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The Elephant and the Rider

August 16, 2016
Note: The views expressed in this post are my own and do not represent those of the Government of Ontario. 

Hello again!

I am slowly getting back into the swing of blogging. Last time I posted, I was still in San Francisco, a city I miss dearly. I am now back in Toronto, feeling more at home than I have in years. I am lucky enough to be working in the service of the people of Ontario, in the provincial government’s behavioural economics unit.

What exactly is behavioural economics? It’s a necessary addition to traditional economics, a discipline that tends to assume people are perfect rationalists. That is, people are able to effortlessly analyze any situation to make decisions that maximize their self interest. They know exactly how much they want to pay for a house, and they always eat their vegetables because they understand the long-term health benefits. In real life, people aren’t like that, I’m sure you can agree. People who study Behavioural economics observes others in real life (and run some experiments in labs) to find out how they actually make choices. Their research has confirmed that, yup, people are really not perfect rationalists at all.

So what are people like? My favourite way to describe what’s really going on inside our minds comes from psychologist Jonathan Haidt (and was finessed/extended by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard). I’ll hit you with a sweet visual to get the point across:


Taken from Stanford Business School lecture on using neuroscience to influence behaviour.

The Heaths say it well:

“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 overmatched.”

So what do you do with a willful Elephant and a weak Rider? You need to shape the path so that the Elephant starts to walk exactly where the Rider wants to go. How? That’s exactly what I’m learning about at my new job! Follow along if you want to hear about it too… 🙂

One Comment leave one →
  1. Pradeep Ghosh permalink
    August 17, 2016 5:41 am

    Hi Brianna, good to see you back into blogging again.
    With this post, I am probably able to see which way you are going. I remember some discussions on these lines during your internship with us, when we were discussion on how to remove the boxes around us, and think out of the box. Our discussion began with examples of behavioural economics. Great to see you working with and helping the provincial Government of Ontario. All the very best.

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