Financial Change: The Rider and the Elephant

Financial Change: The Rider and the Elephant

financial change, financial independenceHere’s the short audio, if you prefer:

Financial Change The Rider and Elephant

Picture this:  You decide with great conviction that you’re starting a diet today.  You have photos of last year’s “you” plastered everywhere.  You make it through the day eating sensibly, following your plan.  Tonight, tired and frustrated from a long day, you watch yourself walk deliberately into the kitchen and open the cabinet.  You pull out the new 13.7-ounce box of White Cheddar Cheez-Its® you left there—unopened—for guests that might someday drop by.

Well, how long before the box is empty?

You’re appalled at your total lack of willpower.

Or maybe it’s the new Jimmy Choo bag you order online from Bluefly, right after you look at your bank statement in horror and declare, “No more shopping online for three months!”

Do you want to know what happened?

Your Elephant was stronger than your Rider.

Okay, I’ll explain.

The Rider and the Elephant

A psychologist by the name of Jonathan Haidt used this metaphor in The Happiness Hypothesis as an effective way to visualize and explain behaviors that seem contradictory.

Haidt’s explanation grew out of questioning why people (like himself) keep doing stupid things, or fail to control themselves, or do things they know are just plain bad for them.

He came up with the image of himself riding on the back of an elephant.  Haidt can guide the elephant by pulling the reins one way or the other, or by nudging it to start or stop.  As the “Rider,” he’s able to direct the “Elephant,” but only so long as the Elephant doesn’t have other plans.  The moment the Elephant decides to do something different, the Rider is no match for it.

In fact, the Rider represents the conscious brain and the Elephant represents the subconscious brain.  And this imagery is brilliant because even the proportions are similar. The little (but clever) Rider has all the concrete, intelligent arguments and rationales.  And the huge, and more unpredictable, Elephant has all the mushy, emotional, security-driven motivators to do something … or not.

In the end, both the mind (the Rider) and the heart (the Elephant) have to be committed in order for change to be successful and long-lasting.  The mind is rational and has the ability to consider the future.  The heart deals instinctively with things such as pleasure and pain, and with the here-and-now.

Making Financial Change

Let’s now apply Haidt’s Rider and Elephant visual to some financial change we want to make.

Remember, to be successful at any change regarding how you deal with money, you’re going to have to appeal to both your Rider (for planning and direction) and your Elephant (for the energy to get you there).  Where they move together, change comes easily.

Take the example of buying a house.  This is a life-changing decision that will affect almost every facet of your life and involve a major financial change.  Yet people undertake it successfully every day.  How?  Well, you start with all your reasons for wanting to buy, and then you carefully calculate how much house you can afford.  Next you pick the neighborhood (maybe even the house) you want to live in.  At that point, both your head and your heart are engaged.  In fact, you’re already fantasizing about where you’ll put the couches in the living room, so your emotional Elephant may actually drag your Rider all the way to the house closing!

Next let’s look at when your Rider is engaged, but your Elephant isn’t.  There you have knowledge, but no motivation.  You know what needs to be done, but have no desire to do it.  Preparing your taxes is a perfect example.  Sheer willpower will get them done eventually, but you won’t have any help from your Elephant.  If anything, she’ll invent a million things she’d rather do and you’ll call it “procrastination.”

If the Rider can’t override the unmotivated Elephant, the analytical Rider goes round and round, looking for good “reasons” for her to move forward.  Without the engagement of the Elephant (who is the energy in this dynamic duo), it’s as if you put your car in Drive while your emergency brake is still on.  You go nowhere.

When the road forward is uncertain because the Rider is absent or worn out from trying to keep the Elephant headed somewhere, the Elephant will default to what it’s most familiar with.  That is always the status quo, even if the status quo is painful. In short, ambiguity—or lack of clear direction—is the death knell for positive change.  Your Elephant will pull you right back to where you began.

And when the two of them disagree, that spells trouble.  One example is the Elephant’s preference for instant gratification versus the Rider’s long-term thinking.  Say you’re looking at saving for retirement and you have to cut out some fun and goodies to be able to save money to set aside.  Your Elephant’s not thrilled.  Do you think your Elephant just might have won this contest of wills?

