Why Can’t I Just Make Up My Own Mind?

First, you need to learn to ride the elephant

Dear Daughters,

Last week, one of you got frustrated with me because I wouldn’t let you make what I thought was a bad decision.

“Why can’t you just let me make up my own mind?” you demanded to know.

I shook my head. “Because your mind is basically a hypersensitive elephant with an untrained rider on top,” I said.

You looked at me like I was crazy. So let me explain.

The Elephant and the Rider

I’m borrowing the elephant-and-rider analogy from the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who discusses it in his books The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind. (Anyone who’s read Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard will recognize the metaphor, which the Heaths borrowed from Haidt. And anyone who’s read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow will note similarities between the elephant-and-rider analogy and Kahneman’s fast-thinking “System 1” and slow-thinking “System 2.”)

The basic idea is simple: Because of the way we humans have evolved, two different systems work within each of us to manage our thinking and behavior. They’re embodied in different brain structures that are tied to different genetic and environmental influences, and they develop at different rates. Sometimes these systems work together, Other times they work at cross purposes. And (here’s the fun part) it’s useful to imagine one of them as an elephant and the other as a rider on top of it.

The Elephant

Most of our cognitive processing occurs through structures in our brains that operate beneath full self-consciousness. We don’t have to tell our hearts to beat or our eyes to see. Nor do we need to will ourselves to feel happy or sad, intrigued or disgusted, terrified or turned on. We don’t need to study moral philosophy to feel like we know what’s right, and we don’t need a set of consciously articulated principles to read the social dynamics inherent in everyday contexts.

Our brains handle such remarkably complex cognitive processing automatically. Often, we’re not even aware that they’re doing it. At this very moment, your brain is monitoring the space around you, even if you’re paying close attention to what you’re reading. It hears the sounds down the hall or outside your window before you begin to attend to them. It feels the temperature in the room and has a sense of how much time is passing, even now, as you pass your eyes over these words. It senses if someone is watching you over your shoulder. And so on.

Basically, the elephant part of your brain has your back even when you’re consciously focusing elsewhere. It may not be capable of calculus, Kierkegaard, or quantum mechanics, but (like the brains of other intelligent animals) it’s keenly perceptive of its environment, emotionally in tune, and plenty smart enough both to adapt to its world and to adapt its world to it.

In some ways, it’s dangerous. Literally before you know it, it can start to charge off in one direction or another. If you’re not careful, it will bias you toward thinking that people it perceives as different can’t be trusted, or that an October breeze is a witch in the trees. And it will even attempt to enlist your higher-order thinking to rationalize what it intuits rather than reflect more critically on your own beliefs. In other ways, your elephant serves you remarkably well—better, in certain respects, than the rider part of your brain. It’s more intuitive, plugged in to concrete reality, emotionally resonant, and existentially authentic. And, as noted, it has your back.

The Rider

A smaller but vitally important subset of our cognitive processing occurs through brain structures that allow for full self-consciousness and control. According to neuroanatomists, this “rider” portion of the mind is closely linked to the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the part of the human brain that evolved most recently and that finishes developing last in each of us.

It’s thanks largely to the PFC that we can do Kierkegaard, calculus, and quantum mechanics—plus a whole lot more. Stanford neurobiologist and MacArthur Genius Award-winner Robert Sapolsky notes that “the frontal cortex’s list of expertise includes working memory, executive function (organizing knowledge strategically, and then initiating an action based on an executive decision), gratification postponement, long-term planning, regulation of emotions, and reigning in impulsivity.” Simply put: it’s the part of the brain that enables you to “do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do.” (See Sapolsky’s Behave.)

Like a rider atop an elephant, this “controlling” part of the brain is generally able to direct the more automatic, “animal” part—but only under the right conditions. Startle or terrorize or enrage the elephant beneath, and the rider may be powerless to stop it from charging or running away. Impair the rider in some way, and the elephant may also take over. And of course, when the rider’s away, the pachyderm will play.

Great, Dad. What Does this Have to Do with Me?

As any parent of teens can tell you, the typical teen mind is a simultaneously wonderful-terrible thing. It’s capable of astounding acts of creativity and compassion; it feels deeply and fiercely; it learns quickly and intuitively; and it’s frighteningly well-tuned to social cues. At the same time, it can be impulsive and cruel—both to others and to itself. It’s too quick to judge and too slow to recognize nuance and complexity. It basically hates restraint. It’s better at altruism than algorithms, indignation than introspection, leaping faithfully than considering carefully.

According to the brain experts, there’s a straightforward neuroanatomical reason for this: the PFC doesn’t become fully developed in humans until we reach our mid-twenties, while other brain structures reach full-strength sooner. Basically, the elephant in your head is a big, powerful, well-intentioned-but-somewhat-unruly beast before your rider has fully learned to take the reigns.

This doesn’t mean that teens are incapable of reason or self-control or other forms of higher order cognitive functioning. You are capable; you do these things daily; and I know it and recognize it. It does mean, however, that inexperience, neuroanatomy, and developmental patterns over which you have no control conspire to put you at a disadvantage when it comes to making certain sorts of decisions—including particularly complicated ones, particularly emotional ones, or ones with long-term implications.

In other words, decisions that are difficult for any human are especially difficult for teens. Or again, doing the hard thing when it’s the right thing to do is even harder for you than it is for us adults—and, believe me, it isn’t easy for any of us.

That’s why I sometimes insist on intervening in your decisions. Not because I want to run your life. Because I know your rider may yet need some help, especially when the going gets tough—and/or when the elephant gets riled up.

Don’t Ignore the Elephant in the Room (Or Your Head)

In the end, we all need more help making difficult decisions than we like to admit—in part because, when we think about thinking, we tend to ignore the elephants in our own heads. We act as if our minds were simple, clear, transparent things, open to inspection and subject to rational redirection at any time. We tell ourselves that behaviors and desires and predilections are pure choices, as if we really got to choose what we feel and want and believe—as opposed to choosing what to do with each of these after the fact.

We act as if the elephant parts of our own minds didn’t exist, or as if they were a whole lot easier to control than an elephant is. We’re quick to spot the faults and biases in other people’s thinking—their elephants are so obvious!—but we’re slow to see the holes in our own. And this, of course, is the trickiest bias of them all.

It’s also why the wisest people I know don’t make important decisions alone. They consult smart people they know and trust. They seek to systematically check their own biases. They avoid getting carried away by their elephants. In the final analysis, they may well wind up listening to their instincts or trusting their guts. But they make sure their instincts and guts are informed by that final analysis—as well as several previous analyses–before they reach that point. And that often makes all the difference.

As a teen, you need at least as much decision support as the wisest people I know do. Remember that, and act accordingly, and you’ll make better decision than many adults. And don’t stop there:  Learn to balance the strengths of both your elephant and your rider, and encourage them to work together. As part of a team, they can carry you far indeed.



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