Why We Don’t Act Rationally

elephant_india_aanayum_paappanumWith lots of discussions going on right now about domestic violence due to the Ray Rice video being released, many people are asking incredulously why his then-fiancée stayed in the relationship. “Why I stayed” tweets and posts are becoming increasingly popular, feeding our desire to understand.

Rationally speaking, why would someone who is being abused stay with someone who is hurting them? The “Why I stayed” tweets offer lots of different answers, but there is an even bigger underlying reason: Because contrary to popular belief, our rational self is oftentimes not the one in charge.

We think that we are in full control of ourselves and should therefore act rationally. However, that is an illusion. In his book, “The Happiness Hypothesis”, psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that our mind is divided between conscious processes and automatic processes. He uses the metaphor of a rider on an elephant to explain these two parts. The rider is our conscious and rational self, holding the reins and pulling them one way or the other to tell the elephant where to go. The elephant is our subconscious and automatic self, and when it has its own desires, it is extremely hard to control.

The elephant includes gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuition and we often underestimate its power. We (as the rider) make vows and resolutions and then are surprised when urges, wishes and temptations emerge (from the elephant), often making us powerless to carry them out.

What we don’t realize is that while we think the rider is the ruler with firm control over the reins, the elephant is so powerful, that the rider is actually more like an advisor who is often not respected.

This explains a number of things in our lives: Why we do things that are not good for us, why we spend impulsively, and why we may be overly influenced by others.

We usually come up with reasons for why we do what we do, but we have to be careful to trust them, because our rational mind is wired to come up with a cover story for ourselves. While most of our beliefs or opinions come from an automatic response, our logical mind wants us to be rational and invents a reason why we believe something.

According to Princeton professor and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, “If we think that we have reasons for what we believe, that is often a mistake. Our beliefs and our wishes and our hopes are not always anchored in reasons.”

So is there any hope for us riders as our elephants sometimes have a mind of their own? The good news is that yes, we can train ourselves to become more skilled riders so that we can tame our elephant.

Two ways to do that are through meditative practice and by practicing cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. Regular meditative practice calms the elephant. In cognitive therapy, we catch our distorted thoughts and find alternative and more accurate ways of thinking. By combining that with gradually changing our behavior, we are able to retrain our elephant.

Building up this practice takes time, so be compassionate with yourself and others in the meantime. We are not perfect and we are irrational in different ways, and that is ok. That doesn’t keep us from doing good things in the world as we continue to learn and grow.


Manuela loves helping smart and creative women bring more balance, happiness and success into their lives through Professional Life Coaching!

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