Imagine that you are walking through a museum with a friend. You turn a corner, see a painting for the first time, and your immediate reaction is to say, “Oh I like that.” Your friend asks, “Really? Why? What is it about the painting that makes you like it?” Only then do you consciously come up with an explanation as to why you like the painting. Our judgments and opinions about political and moral issues work much the same way. We know what we like and what we don’t like before we know why, and we develop rationales for our preferences only after the fact. Our intuition and gut feel come first, followed by our thought-out rational explanations for them. Conscious reason is like a small rider on the back of a large intuitive elephant; its chief (but not only) function is to justify, defend, and convince others, of the beliefs and actions already decided upon by the elephant.
Our natural tendency to like or dislike, to be attracted to something or to be disgusted by it, to approach or to avoid, to fight or to flee, is an automatic process that happens almost instantaneously, bred into us by millions of years of evolution. It controls the vast majority of what we think and say and do in our daily lives. Our conscious mind is barely aware of it, but the elephant is really the one in charge.
Our ability to reason is a controlled process that requires language and takes time. We need words in order to think about and analyze the pros and cons, costs and benefits, attractiveness or repulsiveness, and potential threat or possible reward of a situation so that we can articulate them. It takes time for us to do that. It happens well after we already know that we like or don’t like something; how we feel about it. The rational rider, therefore, has little power to cause behavior and rarely does so.
The metaphor of the human mind as a rider on the back of an elephant, introduced here only briefly, was originated and described in full by Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in Chapter 1 of his book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.* The chapter is entitled The Divided Self. It is available to read online here. In that chapter Haidt says,
“If you listen closely to moral arguments, you can sometimes hear something surprising: that it is really the elephant holding the reins, guiding the rider. It is the elephant who decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Gut feelings, intuitions, and snap judgments happen constantly and automatically (as Malcolm Gladwell described in Blink), but only the rider can string sentences together and create arguments to give to other people. In moral arguments, the rider goes beyond being just an advisor to the elephant; he becomes a lawyer, fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of the elephant’s point of view.” (pp. 21-22)
For even more depth see Haidt’s essay entitled “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail,” which was published in Psychological Review in 2001, and is available through his home page, here.