We usually speak to our Rider with rational arguments, and overlook speaking to our Elephant with convincing emotional ones.  Think of all the times you’ve said, “I should do this or that.”  Your logical mind is reflecting a logical conclusion.  But we can’t “think” our way into a new behavior.  We need to find the emotion that motivates our Elephant.  We need the one-two punch for change to be successful.

So, to achieve any financial change, it’s important to provide your Rider with a clear destination and all the logical reasons for going there.  And then provide step-by-step directions for how to get to a compelling destination, as well as the positive emotional motivations to make yours a cooperative, unstoppable pachyderm.

Can you think of instances where your reluctant Elephant kept you from achieving a goal set by your Rider?  Let us know in the comment section below.


Bio: Sharon O’Day lost everything at age 53: her home, her business, everything. But how could that be? She’s an expert in global finance and marketing with an MBA from the Wharton School. She has worked with governments, corporations, and individuals … yes, she was the secret “weapon,” if you will, behind many individuals in high places. Yet she did! Since then, with her finances completely turned around, Sharon has gone on to interview countless women. She’s done extensive research to understand how that could have happened, especially with her strong knowledge of numbers and finance.

The surprising answers are shared in her posts, articles and an upcoming book. Today her mission is to show as many women as possible how to become financially free for the long term, through her coaching programs. She has developed a step-by-step plan to get past all the obstacles that keep women broke and scared … and from reaching the financial peace of mind they so deserve … if they’re willing to do what it takes!

  • Great analogy. Problem is: I don’t see a real solution, after all, this “So, to achieve any financial change, it’s important to provide your
    Rider with a clear destination and all the logical reasons for going
    there. ” doesn’t work, as the elephant doesn’t care about logic. What I get from your post is that financial practices need to be combined with instant gratification in order to keep the elephant moving. Asking form the elephant to sacrifice pleasure for some lofty future gain won’t work, as you wrote yourself. It’s also against all those spiritual teachings that say: life is now. I mean, why is it that the financial system is set up in a way that runs against that powerful elephant? Why can’t we make it fun for both of them? Any ideas how to achieve that? I think my elephant would be very happy with such a system :-).

    • I think you may have missed the underlying point, Joseann. A successful change simply has to have a logical component for the mind … AND an emotional one for the heart. A strong emotional benefit CAN override the need for instant gratification, as long as the payoff is close enough for the elephant to achieve. (It just means change has to be broken down into small achievable chunks.) My interpretation of spiritual teachings is not “life is now” to the exclusion of tomorrow. It’s “be in the now, be present, savor the moment.” Very different. As for making it fun for both the rider and the elephant, for mine it is. By getting the two to act in tandem, I have reached a financial place where my rider is happy to plan and implement, while my elephant is happy with enough immediate joy as well as with knowing she’ll be fine for the rest of my life.

      • Thank you for your explanation :-). So I am looking for an emotional benefit now in financial planning and I try to sell it to my elephant ;-). In the moment I wrote this, I actually started wondering: is there an emotional benefit in not having a financially sound foundation in my life and in not applying logic and planning to finannces? Emotion, as such, is a neutral term. What if my elephant is hooked to the “excitement” of insecurity, fear and the like = drama? May be it’s not at all about joy, but about a completely other set of feelings? Your description “knowing she’ll be fine for the rest of her life” sounds like very strange land to my elephant. Whatever the case, your post is great to start looking at the issue, thanks a lot.

  • A vivid illustration! My biggest mistakes have been spending money to make my kids happy, even though they are all grown up now. No, even bigger is my granddaughter! I’m a frugal spender, but I just totally go off track when it comes to something my kids need. So, if I understand this illustration, there is some area in my belief system that “off” and it causes my elephant to race in the opposite direction. So that’s something for me to examine today, get to the root of it… and find healing there… yep.

    • Isn’t it an interesting template for reviewing how we make decisions, Sue? I love it! Actually, you’re getting so much emotional satisfaction out of helping and spending on your kids and granddaughter, that your elephant is keeping your rider from following your normal, logical spending patterns … to the exclusion of your own happiness and financial peace of mind. That last phrase is the key: why aren’t you as important as they are? If I find I’m resisting doing something, all I do is drop the circumstances into the template and see what piece is missing, or in conflict. It’s not always possible to resolve immediately, but at least I understand what’s going on and what I need to do to change it.

