The Elephant and The Rider

Why do people fail to control themselves and continue to do what they know is not good for them? This is something that Jonathan Haidt ponders in The Happiness Hypothesis. Reflecting on his lack of willpower with regard to desserts and inadequate theories of rational choice and information processing, he creates the metaphor of The Elephant and the Rider:

“The image that I came up with myself, as I marvelled at my weakness, was that I was the rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants something, I’m no match for him.”

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

The Rider is our rational side and is capable of strategic and long term thinking. The Elephant is our emotional side and is influenced in the moment by desires or aversions. It is The Rider who we focus on when we talk about the ‘E in PE’. There is a belief in PE that if we educate The Rider, then we are best preparing children for a lifetime of physical activity. We have a mountain of conclusive data and evidence that a sedentary lifestyle comes with high unnecessary risks to our health and wellbeing and an active lifestyle comes with a wide variety of many benefits. If we educate children about these prudential reasons why they should be active then it will have the required impact of turning sedentary behaviours to active ones.

Linked to providing them rational reasons for physical activity we can also educate The Rider by providing domain specific knowledge about movement from biomechanics, anatomy, physiology and other sport and exercise sciences. This results in practical PE with a focus on learning propositional knowledge in some cases using Knowledge Organisers on the planes of movement or the energy systems. If children objectively understand their movement experiences and their bodies, such as how circulation improves with exercise interventions, then these experiences are likely to be more interesting to them.

We know more about the outcomes of daily habitual movement and the science of movement more now than at anytime in our history. Exercise for longevity or intellectualising the experience of movement doesn’t seem to be a very convincing argument for many people to find a place for movement in their lives. Particularly the people we especially want to convince as those arguments are ‘abstract and clinical‘, often making physical activity seem like a chore or work.

With our overt focus on The Rider we forget to educate The Elephant, it becomes the non-participant in our professional judgement and decision making, an add on rather than essential part. The Elephant is the mixture of our core affect, mood, emotions and feelings. These aren’t just feelings of the mind but are embodied experiences of both the positive and negative kind. The positive experiences of joy, delight, pleasure are found not in the Fake PE of “abstract notions of wellbeing and fitness for health“, but in the immediate focus on the inherent experience of the movement itself.

If one basic function of education is to offer experiences which support the transformation an individual’s entry behaviours into new exit behaviours, then solely educating The Rider is not sufficient. No matter how well we do that we won’t have the desired impact if the environment we create are aversive and places of shame, humiliation and other unsatisfying and unpleasant feelings. Our own development as PE teachers might also be curtailed, as by focussing improving our teaching of propositional knowledge we focus less on how we might better teach movement in ways that are more meaningful, joyful and educational. We need to ask ourselves serious questions about what we want young people to learn from their playing, gaming, dancing, sporting, exercising and moving?

This is not a rejection of knowledge in PE but of what knowledge in PE is of value. It cannot solely be about knowledge on how to increase the quantity of our life through movement. It has to also be the knowledge of how to enrich the quality of our life in movement. In reality when we make decisions about PE (and school sport and physical activity) The Rider and The Elephant aren’t separate, they are embodied and integrated, but a physical education that solely educates The Rider without educating The Elephant is no physical education at all.


Dodds, P. (1976). Love and joy in the gymnasium. Quest26(1), 109-116.

Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Putting ancient wisdom and philosophy to the test of modern science. Random House.

Kretchmar, R. S. (2000). Moving and being moved: Implications for practice. Quest52(3), 260-272.

Kretchmar, R. S. (2001). Duty, habit, and meaning: Different faces of adherence. Quest53(3), 318-325.

Rintala, J. (2009). It’s all about the–ing. Quest61(3), 278-288.

Ross, B. (2008). Faking Physical Education?. New Zealand Physical Educator41(3), 62.

Segar, M. (2015). No sweat: how the simple science of motivation can bring you a lifetime of fitness. Amacom.

Stevens, S. R., & Culpan, I. (2021). The joy of movement: the non-participant in physical education curriculum design. Curriculum Studies in Health and Physical Education, 1-14.

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