An Elephant Never Forgets!

“An elephant never forgets,” might be a familiar saying to you. Parents often use the fun visual to motivate children to do their homework. But, do elephants really have good memories? They do according to elephant ecologist Stephen Blake, from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. That’s because, weighing more than 10 lbs., elephant brains are the largest of any land mammal!

In psychology, many social scientists and behavioral economists use the analogy of the rider and the elephant as a visual for the interplay between your conscious and subconscious thinking. The tiny rider represents your conscious thought processes trying to direct your day. The big elephant is representative of your subconscious, which actually drives most of your day.

While the rider has the ability to direct the elephant, it’s not hard to imagine the elephant resisting or going wherever it wants when it decides to. And, when the elephant chooses to do something, oftentimes there’s very little the rider can do to change the elephant’s mind.

For instance, you know you shouldn’t eat that piece of chocolate cake. But, your subconscious takes over and convinces you to take a bite. It does so for a host of reasons; you worked out extra today, you watched your diet all week, you love chocolate, one bite won’t hurt, you deserve it, etc.

Consider how your brain functions.

Behavioral scientists estimate anywhere from 85% to 95% of your daily decisions and behaviors are driven by your subconscious. That means nine out of every 10 things you think and/or do are not consciously thought out. That’s so because your brain relegates most of what it learns to your subconscious. In doing so you don’t have to “think” about what you’re doing.

Take brushing your teeth for example. You decide to do it but the mechanics of how you brush happen effortlessly. You’ve done it for so long you no longer have to think about how to brush your teeth. Going one step further, even “deciding” to brush your teeth may be a subconscious act depending on your routine.

Not having to think isn’t bad.

To quote Henry Ford, “Thinking is the hardest work, which is probably the reason why so few people engage it.” Ford was on to something because, despite only being about 2% of your bodyweight, your brain chews up around 20% of your calories in a typical day. When it’s engaged in active thought, it ramps up its use by nearly 400%! And you thought your car was an energy hog!

The routines you learn take on a life of their own and before you know it, those routines dictate much of your day. In other words, the elephant, not the rider, is deciding where to go and when. Even as you become aware, sometimes there’s very little your conscious rider can do.


The elephant never forgets and neither does your brain. That’s why change is so hard. If you’ve never smoked you’ve never had a craving for a cigarette and there’s nothing to forget. But, ask any smoker who’s quit and they’ll tell you the cravings and triggers never leave. The only thing you can do is replace an old habit with a new one. If you want to learn how to break old habits and form new ones look into one of the following resources because each is excellent:

Atomic Habits by James Clear

The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg

Tiny Habits by B.J. Fogg

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An international speaker, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the topic of ethical influence.

** Brian’s first book – Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical – will be available for pre-sale on July 9 and goes live on August 20.

His LinkedIn Learning courses Persuasive SellingPersuasive Coaching and Building a Coaching Culture: Improving Performance through Timely Feedback, have been viewed by nearly 70,000 people! Keep an eye out for Advanced Persuasive Selling: Persuading Different Personalities this fall.


Slow Down to Speed Up

I used to run marathons and considering the radical shift from bodybuilder to runner I did well. In fact, I did well enough to qualify to run the Boston Marathon. When I ran I either did very well or very poor. My best marathon times were about an hour better than my worst races. Something that made a big difference was learning to slow down in order to speed up.

The human body is amazing. We can run very fast (sprint) and we can run very far (marathons are 26.2 miles) but we can’t run a marathon at a sprinter’s pace. Sprinting, like weightlifting, is an anaerobic activity which means the muscles use very little oxygen and lactic acid builds up quickly. Distance running is aerobic exercise meaning your muscles consume lots of oxygen. If you’ve ever tried to run very far but started off too fast I’m sure you’ve experienced your legs feeling like lead (lactic acid build up) and your lungs feeling as if they’re on fire (can’t get enough oxygen to sustain the pace). You’re quickly reduced to a slow jog, walk or stopping altogether.

To succeed in distance running I learned to slow down to speed up. By slowing my pace per mile just a little bit, perhaps 10-20 seconds per mile early on, I was able to conserve energy and ended up running a much faster marathon time. As I noted earlier, my best times were about an hour faster than worst races.

How does this apply to you in business? In a recent leadership meeting I heard lots of people talking about the pace of work, not enough time to read all the communication that’s flying around, consistent mistakes and other challenges. My marathoning days kept coming to mind and I found myself thinking, “We need to slow down to speed up.”

Just as we’re not built to sprint 26.2 miles we’re not built to work at a frantic pace all the time. Trying to do so leads to a build-up of cortisol, the “stress hormone,” which can, “interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease.” (see Cortisol: Why the “Stress Hormone is Public Enemy No. 1)

What can we (some of this takes buy-in from more than just you) do to combat the problem?

Limit meeting times

Don’t have meetings lasting more than 45 minutes because that’s about how long humans can maintain focused attention. You can go longer but know that science says people will not retain as much as they would if you limited the time and communicated more effectively.

Limiting the time also means meetings won’t be scheduled back to back. Time between meetings give people an opportunity to decompress and regain exposure. It also allows time to get a drink or snack which can improve brain function.

Break up longer meetings

For longer meetings make sure 10-minute breaks are scheduled every hour. The rationale is the same as above. I can’t tell you how many times in my 30-year career I’ve sat in meetings that went 90 minutes, two hours…or longer without a break! After a while people just start getting up to get snacks, use the restroom or just leave the room. For those who stay, they’re not retaining information and they’re not engaged.

Relax, don’t respond

Taking a break doesn’t mean frantically returning calls or reading emails. That’s not giving your brain the break it needs. You’ll handle those things more thoughtfully when you give yourself a dedicated space of time rather than rushing through them as you wander from one meeting to the next.

Stop multi-tasking

Multi-tasking as a fallacy because the human brain doesn’t do two things at once. When we’re trying to do multiple things at the same time our brains are engaged in task switching. When we do this error rates can go as high as 50%! In addition to that, your brain needs to reengage with the task it left and has come back to so everything ends up takes longer.

Do it once and do it right

My old high school football coach said during a leadership presentation that his father used to ask him, “If you don’t have time to do it right, where are you going to find the time to do it again?” In other words, take a bit more time the first go around to do it correctly and you won’t waste time making corrections or doing it all over a second time.

There are certainly more things you could do to “slow down” (meditation, exercise, mindfulness, music, etc.) but the point comes back to this: if you want to accomplish more during your days then make the conscious choice to slow down in order to speed up.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at InfluencePEOPLE. His course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed more than 110,000 times! Have you seen it yet? Watch it to learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.