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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Taming my elephant - and yours Add to ...

The other day I had a physical for the first time in years. My new doctor is a kindly but no-nonsense type. She told me I've shrunk by half an inch. Then she gave me the usual diet and exercise advice: "Do more cardiovascular exercise. Two or three times a week. Start while you still can." She took my blood pressure (on the high side), and drew a little line between my height and my weight on that hateful BMI chart. "You could lose five pounds. Cut down on salt. And no junk food!"

I left her office brimming with new resolve. Yes! I want to be fit and slim and limber when I'm 70! I'll start right away! Just to prove it, I took the subway to work.

Later, I went shopping at the supermarket. I picked up many leafy greens, and topped them off with a box of President's Choice key lime pie, just in case of unexpected company. It's especially delicious when eaten frozen. I took it home and cut off a tiny piece and let it melt in my mouth. Then another.

The elephant had won again.

I learned about the elephant in a wonderful book called The Happiness Hypothesis, by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. This book explains why the key lime pie is so irresistible. It turns out you only think you're in charge. In fact, you're like someone riding an elephant. The rider thinks he's in control until the moment he decides to go one way and the elephant decides to go another. The elephant is much bigger than you are and, when he really wants to do something, you're no match for it.

The rider is the conscious, reasoning (and far newer) part of the brain. The elephant is the emotional, automatic part that's wired for pleasure, fear, guilt, lust, key lime pie and all that other primal stuff. It reacts much faster than the rider to threats or opportunities. It craves those little bursts of dopamine that make you feel so good when you take that first bite of pie. These parts of the brain developed through natural selection to guarantee our survival. That's why the elephant is so shrewd and powerful. You can't fight the elephant, and you can't do without it. You can only cajole it and train it and work with it to go your way.

Back in the 20th century, economists and social scientists developed a much different theory to explain why people do what they do. They called it "rational choice." According to this model, people are rational agents who set goals and pursue them by using the information and means at their disposal. The analogy is modern, technocratic and mechanical. You're like the driver of a car, and you can make it go whichever way you want.

But new developments in brain science - to say nothing of the overwhelming evidence of daily life - show that the ancients were much nearer to the truth. They often likened the divided self to a person trying to harness a wild animal. Buddha compared the mind to a wild elephant that can only be quieted through a great deal of practice and meditation. Benjamin Franklin said, "If Passion drives, let Reason hold the reins."

A great deal of modern social policy is really about taming the elephant. How do we get people to eat sensibly and not become obese? How do we persuade them to save more and spend less, so they'll have enough money for a comfortable retirement? If people really were rational actors, none of this would be a problem, because eating right, exercising regularly and saving up are obviously in their own self-interest. We're not idiots. We know this. That's why diet advice, financial advice and gym memberships are always in such high demand, even though the basic advice never changes. Eat better, walk more, make sure you top up your RRSP, cut back on salt and junk food. Simple! Now all you have to do is convince the elephant.

The trouble with public policy is that it ignores the elephant. We think more information will somehow do the trick. We imagine that, if we'd only demand more labelling on supermarket food, more calorie counts in restaurants, more leafy greens in inner-city grocery stores and more financial education in high school, people would make better choices. But the elephant doesn't think long term. It lives in the now. It has no idea about deferred gratification.

Rather than educating people about calorie counts and the true costs of retirement, we'd be better off finding a way to boost their impulse management and capacity for self-control. These traits are the key to an alarming amount of success in life, as shown by the famous marshmallow experiment: A four-year-old is introduced to a man who has some marshmallows. He asks the child whether she likes marshmallows. (Of course!) He shows her a plate with one marshmallow and a plate with two, and asks which one she'd rather have. (Of course she wants the one with two.) He says he has to leave the room for a while but she can have the plate with two when he gets back. If she doesn't want to wait, she can ring a bell, and he'll come back right away and give her the plate with one.

This experiment was conducted on a bunch of four-year-olds in 1970. It had extraordinary predictive powers. The children who were able to resist temptation the longest wound up in the best universities. They had figured out how to tame the elephant.

Needless to say, taming elephants is a job that's never done. Just when you think you've got the beast under control, he goes on the rampage again. Mine has a special fondness for frozen key lime pie. But maybe if I leave it in the store next time, he won't be able to eat it.

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