  • Excellent visual to hold onto everyday! Sometimes the “shiny” things entice me to want to let loose of my money, but then I look at the results of doing that for years and the hardship it has put us under…I snap back to reality and our plan.

    • Interesting how that works, isn’t it, Carla? Once we’ve locked on to a goal and know how good it feels to be on our way … we may hesitate, but we don’t fall! 😉

  • This is truly one of the best analogies I have heard concerning the conscious and subconscious mind! So many people are unfamiliar with the subconscious and therefore are slaves to something they have no awareness of. I deal with this a lot working with parents who raise their children believing they are successful because their awareness is limited to what they “think” when in reality the ultimate power is hidden within the subconscious. An analogy that I use is what lies in the subconscious is a result of interpretation reinforced with emotion that becomes like a rut in a dirt road that is traveled over and over again…no matter how hard you intend to avoid the rut, chances are the wheels find their way back into the familiar well-worn path. The best way to avoid the ‘ruts’ is to uncover the initial experience and corresponding emotion. Most often this awareness alone is enough to give one back the power to replace it with a healthy pattern. Whether the topic is finances or parenting it is in our best interest to ‘do the work’ to diminish the power of the elephant!! Excellent article! Thanks for sharing:)

    • Glad you like it, Denny! We’ve seen so many depictions of the conscious/subconscious brain–including the iceberg with 95% of its mass below the water line–but I find the Rider and Elephant imagery to be far more relatable.

  • So interesting … love the analogy! ” …the Elephant will default to what it’s most familiar with” ~ this is so true! New habits are NEW and it requires a lot of work to make them familiar, so that the default is not taking over. Thank you Sharon for your amazing advice. 🙂

    • Here’s an interesting thought, Solvita: we hear about how it takes 21 days for a new behavior to become a habit. How do you think this relates to the Rider/Elephant metaphor?

  • DianeDP

    What a valuable post. Especially loved the analogy to the diet syndrome, the spending syndrome and the struggle between instant gratification, and the knowledge of the better way longer term (although the motivation to get there, may be lacking). Glad that I checked in, Sharon!

    • I’m glad you checked in, too, Diane. I always like reading your incisive take on things!

  • Wow could I relate to this article!!! I’ve seen this in real life with my daughter and her off the track thoroughbred!!! My elephant wins a lot of the time. Usually it is because a physical need is off – not enough sleep, too much on my work load, a challenging child etc. But I’m really working on it…and I want to get my elephant to stay on the right path! With your great tips hopefully that will be easier!

    • What’s great, Michelle, is that you’re aware of what lessens your resolve with your elephant. And because some of those are not triggers you can eliminate easily … 😉 … what if you looked at what your motivators are? Maybe your elephant needs more clearly defined reasons to STAY on track …

  • Alexandra McAllister

    WOW! Such a great article! I love the analogy to the diet syndrome! I can so relate! Thank you for sharing, Sharon. You are an inspiration!

    • I know you work with health and wellness, Alexandra, so the diet reference is totally relevant! In fact, this concept may be useful for you to use with the people you work with … to understand more clearly what’s going on in their brain.

  • My elephant came in the shape of a bottle! Obsessed with instant gratification and preferably numbness my alcohol elephant kept me going around in circles for years.
    Thankfully I learnt how to get off that elephant and found another elephant in the shape of faith. It’s taking me exactly where I’m meant to go!

    • Two very powerful vehicles, Carolyn: alcohol and faith! As for your Elephant, it went from pursuing emotional numbness to (I would guess) seeking emotional and spiritual peace. Both are huge payoffs. Does this metaphor help explain a bit of why your Rider was unable to “steer” the Elephant in any other direction for so many years? That is, until the Elephant decided it wanted something else … 😉

  • olga hermans

    How about the elephant in the room that we don’t want to talk about? Then it gets really big and almost impossible to ride on. My husband I had that for years; we had lived in Canada and moved back to The Netherlands; we always knew deep down in our hearts that our desire was to go back to Canada, but family and things around us kept us from really talking about it. Until one day, the elephant had grown so much; it was right in front of us. I am glad we both saw the elephant and ecided to do something about it and here we are in Canada!!

