I first read about the elephant Rider analogy in the famous book, The Brain That Changes Itself, which happens to be one of my all time favorite books in the field of Neuropsychology. The basic premise of the elephant-rider analogy is that your brain has two distinct systems:
The Elephant: which constitutes pretty much all of the primitive and 'automatic' parts of your brain starting from the brain stem to the limbic system and The Rider: which constitutes the more modern and 'thinking' parts of your brain like the Prefrontal cortex.
The basic premise being that the 'elephant' is primitive, huge and very powerful (obviously because it's machinery has been fine-tuned over millions of years of evolution). The rider is small (because these brain parts developed relatively recently in the timeline of evolution), but more controlled and has the capability of driving the elephant.
Even though the rider has a capacity of controlling the elephant, any time there is a major disagreement between the Rider and the Elephant, the elephant wins hands down and the rider stands no chance - Remember the last time you promised you will workout but then decided to watch TV instead of going to the gym when the evening arrived? There was a disagreement between the rider and the elephant and the elephant obviously won.
Switch - How to Change Things When Change Is Hard - takes this analogy of Rider and Elephant and handles the delicate topic of understanding this relationship between the Rider and the Elephant so that you can help your rider guide your elephant towards changes that you really want to bring about - not just in your life but in organizations and large groups of people.
Switch begins by understanding and appreciating the fact that the elephant is much more powerful than the Rider and in case of a disagreement between the two the Rider stands no chance.
The book also recognizes that both the Elephant and the Rider have their own problems. The Elephant is wild, hard to control and driven by emotions while the Rider is often a victim of over thinking, analysis paralysis and procrastination.
The book is all about, different ways of not just motivating the rider, but 'herding' the Elephant and making both work as a team. The 1% Milk campaign described in the book is a classic example:
Two health researchers, Steve Booth-Butterfield and Bill Reger, professors at West Virginia University, were contemplating ways to persuade people to eat a healthier diet. From past research, they knew that people were more likely to change when the new behavior expected of them was crystal clear, but unfortunately,"eating a healthier diet" was anything but.
Where to begin? Which foods should people stop (or start) eating? Should they change their eating behavior at breakfast, lunch, or dinner? At home or in restaurants? The number of ways to "eat healthier" is limitless, especially given the starting place of the average American diet. This is exactly the kind of situation in which the Rider will spin his wheels, analyzing and agonizing and never moving forward.
As the two researchers brainstormed, their thoughts kept coming back to milk. Most Americans drink milk, and we all know that milk is a great source of calcium. But milk is also the single largest source of saturated fat in the typical American's diet. In fact, calculations showed something remarkable:
If Americans switched from whole milk to skim or 1 % milk, the average diet would immediately attain the USDA recommended levels of saturated fat.
How do you get Americans to start drinking low-fat milk? You make sure it shows up in their refrigerators. And that isn't an entirely facetious answer. People will drink whatever is around the house-a family will plow through low-fat milk as fast as whole milk. So, in essence, the problem was even easier than anticipated:
You don't need to change drinking behavior. You need to change purchasing behavior. Suddenly the intervention became razor-sharp. What behavior do we want to change? We want consumers to buy skim or 1 % milk. When? When they're shopping for groceries. Where? Duh. What else needs to change? Nothing (for now).
Reger and Booth-Butterfield launched a campaign in two communities in West Virginia, running spots on the local media outlets (Tv; newspaper, radio) for two weeks. In contrast to the bland messages of most public-health campaigns, the 1 % milk campaign was punchy and specific. One ad trumpeted the fact that one glass of whole milk has the same amount of saturated fat as five strips of bacon!
At a press conference, the researchers showed local reporters a tube full of fat-the equivalent of the amount found in a half-gallon of whole milk. (Notice the Elephant appeals: They're going for an "Oh, gross!" reaction.)
Reger and Booth-Butterfield monitored milk sales data at all eight stores in the intervention area. Before the campaign, the market share of low-fat milk was 18 percent. After the campaign, it was 41 percent. Six months later, it held at 35 percent.
The book is full of really smart ways of directing the Rider and motivating / herding the Elephant. From preventing child deaths in Vietnam, to getting people to work out and stopping their black berry addiction the book is literally full of real, pragmatic and practical steps you can benefit from starting today and how you can bring about change where change is hard just because the Rider and the Elephant are disagreeing or falling prey to their respective weaknesses.
And if you find yourself giving excuses like, "I don't have the power" or "the rules in this place are too crippling" - this book is a must read because it literally has tons of real life examples of people who brought about huge changes at organizational (and even national) levels without being given any special power or authority to bring about change.
For example, there is the story of Jon Stegner who lands up in an manufacturing company where he brings down the purchasing cost of gloves in his organization by a magnitude of a billion dollars, not by making a PowerPoint slide show or calling meetings and inviting people who just didn't care; but by piling up a heap of 424 different kinds of gloves with different price tags on the board room table to shock and motivate the elephants of the directors and board members to bring about change.
And then there is the story of how Paul Butler, saves the St. Lucia Parrot, in Caribbean island of St. Lucia without being given any power or authority to do so. The book is full of amazing stories from real walks of life about how people herd elephants and motivate riders to bring about change that eventually touches hundreds of lives. And it's not just the stories which makes this book gripping, but the scientific and methodical dissection of the stories from the aspects of phycology that makes this book equally educational.
There are very few books on human brain that you find 'inspiring' but this book is one of those rare books and one of those rare books that I would not hesitate to rate a 5 on 5. If there only a couple of books you are going to read this year, this book should be in your must read list for this year.