The Elephant, the Rider and the Path
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains the three constants of human behaviour using the analogy of a rider mounted on an elephant walking a path. The rider represents the rational part of the brain, the elephant is the innate, emotional part and the path is the surrounding environment at a given point in time. The rider holds the reins and seems to be in control when all is going well. But this control is precarious because of the elephant’s size and strength.
Behaviour change is like attempting to make the elephant change direction. Using system 2 cognitive processes is like trying to steer the elephant off-road using the rider. The rider has to expend a huge amount of effort and energy to do so. To add to the rider’s problems, the elephant is stubborn and doesn’t like going off-road, so will take over and return back to where it feels comfortable. This stubbornness becomes a problem, however, if the path is leading off a cliff!
So, what is to be done? Well, fortunately, the rider can shape the path ahead, which the elephant will happily walk with little resistance. Shaping the path is like manipulating the surrounding environment to create new healthy habits, which rely on automatic system 1 cognitive processes.
Creating Habits That Stick
Habits are defined as ‘actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance” (4). For example, wiping your feet on the doormat (action) after entering the house from outdoors (contextual cue), or washing your hands (action) after using the toilet (contextual cue). So, the formula for creating habits is fairly simple; repeat a chosen behaviour using a specific contextual cue, until it becomes automatic.
3 Steps to a Healthy Habit
1. Select the desired action
- This action should align with a specific goal.
- For example, if your goal is to eat more fruit and vegetables, the action will be to eat a piece of fruit or vegetable.
2. Connect this action to a contextual cue
- Identify a cue within your existing daily routine to provide a convenient and stable starting point (3).
- Attach your desired action to this cue, making it as achievable, explicit and obvious as possible (assigning a time and place may also be useful).
- For example, eat a piece of fruit or vegetable with lunch, in the work cafe.
- Repeat this action in response to the contextual cue as consistently as possible, don’t worry too much about missing the odd opportunity here and there.
- Automaticity will reach full strength in 4 to 8 weeks! (5).
Rules for Healthy Habits
Rule #1. Make it Obvious
- Prepare your environment so that cues for new habit formation are explicit, available and visible.
Rule #2. Make it Attractive
- Create a more enjoyable experience by doing something you like immediately before or after doing something difficult.
Rule #3. Buy-In
- Be fully involved in the decision process.
- You need to believe the action is both manageable and worthwhile.
Rule #4. Keep It Simple
- Reduce complexity which causes resistance.
- The correlation between successful habit formation and habit simplicity is extremely strong (6).
Rule #5. Make it Easy
- The Habit should almost feel too easy at first.
- Your confidence to implement the habit should be very high (rated 9+/10).
- Use the 2-minute rule; downscale your initial habit so it can be done in 2 minutes or less.
Rule #6. Break it down, then build it up.
- Break down your goals into small manageable pieces.
- You can use seemingly small changes as anchors to build big changes further down the line.
The 3 Phases of Habit Formation
1. Initiation – The habit formation attempt begins; the new behaviour and contextual cues are identified and selected.
2. Learning – The selected behaviour is repeated in the chosen context to strengthen the context-behaviour association. Automaticity starts to develop.
3. Stability – Habit formation has fully developed and its strength has plateaued, it persists over time with minimal effort.