The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


May 13, 2021

Talking to Elephants

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As a young man stationed in Italy in the Navy I invited my family to come and join me for a tour of the country. One day in Rome my mother said, “Why do they call a wall a parete or a street a strada? It must be hard work to take the original word for those, translate it into Italian and then use the Italian word for it. Why not just use the real word for wall and street?” I tried to explain that they did not think of the word in English and then have to translate it. That was the only word they knew – not the English word. I even went on to say that, if anything, our language was derived from Latin and we were the ones doing all the hard work of translating the original. I made absolutely no progress on that one. For my mother, a wall was a wall and a street was a street. English was not just a universal language for commerce. It was the language implanted into the head of every person at birth and they had to unlearn it to speak another (and foreign) language. I could not understand her reality but could only think how to change her mind.

That’s exactly why I made no progress with my mother. I could not believe she actually believed what she did and, in fact, it was just as difficult for me to accept that as it was for her to accept that all languages were only unnecessary translations of English.

Years later, I was introduced to the work of Jonathan Haidt through two of his books: “The Happiness Hypothesis” and “The Righteous Mind.” In both he uses the metaphor of the elephant and the rider. The elephant is intuition or the hundreds of rapid, effortless moral judgements and decisions that we all make every day. In some ways, our intuitions are shortcuts we use to make decisions when thinking about everything deliberately would overwhelm us. “We make our first judgements rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm those initial judgments.”

That is why the elephant needs a rider or what we call reasoning. “The rider can do several useful things. It can see further into the future..and therefore it can help the elephant make better decisions in the present. And, most important, the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking.

But reason (the rider) is the servant of the intuitions (the elephant) and when the elephant wants to take charge there is very little the rider can do but hang on and attempt to rationalize what the elephant has done. Here is the key passage for everything I did wrong with my mother. “Therefore, if you want to change someone’s mind about a moral or political issue, talk to the elephant first. If you ask people to believe something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch – a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed.” If you want to change people’s minds about strongly held beliefs, you’ve got to talk to their elephants first.

That’s an accurate description of social media, isn’t it? Elephants talking to each other and ignoring their riders completely. In fact, we know that often in spite of the compelling evidence to the contrary we will find reasons to believe even more stubbornly what beliefs and opinions have been challenged. We are actually less likely to change and more disposed to believe even more strongly. We call that cognitive bias and it means the elephant is in charge. It means the shortcuts have become so ingrained that we no longer have the capacity to make revised decisions about new facts and situations. We dig in.

Can anything be done? Yes, and that is the encouraging news for me. When does the elephant listen to reason? “The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight. The elephant leans away from the opponent, and the rider works frantically to rebut the opponent’s charges. But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephant leans toward that person and the rider tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments. The elephant may not often change its direction in response to objections from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephants or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants.”

How simple! How elegant and obvious. It’s not riders having a conversation. It is learning to talk to our elephants.

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