Failures in Persuasion — The Elephant in Our Brains

Abhishek Paul
2 min readMar 4, 2019

I’ve believed that all it takes to convince someone is the right information. Once someone sees the solid evidence for the alternate view, they will immediately correct their opinion, right? I mean that’s the logical thing to do. But we just have to see the debates around politics, religion, issues within families / colleagues, etc to realize that this is an extremely simplistic view of human decision making.

Jonathan Haidt’s analogy (or is it metaphor) of the rider and the elephant helped me rethink this approach. The rider (rational part of our brain) and the elephant (the emotional part) are constantly interacting and together decide our response to an idea, person or situation — it is never as simple or objective as we assume thinking to occur. The more complex or important the issue, the more agitated the elephant gets.

What’s more, while trying to understand the elephant in my brain, I also need to realize that I am communicating not just with another rider, but also the elephant in the other person. There are 4 people involved in the conversation.

The image of the elephant also helps convey the strength of emotions that can influence the discussion. When one rider tries to argue logically, the other’s elephant might get spooked by the perceived threat and start to rampage, overthrowing the rider. Or worse, we can have 2 elephants going at each other!

So the next conversation you get into remind yourself to address the rider with logic while at the same time making the elephant remain comfortable and trusting of your intentions. Remember, “let’s look at this logically” is a logically unsound position to take when you’re having conversations that matter.