Why is our elephant (unconscious) mind so integral?

Written by
Dr Dalton Kehoe

11 Dec 2015

11 Dec 2015 • by Dr Dalton Kehoe

From birth, the Elephant is wired to learn. It stores patterns of information about everyone it encounters. Through a system of mirror neurons that automatically imitate others’ gestures in our body, it learns how others feel. These are stored in long-term memory to be recalled for the Rider so it can anticipate “what will happen next”. This type of “mind reading” is essential to every human exchange. 

We not only learn to use words and gestures that everyone around us thinks of as “normal,” but we also learn our culture - the “right, true and proper” patterns our larger community, so we can “fit in.” These patterns, including the style of talk appropriate to our gender, class and age, are evoked as unthinking habits of response by cues in each situation we enter.

The elephants drives: connect and protect

Recently, Psychologist Matthew Lieberman  reported experimental data demonstrating the importance of our need for positive emotional connection with others. He argued that we seek to fulfill this connection need before anything else.

Given its drive to connect, neuroscientist Gregory Berns  describes the Elephant’s counter-balancing drive to protect us. It is naturally wired to avoid two things: (1) uncertainty and (2) the learned fear of social ridicule - any threat to our conscious sense of self-worth.  

Our Elephant constantly seeks answers to the three questions around which our self-worth is built: ”Do I matter? Am I competent? Can I influence this situation?” As Lieberman’s shows, we are rewarded at the level of our neural circuitry by compliments, choice, consideration from others and the chance to demonstrate competence.

This explains why, when our work situation cues up persistently, positive emotional connections with others, our two minds instantly align and the Elephant – the energetic core of all our conscious thoughts and actions - moves our Rider to speak and act with enthusiasm. We become engaged and productive. When the opposite happens, we hesitate – mentally step back – disengage. Our Elephant’s energy is taken up with self-defensive wariness and fear.  As The Gallup Organization’s studies of engagement consistently show, this seems to be the state of the majority of employees. 70% of them are disengaged from their work.

I discovered a striking parallel between neuroscientific and workplace research that explains persistently low engagement. Just as Gregory Berns  argued that we are wired to avoid uncertainty and any threat to the Rider’s sense of self, Jim Clifton  President of the Gallup Organization, stated recently that most employees are miserable because they have managers who can't clearly communicate two things: (1) what the employee’s job is  (reduce their uncertainty) and (2) that they care about them (reduce their fear of social ridicule).  

Since most of our behavior is cued by the situations in which we find ourselves, we need to stop focusing on individual differences to explain disengagement levels and focus on changing employee work situations for the better.