The Elephant Not in the Room

The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt developed a powerful analogy to explain human decision-making called the Rider and the Elephant. In the analogy, the rider is our logical side, the conscious part of our brains that we're aware of. It's the part of you that comes to Strong Towns once a day, reads an article or listens to a podcast and then spends time thinking about it. We'd all like to think that we're dominated by the rider but, of course, we're not.

What we're dominated by -- what we are actually made up of -- is the elephant. It's the automatic reactions that we have, stuff so ingrained in who we are and what we do that we're not even aware of it. If you think you are a thoughtful, rational person whose day-to-day actions and impulses are governed primarily by logic, I challenge you to read Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow. You, like me, are governed almost exclusively by your base impulses.

The idea of the rider and the elephant is not that we're powerless, but that, in order for our logic to be followed, it needs to appeal to our base instincts. The rider can try to convince the elephant where to go, but if the elephant is not in agreement, it will go where it wants. In a battle of head versus heart, the heart has an easier task.

And to take it a step further, when we try to persuade someone else to change their mind, we won't get far trying to persuade their rider. We actually need to appeal to their elephant, to their intuitive sense of how they see the world.

This is why issues like climate change are so impossible. Those who believe we need urgent action on climate change cite studies as the basis of their beliefs, yet the notion that we should consume less, lower our environmental impact and adopt redistributive policies on an international scale is something that intuitively appeals to most of their elephants. They would want these actions whether the conclusions of science demanded them or not. So is the science a motivating factor or an after-the-fact justification? (For those of you who think it doesn't matter, it does if you're trying to persuade others.)

For those who are skeptical of climate science, the same dynamics apply. No amount of scientific studies -- no number of PhDs or Nobel prize winners -- will convince someone who has an ingrained skepticism of government action, a natural inclination to resist change or a lack of built-in concern for environmental issues. This elephant is so maddening to some that even President Obama, a decent man not given to gratuitous cheap shots, would taunt skeptics as part of the "flat earth society." This label surely convinced more people that a flat earth was a possibility than ever persuaded skeptics to embrace climate science. That is the nature of the elephant/rider relationship.

Instead of throwing studies and statistics at each other in a battle of the riders, we actually need to speak to each other’s elephants. Or, more precisely, we need to listen and try to understand the other’s elephant. Only then can we find real common ground that we can build upon. Only then can we change minds.

Instead of throwing studies and statistics at each other in a battle of the riders, we actually need to speak to each other's elephants. Or, more precisely, we need to listen and try to understand the other's elephant. Only then can we find real common ground that we can build upon. Only then can we change minds.

Last week someone shared an article with me about the Foxconn deal that was announced by the Trump administration. When I read it, my elephant started to charge and my rider had no problem justifying it. I'm deeply skeptical of these kind of deals and, with the numbers presented in the article, I quickly went about presenting a pretty convincing case for why this was a ridiculous thing to do. At least, I thought it was convincing.

There were a number of others who didn't. I heard from many people over the weekend that I was missing something and that my credibility was damaged as a result. Chuck, you're not taking into account all the related industries that are going to follow and the jobs they will create. Chuck, these subsidies are all tax credits so it's not like they get a handout for doing nothing. Chuck, you're not counting the property taxes or the sales taxes, which will certainly be significant.

I responded to one of these comments by noting that, for the deal to make financial sense, the side aspect they claimed I was discounting would need to amount to multiple times the main deal. I responded as if that were obvious, because it was to me. Why would the state of Wisconsin want a bunch of new workers -- a bunch of people who are going to cost the state a ton of money -- when, under an ideal scenario, the state will get no revenue from those workers for more than half a century? How does this benefit anyone in Wisconsin not named or directly employed by Foxconn?

It took me a while to realize that I was speaking to the rider, not the elephant. I was using my logic, which aligned with my intuition, to try and convince others whose intuition said something else.

So what is the elephant of the supporters of the Foxconn deal getting at? What are the intuitive beliefs that make them overlook the overwhelming math? Specifically, what about those who support this that will never get a job or a contract as a result? Some theories:

  • Good manufacturing jobs are hard to come by.
  • America is stronger when we have good manufacturing jobs.
  • It's hard to start a business and employ people.
  • Government creates enough obstacles. It's about time they help.
  • Foreign governments are subsidizing their manufacturers. Are we supposed to sit around and lose all our manufacturing?
  • I want the president to be successful. I want the governor of Wisconsin to be successful.

Here's the thing: I either agree or can empathize with each of these. I get the motivation of their elephant. If I had the piece to do over again, I think I would have started with addressing those points. Something like this:

We all want manufacturing jobs, the kind that used to be able to support a family with just one breadwinner. That kind of economy makes American stronger. It's really hard, though, to start a manufacturing business in the United States. Not only does the government create a lot of obstacles, unfair international competition makes it even more difficult. It's time we did something to restore America's manufacturing sector.
Unfortunately, the recent deal announced with Foxconn undermines our economy and weakens our manufacturing base....

    If the Strong Towns movement is going to change the way we build our cities, towns and neighborhoods, we need to always push beyond merely appealing to the riders and get that elephant back in the room. Me included.

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