    • At some point in time your elephant’s desire to return to Canada became even greater than its desire to have peace and harmony in the family. That’s when the decision for change can be made. Until then, it remains something your Rider thinks about, but doesn’t act on … Good for you, Olga.

  • Just love this metaphor of the rider and the elephant (the conscious and the subconscious) and how you point out how change is possible and comes easily when they work together! Well done!

    • When all the energies are headed in the same direction, Sherie, change comes pretty easily. The tough part is getting everyone coordinated! 😉

  • I love this! My Elephant is stronger than me LOL

    • Your Elephant IS you … it’s just that it’s stronger than the other “part” of you … 😉

  • Meryl

    What a great metaphor–the elephant and the rider! Thanks for sharing this with us!

    • Meryl, I know you deal with people’s food issues. This applies in many cases, doesn’t it?

      • Meryl

        Oh, yes….it applies to food and any other challenges. The rider says “today I am not going to eat ____” and within a few minutes or hours is eating that because the elephant is in charge! They say our conscious mind is like the tip of an iceberg and our subconscious is really making the decisions and driving the bus!

  • Jamie

    What a great analogy. It’s so true though, when I’m unmotivated about something and know I have to do it, it just sits there, unmoving.

    • Amazing how weighty a task can be when there’s no elephant around to do the heavy lifting, huh, Jamie? 😉

  • marta

    Great Sharon ! one of your best, THANKS! So much to reflect on it, will keep me busy for a long… time.

    • Thanks, Marta, I take that as a great compliment! Once we’re aware of the metaphor, it’s amazing how often we can see it playing a role in our everyday decisions!

  • Karen P

    Great article! Love your analogy. I can think of many instances! Time to fight through the elephant and achieve! xo

    • Karen, you just need to get your elephant in on the action of what you want to achieve. And it’s not so hard: just find the emotional component to the decision you’re trying to make …

  • marierleslie

    What a great analogy. This makes it all so simple to understand. Now to put that understanding into practice.

    • I know, Marie! Knowledge and awareness are great … but useless without action! 😉

  • Excellent analogy! New habits require new rituals and steady practice until they are a part of our everyday life! We have to be motivated though and align ourselves with that in order to push past resistance. You should be very proud of this post!

    • The best part is getting the two parts in synch, Anita, and removing the resistance altogether. Can it be done? Absolutely! We just have to get both the logical reasons and the emotional payoffs in place …

  • I love reading your articles. And I totally agree with Anita –
    Excellent analogy! New habits require new rituals and steady practice until they are a part of our everyday life! Brilliant post Sharon!

    • Thanks, Anastasiya, for stopping by, reading and commenting. It’s always so good to know that readers appreciate what we write!

  • What a great story Sharon. It really doesn’t just apply to money, it can be used in EVERY area of your life. I really love this “Remember, to be successful at any change regarding how you deal with money, you’re going to have to appeal to both your Rider (for planning and direction) and your Elephant (for the energy to get you there). Where they move together, change comes easily.”

    • I think the house-buying example is perfect, Susan. It’s a transaction that’s so important in our financial lives … and yet, once we have our heart set on it [note that phrase!], we’ll go through all sorts of rigamarole with documents, inspections, credit checks, titles, etc., etc. … because it makes sense logically and our elephant sure wants a new place to park her trunk! 😉

  • I love this and Yes if we have trouble with one we tend to have it with several others..;)

    • Yet once we’re aware of that split personality in decision-making, Barbara, we know what to call on to make any change take place … and stick!

  • Michele

    Sharon, As always, you have offered a powerful lesson for us. It all seems easy when using your analogy. I will spend some time applying it to the circumstances in my life and expect ti to be just as easy (fingers are crossed as well…I iike a bit of luck). Thanks you for your continuous generosity.

    • Michele, I think the expression is “simple, but not easy.” At least not until you get the knack of it, of what drives your elephant into supportive action … I’ll cross MY fingers for you too!

