Monkey riding an elephant

  • I saw a nice metaphor recently, saying that the relation between our conscious/high-level mind & our subconscious/primitive one, is similar to a monkey riding an elephant. (Cited in a NYTimes article on the CFAR workshop for Applied Rationality.)
  • It somehow reminded me the Marshmallow experiment, in which 3 y/o children were left alone with Marshmallows, & asked to refrain from taking any in order to receive a reward later. The experiment found that the amount of time the kids refrained from taking the candies, predicted their success in life.
  • Using the metaphor we can say that this experiment suggests that the extent to which the monkey can control the elephant is correlated with succeeding in life.
  • Why is that?
    • is it because “smart”/strategy-driven players win over impulsive/emotion-driven ones?
    • is it because rational long-term thinking decisions are better than biased short-term ones?
    • difficult hard work gets you further than lazily taking the easy path?
    • An old Jewish proverb says: “An hero is he who controls his urge”. So maybe the ability to refrain from urges, is leading to success just because the monkey drives the elephant in the right path, instead of being led by the elephant?
  • We can definitely see traits of self-control more common in successful people, e.g., being on average thinner & working out regularly
  • Are there any tricks for controlling the elephant?
    • Charles Duhigg says that deploying the right habits is the best way to change our behavior – the automatic elephant behavior is habitual
    • The guys from CFAR suggest a “rewards propagation” technique – get some of the rewards of your long term goals early on, so the elephant gets incentive to go in the right direction
    • But I like most this simple trick that I once read in a book by Kierkegaard: if you have an urge for something, just wait 5 minutes – forcing the elephant to stop for a while, allows you to stir it in the right direction.

Untitled drawing


Image credit: Stevi Kay blog