Most people, us included, were brought up to think that human being are rational creatures. They are supposed to take into account available information, analyze it, and consider the pros and cons of a situation before making a rational decision. This ability to think is supposed to be what sets us apart from animals and puts us at the top of the food chain.

If only that is true.

Recent findings in behavioral science point to the contrary – that our behavior are regulated more by instincts and emotional impulses — such as fear, hatred, sex drives — than rational thought.

Take exercise for example. Most of us are aware of its benefits, but how many of us exercise regularly every week? And in England, the reason why fewer women had exercise than men is because they are afraid of being judged. Apparently, this fear of being judged overrides their knowledge of exercise benefits.

But why are we more reliant on emotional impulses than rational thought?

According to social psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt, humans were hardwired to respond to their enviroment many thousands of years ago. Back then, the world was a more dangerous place and to survive the human had to make very quick decisions or perish.

So emotional instincts often overrode rational thought when they faced any tricky situations. The world has become a relatively safer place since then but our hardwiring has not changed. The result is that we think we are rational but are actually driven by the emotional impulses.

So when it comes to persuading people and changing behaviors, appealing merely to the rational part of the brain is not enough; one also needs to appeal to the emotional side.

Haidt first came up with the metaphor of the Rider and the Elephant to explain this duality. The idea was also popularized by the Heath brothers in their book Made to Stick and we also encountered it when we attended a 2-day training workshop held by Communication 4 Change, a social enterprise that believes in teaching skills and practices in branding, marketing, and communication from the commercial world to organizations and companies with a social purpose.

There are three elements to the metaphor which also doubles as a useful model for behavior change. First is The Rider which represents the rational mind. The second is The Elephant, which represents the emotion. The third is The Road, which represents the environment.

The Rider processes complex information and can interpret signs, consider benefits and losses, and anticipate delayed gratification. When convinced, The Rider can try to direct the elephant in which way to go by tightening or loosening the leash.

The Elephant, however, is heavy and strong and more than capable of overriding The Rider’s direction.  The rider would be powerless if the elephant decides to go the other way. This rider-elephant relationship is also true when applied to a rational-emotional relationships. Very often the emotion will overwhelm the rational thinking.

In the case of women in England, the fear of being judged overrode their knowledge of exercise benefits. It is not because they are being irrational, but because judgement can be astoundingly awful and discouraging. A woman could be judged by her looks when she was sweating. She could also be judged for her beginner skills. People could also judge them because they choose to exercise instead of spending more time taking care of their families.

This insight drove a beautiful social campaign named “This Girl Can”. The campaign was aimed at alleviating the anxiety a woman might experience when trying to exercise. It specifically addressed the elephant because in this case, the problem was not on the rider.

This campaign encouraged people to ignore other’s judgement with hard-hitting lines like “Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox” and “I kick balls, deal with it” to spearhead a change in attitude. To make it relatable and relevant, the advertisement also casted a host of ordinary women all over England instead of supermodels.

As a result, 1.6m women have started exercising. Moreover, the number of exercising women is increasing faster than the number of exercising men.

In the later stage of the campaign, “This Girl Can” also addressed the third factor, which is The Road. Many women don’t have easy access to sporting facilities. The campaign sought to make it easy, open the road, for them to exercise by encouraging women to exercise anywhere – be it the beach, the park, even in one’s apartment.

Imagine if the campaign tried to address only The Rider instead. It would go on and on about the benefits of exercising that most people already know and would probably ignore. A social change, then, would not be achieved.

The C4C workshop challenged us as communicators to revisit our perspective towards the audience. The frameworks that they introduced gave us multiple tools to help decide what kind of approach works best to encourage a certain behaviour change among the audience. It was an insightful session that advances our effectiveness as communicators.


Written by our Consultant Fuad Arrasyid and our Associate Reyandra Dio Boentoro

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