Elephants & Why We Get Ourselves Into Such Terrible Financial Messes

Peter's picture

If you are like most people, myself included, you probably consider yourself to be of average or above average intelligence. If that were true, we should be able to make good decisions most of the time. If we made good decisions most of the time, we should be, for the most part, quite successful. Sometimes, however, it seems like we aren't as successful as we ought to be. Sometimes, we can be completely and utterly unsuccessful. We make horrible decisions. We get ourselves into huge financial messes. We're unhappy. We feel trapped.

So, the question is: If we're all so damn smart, how come we suck so much? Elephants, that's why.

Who's In Charge Anyway?

One of my favourite metaphors for the human mind is the "elephant and rider" one presented by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Basically, the human brain is broken into two distinct characters: the elephant and the rider. The rider is the conscious, self-aware, thinking and logical part of your brain. The elephant is the subconscious, irrational, emotional and instinct driven part of your brain. The rider needs to work very hard to be able to train the elephant otherwise the elephant will just lumber along doing whatever it wants.

So, if we look back to the introduction of this post, the rider is the part of our brain that believes we are pretty intelligent and the elephant is the part of our brain that gets us into such horrible messes. The idea is that even though we know what we should be doing, we don't always end up doing it. You may be familiar with the expression: "Actions speak louder than words." Well, the words come from the rider but the actions come from the elephant.

Rider & Elephant Examples

Here are a few examples of the rider and the elephant at work:

  • The rider is the one who signs us up for a gym membership. The elephant is the one who never goes but keeps paying.
  • The rider wants to get out of debt. The elephant keeps making purchases on credit that we can't afford.
  • The rider signs us up for guitar lessons. The elephant never practices.
  • The rider wants to write a letter to our friends and family. The elephant ensures we never actually get around to writing.
  • The rider knows that healthy food is the way to go. The elephant likes fast food.

That should make it pretty clear who's who in your brain.

How Do I Get The Elephant Out Of My Brain?

The bad news is that you can't get the elephant out of your brain. The good news is that you can train the elephant. Elephant training isn't and easy job though. It takes a lot of work and a lot of dedication. If you stick with it, however, you can have your elephant balancing on a circus ball and doing other tricks as well.

Who Did You Say Was Going To Be Training Elephants?

You are. At least if you want to, you can. It's only a two step process. In fact, you're already taking the first step necessary to begin training your inner elephant. So what are the steps? They are:

  • Step One: Educate the rider.
  • Step Two: Train the elephant.

By reading about things that your rider finds interesting you are finding the tricks that you want your elephant to perform. Maybe you want to get out of debt. Maybe you want to simplify your life. These are great tricks for elephants and you are doing the right thing by learning about them.

Elephants learn slowly, they learn by repetition and they learn by doing. They learn by doing little things over and over again until they become a habit. The good news is that once an elephant learns a new trick, it doesn't take nearly as much effort to keep it from forgetting. Elephants have good memories, right? The hard part is teaching your elephant the trick in the first place.

You're The Rider So Take Charge

As the rider it's your job to figure out what you want and learn what you need to do to make it happen. Then you need to stick with it. So make a plan and get things started. Make sure the elephant knows who's boss or else it will get you into all sorts of messes that you really don't want to be in.


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