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.


Speak Metaphorically to Influence Literally

Speaking metaphorically can help you influence people, literally. This post was inspired by the Ted Talk Metaphorically Speaking from James Geary.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary a metaphor isa figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”

He is my personal example of a metaphor. Several weeks ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was called before Congress because of the impact Facebook, fake news, and user data may have played into the 2016 presidential election. As our elected officials tried to grill Zuckerberg it was apparent they had little to no knowledge of how Facebook and other social media outlets operate. In response to this fiasco I post the following on a few social media sites:

“Imagine horse owners in 1910 grilling Henry Ford about car accidents and you have a picture of what happened the other day.”

People understood exactly what I meant right away. What would the impact on the newly formed auto industry have been if congressmen who rode horses ignorantly questioned Henry Ford about the dangers of automobiles? We might still be using the horse and buggy to get to work or at least set technology back many years if not decades!

For the most part people think in pictures, not words. When I mention an elephant it’s highly unlikely you’ll think “E-L-E-P-H-A-N-T.” Instead you probably have an image in mind. For some people it’s a big African elephant with huge tusks. Others might envision the smaller Asian elephant used in some Indian Jones movies. And other people pictured a cute baby elephant like the one in the movie Dumbo. No matter how people think of an elephant, we all use pictures in our mind’s eye and would likely agree on what an elephant is, despite minor differences.

Metaphors can take a complex subject and immediately make it understandable for most people. I’d guess if you didn’t see any of the Zuckerberg – Congress interaction you got a pretty good idea of what happened based on my 22-word description.

When Steve Jobs wanted people to grasp what a computer could do for them he said the computer was like “a bicycle for the mind.” Bicycles are easy to use and make us much more efficient in getting from one place to another. Most people, upon hearing Jobs, probably thought, “Yea, I get it.”

Much of persuasion is about taking the complex, simplifying it then communicating with people in a way that gets them to say “Yes” and take action. Next time you need to share something complex, don’t talk in technical terms, think about the proper metaphor to share and you’ll increase your odds of success. In other words, speak metaphorically to influence literally.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at InfluencePEOPLEand Learning Director at State Auto Insurance. His course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed nearly 130,000 times! Have you seen it yet? Watch it and you’ll learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.

Humans Think When Habit Won’t Do

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting through the Principles of Persuasion (POP) Workshop in Phoenix, Arizona once again. Even though I’ve taught this workshop more than 50 times it was a great refresher and exposed me to the new look, feel, and studies for the workshop upgrade.

Greg Neidert, Ph.D., led this POP for people from across the globe. Like Dr. Robert Cialdini, Dr. Neidert was a psychology professor at Arizona State University for many decades. He let attendees know the workshop distills more than 50 hours of classroom teaching into the most essential elements of persuasion in a two-day format. To say that trying to absorb that much information makes your brain tired would be an understatement!

Speaking of your tired brain, Dr. Neidert made a comment that caught my attention. He told us, “Humans think when habit won’t do.” Consider that for a moment – we think when habit won’t do.

Thinking is hard work. You don’t have to be a bricklayer to come home exhausted from work. Many of you reading this have office jobs but you can still feel wiped out at the end of a long day. Why? Henry Ford put it best when he said, “Thinking is some of the hardest work there is and that’s why so few people do it.”

Why is “thinking” so hard? You may not know it but the human brain is about 2% of the average person’s body weight and yet it consumes about 20% of your caloric intake. If your brain were a car we’d call it a gas hog.

One more interesting fact about your brain’s energy use – when you’re engaged in active, logical thinking your brain’s energy consumption rises by about 300%! You won’t feel short of breath but you’ll feel tired after long stretches of focused thought.

When you’re engaged in active thinking it’s hard work and most of us would prefer to not work too hard if we don’t have to. That’s where habits come in. If you consider some of your daily rituals (what you eat for breakfast, how you drive to work, how you start your day in the office, etc.) you’ll see there are very distinct patterns you follow almost automatically. You could say they are habit.

Here’s a personal example. I’m up every day by 4 AM and by 4:15 AM I’m in my basement lifting weights then running on the treadmill. It takes me an hour and a half to complete my workout. Most of the time I find myself falling into patterns doing the same exercises the same way. I could change things up in the moment but 4 AM is awfully early and working out is tiring so I don’t want to think about it! It’s only when I’m away from my gym, when I feel refreshed and relaxed that I even think about how I might change my workout regimen.

Our habits usually serve us well and that’s why we rely on them so much. But that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. Just like I take time to reassess my workouts you should take time to consider your habits (routines) because things change over time. Working out as 20 year-old was very different than what I do now because in addition to my body changing now that I’m over 50, my priorities have changed too. You may find that to be the case in your life if you take time to reassess your habits.

