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When self-control just isn’t enough

“I’ve just started reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Toward the beginning of the book, they use the analogy of a man riding an elephant to explain human behavior. The man represents our more rational side and the elephant our passionate, emotional side. They go on to explain:

 Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmached.

This is actually a bit overstated because the authors go on to argue that if the Rider pulls on the reins hard enough, he can get the Elephant to change directions temporarily. But, eventually the Rider will grow tired and the Elephant will go its own way. In other words, we can rationally conclude that X is in our best interests, and exert significant will power to achieve X, but if our passions and emotions really want Y, we’re in trouble. If you’re riding on an Elephant that’s going the wrong way, the solution is not a stronger Rider. The solution is convincing the Elephant that it really wants to go the other way.

What I found particularly interesting about this analogy was the way that they applied it to the use of self-discipline. They pointed to a study that placed two groups of college students in two different rooms, who were told that the researchers were studying “taste.” In each room they placed  a tray of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and a bowl of radishes.  One group of students was told to eat several cookies and no radishes; the other group was told to eat several radishes but no cookies. Despite the temptation, and probably because they knew the researchers were watching, the second group resisted the temptation to eat any of the cookies. After a while, the students were informed that the study was done, but they were now invited to participate in another, “unrelated” study. The students were given a puzzle that was impossible to solve. The researchers then counted how many attempts each student made before giving up. The chocolate chip cookie group made an average of 34 attempts (19 minutes) before giving up. The radish group, on the other hand, gave up after only 19 attempts (8 minutes).

Why did they quite so easily? The answer may surprise you: They ran out of self-control. In studies like this one, psychologists have discovered that self-control is an exhaustible resource….The radish-eaters had drained their self-control by resisting the cookies. So when their Elephants, inevitably, started complaining about the puzzle task – it’s too hard, it’s no fun, we’re no good at this – their Riders didn’t have enough strength to yank on the reins for more than eight minutes. Meanwhile, the cookie-eaters had a fresh, untaxed Rider, who fought off the Elephant for nineteen minutes.

So, when we exhort people to change through appeals to their self-discipline, we are actually encouraging them down a road that leads inevitably to exhaustion, frustration, and failure. Instead, they argue that the real path to meaningful change requires educating the rider and motivating the elephant.

This has interesting parallels to the argument that we’ve been following in James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. Although Smith uses very different language, he is also arguing that the elephant runs the show more than we like to belive. So, instead of focusing all our efforts on educating the rider, we need to train the elephant. And, how do we do that? Liturgies, of course. You train your elephant – your passionate, affective, desiring, side – through regular, formative practices that shape your desires toward good ends.

Right now my elephant is telling me to get some ice cream. I’d resist, but I did that earlier today when my elephant wanted another piece of cake. Clearly my self-control is worn out after all of that elephant-wrestling. So, it’s really out of my hands.