If I may, I’d like to have a word with your elephant.

Have you heard about the concept of the elephant and the rider? It’s my favourite. It’s actually a theory that started out in business psychology, but it’s all about effecting behaviour so it quickly made its way into Learning and Development circles.



It’s a metaphor for understanding the relationship between the rational and emotional parts of our brain. The elephant represents our emotions, it’s motivated by instant gratification and feeling good in that moment. The rider is a part of our brain that’s evolved to think more strategically. It can conceptualise long-term gain and deferred gratification for overall betterment.

On paper, they seem perfectly balanced. The trouble is that if our rational brain wants us to do something that our emotional brain sees as too much effort or too low reward, our emotional brain has a six-ton weight advantage. Tricky.

There’s a lot of learning theories out there, all offering us different lenses on how people learn. But the reason I like this one so much is that it offers us a perspective on why people learn, and in a lot of instances, why they don’t.

Our rider may have invented diets, alarm clocks and New Year’s resolutions. But our elephants countered that with take-aways, snooze buttons and gym memberships you can cancel with a month’s notice. 

Or to give a more practical example, a recent study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that the dropout rate for Massive, Online, Open, Courses (MOOCs) is now at an incredible 96%.

MOOCs are a way of taking university courses, remotely, at your own time and for free. Academics from top universities will deliver video lectures or produce articles and set assignments on a huge variety of subjects. This opportunity is staggering when we think about how much university courses now cost and how much misinformation exists online. MOOCs were set to disrupt the whole education system and yet barely any of the thousands of people who enrol on these courses actually finish them.

Some people contest that completing a course isn’t necessarily a measure of success, and although I agree with that in principle, I do find it a little disingenuous. If you were to ask learners enrolling on MOOCs whether they intended to complete their course, I would wager that a great deal more than 4% would say that they were.

I think the truth is, we spend far too much time conceiving of training that’s designed to talk to a person’s rider and not their elephant when on a personal level we all know who’s really in charge.

To create learning that sticks, we need to stop thinking about what we want that person to know and start engaging with what they really need to know to do their jobs more effectively. The minimum. Anymore will unnecessarily increase the effort and scare off their elephant. As well as creating courses that are low effort, to keep our emotional brains engaged, we also need to create courses that feel rewarding and enjoyable to complete.

In fact, in the case of MOOCs, course providers have seen an uplift in completion rates by adopting practices that appeal to our emotional brains. One provider, FutureLearn, is a big advocate of creating social online communities to keep learners coming back. Other providers have seen a 12-15% increase in completion rates by making the courses interactive (or in other words, more enjoyable and rewarding to complete).

This concept doesn’t just help us think about how we create content. I got the idea for this blog when reading a whitepaper recently that seemed a bit exasperated with how slow people have been to adopt VR for learning, when there’s now so much evidence for its efficacy and for how much more enjoyable people find it as an experience.

It made me think, change is hard. Even when it’s a good change, it always seems like less effort to do the thing you’ve always done rather than try something new. I think this gives us a useful way to think about, not just how we design content, but how we it roll it out too. When new ways of doing things are required, the path of least resistance is a must.




If you’d like to read more about the concept of the elephant and the rider, take a look at Julie Dirksen’s 2011 book, Design for How People Learn.

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