I’ve been considering writing a series of posts on how you can use the principles of persuasion to influence your own behavior. When Lydia, a POP attendee from China, asked me how the principles could be used to influence her own behavior it was confirmation that I need to address this topic because others have asked me that same question in the past.

So consider this the first post in the series that will focus on how you can make positive changes – habits – in your life using the principles of influence. Like working out, making changes will require effort because thinking is hard work but I have no doubt you’ll find it very worthwhile professionally and personally.

Thinking Is Some Of The Hardest Work There Is

Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company,
once said, “Thinking is some of the hardest work there is, which is probably
why so few people engage in it.” Thinking may not be like manual labor but for
those of you who engage in deep thought you know it’s tiring! But why is that
the case? Here are a couple of reasons:
“The brain represents only about 2% of most
people’s body weight, yet it accounts for about 20% of the body’s total energy
use.” – from Brain Rules by John
“The brain consumes 300% more caloric intake
when engaged in cognitive evaluation and logical thinking than when in the
automatic mode.” – from The 7 Triggers to
by Russ Granger
Bottom line – that small piece of grey matter
in our skulls requires a lot of energy and when used to capacity it leaves us
quite tired. We do what we can to avoid working harder than we have to so Henry
Ford might have been correct about our aversion to the hard work of thinking.
Or perhaps our ability to reduce our thinking and save energy is a survival
Whether it’s laziness or survival, one thing
is for sure, when we can think less and conserve energy we usually do it. This
is important to understand if you want to become a better persuader. In March
2009, ABC News featured an article titled Expert Advice Shuts Your Brain
. Here’s my Cliff’s Notes version of the article:
Two dozen Emory University students are given
complicated financial problems to solve. They’re hooked to brain imaging
equipment so their neural activity can be observed. As they try to figure out
answers to the problems their brains are hard at work! Eventually a professor
from Emory University is introduced to the class, and it’s made known he’s also
an advisor to the U.S. Federal Reserve. In other words, he’s a very smart financial
guy. As he begins to give the students advice, even advice he knows is bad,
their brains “flat lined” because they stopped critically thinking.
So what went on there? From the perspective of
the psychology of persuasion, the principle of authority was engaged. This
principle of influence tells us people defer to those with superior knowledge
or wisdom when making decisions.
I like to share the ABC account because it
illustrates an important fact about persuasion – it’s not pop psychology or
some fad. When a principle like authority is engaged correctly it causes
physiological changes in the brain and that’s part of the reason the principles
of influence can be so effective when it comes to persuading others.
Consider the Emory University students. Left
on their own, they had to work hard to come up with answers. However, when a
credentialed individual who is viewed as much smarter than they are comes into
the equation everything changes. They can cease from the hard work of thinking!
Each of us does this at different times. This
is why we pay accountants to do our taxes, lawyers to defend us in court or
stockbrokers to invest for us. We don’t want to do the heavy lifting associated
with each of those mental activities.
How does this understanding help you be a more
effective persuader? Two ways.
First, the more someone understands your
expertise the less critical they will be of your ideas and recommendations.
That’s not to say everyone will do what you want nor am I advocating trying to
get people “brain dead” in order to persuade them. However, when they
understand your expertise they will more readily accept your position just as
the Emory University students did with the professor.
You can establish your credentials on your
business card (title and designations earned), through letters of reference and
introduction, speaker bios, years in business, how you dress, the car you
drive, etc. Each of these can indicate success which usually carries with it
the assumption of some expertise.
The second way to engage this is using outside
sources. You may be an expert or maybe you’ve not established expertise yet.
Either way, when you bring outside sources – other experts, graphs, charts,
stats, etc., into the persuasion equation, you begin to bring authority into
the mix and people will more readily accept what you’re sharing.
How will you apply this concept? Next time you
go into a situation where you need to be persuasive make sure people know your
credentials up front. Doing so after
the fact does little good because the person you’re attempting to persuade
might have already made up his or her mind. If you go this route, do so by
engaging someone to introduce you either in person or by email. When you do
this, make sure the person making the introduction knows the most important
credentials you have.
The other thing you want to do is look for
valid stats, charts, quotes or other references that show you’ve done your
homework and there’s respected support for what you propose.
Here’s an example of putting this into
practice. I’m in the insurance industry and work for an insurance company.
Quite often insurance agents will call their underwriter for more in-depth
understanding of coverages or insurance provisions. An underwriter might answer
the agent’s question off the cuff because they know the answer. However, if
it’s not what the agent wants to hear the agent might contend with the
underwriter. It’s a good bet the underwriter’s knowledge came from continuing
education so why not cite the source of knowledge? Here’s how I would advise an
underwriter to answer:
“That’s a great question. I remember when I
was studying for my CPCU…”
Now the answer is not just opinion because
it’s backed by the authority of the CPCU Institute.
Sometimes seemingly simple things like citing
a source or establishing credentials up front can make all the difference in
turning a no into a yes.
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.
Cialdini “Influence”
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