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.


2 replies
  1. Joseph Aubin
    Joseph Aubin says:

    Good stuff….. Getting back on track when the subconscious kicks in can often prove to be difficult (and quite often a waste of time). Would love tips around that.

    • Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
      Brian Ahearn, CMCT® says:

      It’s a matter of becoming aware of why you do what you do. Once you begin doing that you can start questioning which automatic routines are helpful and which are not. For example, if you find yourself responding to your kids simply because that’s how your dad responded to you, now you can make a choice to start a new pattern if that’s what you want to do. Another it of advice; become aware of what triggers you. I think E + R = O could really be helpful there.


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