Personal Growth

Why do we make bad choices despite knowing what’s right?

Written by Bandoro Gurnaso Published on 

In today’s world, it’s not the practical insights that we lack, but the motives to do such practicality.

For long, we know the notion about keeping things in moderation – that anything too much is not good. At the same time, we also knew that despite all this knowledge, we would still pick the “wrong” yet intuitive path — even when we do realize the regrets which might come afterward.

It is very common these days to find the most practical, provable tips on any personal development topics you search. But in today’s world, it’s not the practical insights that we lack, but the motives to do such practicality. Only by understanding our nature in the right manner can we start to utilize our capacity into its maximum potentials.

The divided mind

Popularized by Jonathan Haidt in one of his bestselling books, The Happiness Hypothesis, we start with an analogy of how our minds work.

Your mind is like an elephant with a rider. The rider is smart and rational. He knows where to go, which paths to take, and how to deal with traps. But in order to move, he depends on the elephant. And just like an animal can be, the elephant is impulsive and irrational. It responds with intuitions, which are sometimes useful, but sometimes leads to problems.

As corny as it sounds, the notion “Falling in love” might be the best way to describe the nature of this phenomenon. When you’re in love, the rider knows you should work productively and think rationally on every decision you’re about to make, but it’s difficult. In the name of “love” (though sometimes you’ll deny it), you start making rationalizations only to justify your will. 

The rider serves more as an advisor rather than a king. So, whenever the elephant has firmly decided where to move (Like: “I love her”, “One more doughnut please”), the rider has an even weaker contribution to your behavior. In fact, the rider has no choice rather than to follow and justify the elephant’s act in most cases.

llustration by Jurgen Appelo from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurgenappelo/10867776843
illustration by Jurgen Appelo from Flickr

In sum, the rider represents your conscious mind; it comprises reasoning, planning, and logical thinking; it tends to think on a longer time frame. The elephant represents your subconscious mind; it consists of intuition and emotion; it cares about fulfilling its desires “here and now”.

Despite being regarded as short-minded and impulsive, the elephant is not your enemy. On the other hand, it also serves as the basis of your morality, compassion, and virtue, which can lead you into a satisfying life. Think of those joyous moments when you were intuitively sharing kindness with a friend, or vehemently opposing racism and injustice. Those are elephants on the action.

The rider and elephant both have their unique strength. When working together, they enable the uniqueness and brilliance of human beings.

Evolution tells the reason

However, it turns out that the rider is not as perfect as you’d think – It has tendencies to overthink. The elephant, on the other hand, can work way faster and efficiently.

Since the first clumps of neurons emerged — forming the first brain — about 500 million years ago, it is designated primarily to serve its primary purpose: promoting survival. The brain has become an adaptation tool in processing bits of information, eliciting appropriate responses quickly to threats and opportunities from the surrounding environment.

The triune brain theory, developed by American neuroscientist — Paul D. Maclean — suggests that the brain has been growing progressively throughout the evolutionary process. From its lowest level (Reptilian brain) to a higher level (In mammals, named as the “Limbic Brain”), and into its peak (In modern humans, called the “Neocortex”).

This model — while regarded as an oversimplification in the scientific community — was agreed to be crucial on the understanding of how the brain works, primarily the rider-elephant phenomenon.

Image from Pinterest

Mammals — like dogs or rats — have developed something more, which is emotions. This enables them to become more alert to possible dangers and rewards, but also to communicate more through bodily signals (think of the growling dog who shows its anger).

These instinctual and emotional drives are so important to promote the continuity of the species itself. Foods provide the energy to move and grow; therefore, it becomes pleasurable whenever you eat food. This pleasure reinforces animals to seek for more foods later on. Eaten by a predator would be devastating for the species; therefore, fear was developed to forces either fight or flight responses.

The rider enables us to excel at the game of survival, but as you’ve noticed, it is also the source of an eternal battle between emotion and rationality — as we had discussed before. Hence, while our rider was just being born (Evolutionary speaking), the elephant had endured millions of years of development through adaptation and natural selection. No doubt that it would be more robust in controlling our behaviors.

Training your elephant

One of the essential benefits of adapting an analogy is that it gives you a shortcut to understanding complex mechanisms, therefore understanding your actions and hopefully, being less impulsive. Here are two situations that you should look for:

1. When you are feeling emotional

We must have those experiences when we pushed so hard to think positively in a depressing moment. In most cases, it won’t work. Actually, there’s even a term in regards to this phenomenon; it is “Toxic Positivity.”

To emphasize again: The elephant is not your enemy; the elephant is YOU. Fighting yourself would only build more chaos and exhaustion. The best approach instead is first to observe and understand your elephant in a non-judgemental way.

Mindfulness practice is one way to do this. There has been a lot of research showing the benefits of mindfulness for people with anxiety, depression, even those with only daily stress. Whenever you feel emotionally aroused (ultimately when it is negative), hold yourself from reacting directly. Instead, just sit and observe that emotional sensation from your body.

Once you have understood what you’re feeling, then you can start persuading yourself. Instead of doing it with pure logic and reason, wrap it with emotion instead. This will help you be interested in doing the good things. For example, if you want to tackle those junk-food cravings while on a diet, instead of making reasons why you shouldn’t eat, try to recall those people or videos which triggered you to start in the first place.

Remember: Target the elephant.

2. When it’s neutral

Every time we think about a change, we imagine that it would come in forms of enlightenment that suddenly creates massive changes in our life. But the truth is, most changes happen more like a marathon than a sprint.

You’ve learned that the elephant characteristics are created through habituation. The same happens with decision making. For example, exercising is far from hard to do; what’s hard is starting the exercise itself. To put up your shoes and step outside is a pain in the ass. But once you had done it repeatedly, it would be so much easier to overcome. 

The key is to repeat the decision over and over until it becomes more automatic. And to make it solid, you need to put a little sacrifice at the beginning. If you want to learn more about how to build habits successfully, there’s a great book by James Clear titled “Atomic Habits.” You can check the summary here.

Ending Notes

My mom has a saying: “Once rice has turned into a porridge, you can’t make it back into rice.”

Similarly, there might be some characteristics, emotional response, or subconscious programs within ourselves that we have no control over. But what my mom didn’t mention is that the “porridge” itself can get tastier. Only if you are humble enough to accept the flaws and learn which are the best spices and toppings to add.

In other words, we can use our rider to train our elephant into a better one. One that fueled with optimism and wisdom, rather than pessimism and despair.

This article has been edited for brevity. Read the full article here.

Bandoro Gunarso is a Junior Doctor, Writer, and Content Creator based in Indonesia. He is passionate about sharing his perspectives around Psychology, Mental Health, and Happiness. He’s a passionate thinker striving towards the future of well-being and also a fan of Naval Ravikant, Elon Musk, and anything about Silicon Valley, where he hopes to join them in the future.

Disclaimer: This article was written by a community contributor. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the writer. If you’d like to contribute, you can apply here


Bandoro Gurnaso

Bandoro Gunarso is a Junior Doctor, Writer, and Content Creator based in Indonesia. He is passionate about sharing his perspectives around Psychology, Mental Health, and Happiness.


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