have the ability to overwhelm what has come before. Our rational side has given us such widespread success precisely because it enables us to think more clearly about the long term and outwit others' emotional responses that are stuck in the short term.

Of course, we have both systems inside us and are likely to keep them for the foreseeable future. In Daniel Kahneman's latest book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes the two different ways the brain forms thoughts:
  • System 1: fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

System 1 - the Elephant. System 2 - the Rider. We can't get rid of the Elephant because a) that's not the way evolution works, but more importantly b) it enables us to take instantaneous action whenever the situation requires it - when we touch a hot stove, when a car swerves towards us, when an assailant attacks us. Our system 1 quickly gets us out of harm's way. It is easy to rely on, and it would be impossible to let slow, calculating system 2 tackle all our questions. We would be wracked with doubt and inefficiency. We need to appreciate our Elephant. It seems to have a few innate or universal judgments already programmed into it at birth, but we also feed it with new rules of thumb from our experiences and we let our system 2's create new intuitive judgments that can be passed on to system 1 for faster action (such as when professional speakers go from fearing a crowd to loving the sight of one after a bit of practice). This is a highly efficient design, but one that can be used inefficiently when we don't take the time to let our system 2 evaluate what it has wrought in our system 1. When our youthful experiences leave our system 1 full of cognitive biases such as anchoring, loss-aversion, confirmation bias, framing issues, or the fundamental attribution error, we end up making faulty decisions based on poor emotional clues.

In an earlier post, I laid out the causes of emotion from the perspective of cognitive psychology - we make appraisals of situations, our bodily chemicals react, and our actions are motivated accordingly. As a philosophical task, I logically broke down the kinds of appraisals we can make - positive, negative, or uncertain, and focused on past, present, or future circumstances. From that task, I developed a chart of emotions that helps us understand and name the feelings we are feeling. It helps us recognize the direction the Elephant is moving. If we fail to grasp this, or lack the understanding of how to change it, the Elephant will blindly charge on. When we use our reason to learn how the reins work however, we can become more than mere passive Riders; we can become active Drivers. What do I mean by this? In my philosophy, I wrote:

When the external environment is calm, the power of reason allows us to weave stories together focusing on different times and different appraisals to feel multiple emotions or jump from one to another. To control our emotions, improve our lives, and learn to act for the long-term survival of life, we can change our appraisals and our focus through the use of cognitive behavioral therapy, neuro-linguistic programming, psychotherapy, and philosophic counseling. Except in cases where physical maladies dominate (brain tumors, chemical imbalances, genetic disabilities), emotional behavioral issues can be addressed through analysis of appraisals and focus.

Let me give you a simple example of what I am talking about.

When I am in my car, driving along to get some place that I want to be, I am actively doing lots of things. I am constantly making cognitive appraisals about: the car trying to enter my lane - I need to do something about that; the light up ahead that is changing colors - I need to do something about that; the change in speed limit - I need to do something about that.* All of these judgments are responses to a negative situation. Whatever I had been doing - driving along at a constant speed in one direction - was no longer right and I needed to change. I needed to do something about that. These are all normal system 1 emotional responses that according to my emotional chart, tend to leave us in a state of simple determination. This is the general emotion we feel while driving under normal circumstances. Now, however, let's say that there has been an accident up ahead in the road and traffic has snarled to a halt. As I sit in line, usually unsure of what has happened to cause this situation, I can feel my blood start to boil. I look around the cars in front of me to see what they are doing. I check the mirrors to see if anyone behind me is going around or coming too fast. I scan the radio to listen for traffic alerts. I need to do something, I need to do something, I need to do something. And yet, the situation remains unchanged. I stay stuck in line, and my desired destination remains out of reach.

Looking at my chart of emotions, I now understand why my emotions are changing with growing intensity from my initial determination, to mild annoyance, to rising frustration, to maybe a little anger at the situation, occasionally some hatred will creep in towards those I imagine have caused this situation, and finally I end up pounding the steering wheel in a full blown case of road rage. What happened here? My cognitive appraisal kept telling me, "I need to do something about this," so my chemical response system kept pushing me to more and more intense emotional feelings since nothing was happening to relieve me of that need to do something about the situation.

What happens next? I give up, I slump back in my seat, I maybe grab my phone to text the person I was going to meet to tell them that I will be late. My rage subsides, and it is replaced with: grief if I am really going to miss something of major importance, sorrow or disappointment if it is something of minor importance, or boredom or apathy if it really wasn't important at all. Why those range of emotions? Because something inside of me had flipped. I now recognized, "I can't do anything about this." My cognitive appraisal of the situation changed and my emotions responded accordingly.

Now that I know all this, can I change my emotions at will? Not quite fully. But when I get into traffic jams these days and start to feel my negative emotions rising in intensity, I will repeat to myself, "there's nothing I can do, there's nothing I can do, there's nothing I can do" until the acceptance of the situation comes around and I am as relaxed as I can be about it. I don't often get this done before some annoyance or frustration is felt, but I don't suffer from road rage anymore. I have learned to feel the tug of the Elephant in that direction and Drive him elsewhere with a wiser pull on the reins.

Do you have any similar stories to tell? How else are you taming your Elephant? Are there wild emotions you feel you can never control? Leave a comment or send me a message to let me know.

* The fact that many of these appraisals are done without words, does not mean I am not making these appraisals. As I said in my philosophy:

We also have unconscious cognitive appraisals - cognitive appraisals without words. This is how all animals think. The rise of language and an inner voice provides a loud layer of consciousness that allows us to “talk over” our emotions, but that should not be used as an excuse to ignore them. It is easy to lose touch with our emotions when we do not listen to our bodies by noticing all the subtle sensations we feel. We can learn to focus our attention though and hold an internal (or external) dialogue to figure out our unspoken cognitive appraisals. We must do so if we want to regulate them and change them.

Don't forget to subscribe to my email list to receive these blog posts in your inbox whenever they happen. Or you can just receive infrequent notices whenever I publish something new for sale.



Leave a Reply