The secret to business is knowing how to move elephants

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In their wonderful change management book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath popularised a metaphor first used in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. Describing the two types of thinking both you and your customers use to navigate the world as ‘the elephant and the rider’, the metaphor is one of the most powerful tools I’ve come across to explain where businesses typically go wrong in trying to get people to do stuff.


The elephant and the rider

The rider is the thinking we use at our most rational.  It’s the part of us that sets the alarm to get up and go for a run. It’s the part of us that responds to facts, plans how things should go and looks to the bigger picture.

The elephant is the thinking we use most of the time. It’s emotional, habitual, prone to impulse, slightly lazy and largely subconscious. It’s the part of us that hits the snooze button, sits on the couch rather than hits the gym like we’d planned, and gets influenced by special offers for stuff we don’t need.

The metaphor is so clever because it showcases the difference in scale of influence between the two styles of thinking. Sure, the rider might be smart and reasoned, but it takes an enormous effort to try to steer the elephant away from where it wants to go. Rather, most of the time the elephant does what it wants and the rider post-rationalises what happened.

Make the elephant your friend

In business we spend a lot of time justifying our products with facts and stats – great for the rider – but forget that the elephant is what we have to move.  I learnt my lesson as a product manager watching stakeholders pick apart numbers in a business case.

While they may have claimed their objections were made on a rational basis, a rider argument, they were really indicating the elephant hadn’t bought in.  Anyone who has tried to sell financial products, like superannuation or insurance, will know that facts are rarely enough to turn a client’s intent into signed contract.

The lesson for business is that we need to build our communications and propositions for elephant thinking.

Elephant thinking

To see the difference elephant and rider thinking can make to campaigns, let’s look at two examples of Quit campaigns.

Example one on the left puts up a rational case, stating that while there is some short-term ‘side effects’ in giving up smoking (‘headaches, increased appetite’), the long-term consequences of continuing to smoke are clearly worse (‘stroke, mouth cancer’).  The challenge with this approach is the rider might get on board, but the elephant will do whatever it can to avoid short-term pain.

Contrast that with example two on the right that also talks about the short and long term.  In this case though, the ad talks about the immediate benefits rather than negatives (‘in one week your sense of smell and taste improves’) which will get the elephant on board. Once the elephant is engaged, the rider is more likely to find ways to rationalise the decision and commit to the action.

Elephant’s won’t tell you what they want

The trick with understanding elephant behaviour is that you can’t just ask people what they want.  Do this and you’ll get the rider answering on the elephant’s behalf.  Instead you need to observe what people do when you change the conditions of your offer. But better than that, you can utilise a field of behavioural science called behavioural economics that has done the hard work for you.  Based on controlled experiments and observation rather than self-report, behavioural economics is your best source of understanding what people are likely to do.

When you next go to market

When you next approach your customer, consider how you are putting your message together. Rather than appealing to the Rider with facts and figures, make sure you have taken the time to understand the reasons beneath the surface that may persuade your customer to move. And remember, behavioural economics is available right now for you to use, so influencing elephants has never been easier.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.

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Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.

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