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How Does Our Brain Make Decisions?

How Does Our Brain Make Decisions?

Although psychologists all over the world have been seriously trying to determine this for well over a hundred years now, it is neuro-scientific research in the last decade or so that has provided the most compelling and interesting findings on how the adult human brain works in terms of decision-making. In broad terms this reveals that emotional decisions (or ones that are often made the most quickly) are mainly made by the older parts of our brain (the so-called reptilian and mammalian brain) and the generally slower and more rational or considered ones made by the modern brain or neo-cortex. Although many psychologists have incorporated this research into their recent focus and work, it is the US social psychologist Jonathan Haidt who perhaps most usefully characterized the split by suggesting that our lower brain could be compared to a very large elephant and its rather small rider. In his book, “The Happiness Hypothesis” Haidt suggests that the “elephant” is the automatic or irrational side of our decision-making, whereas the rider is the analytical/controlled side of our decision-making. According to the model, the rider can calmly prepare, plan ahead and organize (and at least in theory direct the elephant as long as he or she is willing), while the elephant is irrational and driven by emotion and instinct (and will therefore not necessarily pay any attention to the calm and planful rider when it suits).

The rider then in Haidt’s view is a “controlled advisor” on the back of the elephant. It’s consequently working with it to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and see and learn valuable information (for example by talking to other riders or by reading maps), but the rider cannot order the elephant around against its impetuous and emotionally driven will.

The elephant, in contrast, has emotional or gut feelings, visceral reactions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system as it encounters external experiences of a variety of kinds. In other words, it will make decisions based on these gut feelings regardless of what the rider is asking of it at the time.

Haidt suggests that the elephant and the rider each have their own “intelligence”, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. However, they don’t always work together well and this is partly because we all tend to over-estimate the power and control of the “higher-order” rider and underestimate the power and influence of the “lower-order” elephant.

Authors Chip and Dan Heath took Haidt’s analogy one stage further by suggesting that we should also consider the directional/situational/environment component or the particular path the elephant is following (as shown in the picture below).

Direct the rider, motivate the elephant, shape the path

They suggest: “Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.”  In these circumstances, the elephant may well leave the path it’s on and go off on a new path – even if this means “running into the jungle”.

Researchers and authors Daniel Kahneman and Shane Frederick have ideas which broadly accord with those of Haidt but suggest that lower brain or elephant decisions are “type 1” and higher brain or rider decisions are “type 2”. Type 1 or Fast or Intuitive judgments, say Kahneman and Frederick, “bubble up” from the unconscious, after which many of them are then slowly evaluated and either endorsed or rejected by type 2 processes (although in many cases we may have acted on our Type 1 intuitions and then may never deploy Type 2 thinking (or we may do so after the fact).

Although this is the subject for a different article, most people appreciate that their faster emotional decisions are different to their slower more calm and rational ones but do little to change their approach. This may not matter that much in small or insignificant daily decisions but matters a great deal in large in scale or impact or important decisions, where the best outcome involves getting the elephant and the rider to work well in concert. This means not letting the rider make only calm, slow and rational decisions all the time or the elephant to make impetuous, fast and emotional ones. When it comes to a significant decision therefore, we might say that it is wise for us to “engage the other party” before we act.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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