  • Lisa Birnesser

    Excellent analogy, Sharon. I loved this article. The rider and the elephant must be connected to make any change. In my experience, money is no exception. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

    • You’re right, Lisa, money is no exception. And it does apply to any decision–no matter what you’re undertaking, you’ll need to have your logical reasons and your emotional reasons … both carefully synch’ed!

  • Excellent post, Sharon. I love thinking of ways to get the subconcious to help out with our conscious plans!

    • Sure does help, doesn’t it, Sally? However, to have the subconscious sabotaging something you “think” you want to do only leads to chaos … so you may as well get both elements working for you!

  • Pat Moon

    Thanks for another article filled with wisdom, Sharon. Right now I am seeing the economy and housing crisis as being our elephant. We made plans for retirement income based on the availability of what we had to work with at the time. We made decisions in 2005 through 2008 based on our head knowledge however the elephant did not cooperate and is still not cooperating putting us at risk of losing even more than we’ve already lost… the elephant in our lives is just forging ahead without consideration of us, the riders. At this point, I am praying and trusting God to give us the wisdom to get the elephant back into being reasonable and adhering to the reins we are still holding on to.

    • Pat, I know the post-2008 economic disaster looms large enough to look like an elephant. But the elephant in this metaphor isn’t an external force or event that affects your life. The event happens independent of you (i.e., the economy and housing crisis). Your Rider and your Elephant affect how YOU react to that event. Your Rider decides logically HOW to act in the face of the financial loss, in your case. But the willpower needed to move you through what has to be done is what comes from your Elephant. It is your WHY. And lots of times, it is best motivated by you identifying and tapping into emotional rewards. But neither can change the external event … they can only help you deal with it as effectively as possible.

  • I love your elephant analogy Sharon! This really made me think about getting focused. Sitting down and clearly identifying what my goals are and my plan to implement them. Sometimes you can get lost in the dreaming and forget the planning! I feel like I get pulled in 15 different directions when that happens.

    • Lisa, I know what you’re talking about. So take those “15 different directions” and figure out what areas of your life they affect. List those areas, then put them in order of priority. Set up your plan for the most important, ignoring the others for the moment. Once that plan is clear in your mind (and on paper), move on to the next area. But don’t plan so many things you get overwhelmed … and then do nothing! So, if other areas on you list can wait, set them aside for a bit and get the first plans underway. (I know this works, because it’s what I had to do for myself.) 😉

  • Mary Pougnet

    Sharon this is an excellent article! I’m impressed with the analogy that you’ve used to create a visual for your readers, imprinting the constant pull between the conscious mind and the subconscious. When both conscious and subconscious are aligned, life flows with ease and in harmony; when not aligned, with resistance between the two, disharmony and discontent surface, poor decisions are made based on emotional reactions or other emotional perceptions of ‘need and desire’, relationships become more challenging and often fearful. Another visual is to see your conscious mind trying to swim upstream against the current while your subconscious mind is trying to guide you to swim with the current, flowing with ease and no resistance, the pull between the two tends to make life chaotic and emotionally distressing. Thanks for sharing an excellent post! 🙂

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Mary. I hadn’t thought of the visual of the current created by the subconscious … and the conscious fighting its way upstream. Another powerful one! I would imagine that you, too, are intrigued by the ever-changing role of the two. How simple (yet tricky!) life seemed before we were aware of our subconscious! 😉

  • Love, love, love this article Sharon. I applaud you for the analogy that you used to convey your very Powerful message! Thank you for sharing your Vast Knowledge and Great Wisdom!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Susan! I find that imagery is often the best way to convey a concept … and the Rider and the Elephant are certainly effective in this case.

  • Gretchen Pritts

    Great post Sharon. You really make a topic that seems so difficult, sound simple. I love the reference to a diet-that makes sense. Thanks for sharing.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Gretchen. When it comes to money, sometimes our “blocks” are so great it helps to use other examples to explain a concept … 😉

  • I loved this article! Thank you for sharing it!

    • You’re very welcome, MarVeena! Glad you had a chance to come back and read it.