The Happiness Hypothesis

Just finished a fascinating book by Jonathan Haidt called The Happiness Hypothesis. The central metaphor is that our conscious mind is a rider on an elephant. The rider influences the elephant, but ultimately the elephant goes where it wants to. The elephant, of course, is our subconscious, and on matters of opinion or morality, it determines our reactions.

The role of the rider, he contends, is to rationalize the elephant’s opinions. In other words, we observe something, our elephant passes judgment, and then or conscious brain goes through a process of inventing logical arguments to support that position.

It’s certainly an unsettling view of the nature of who we are, but part of what makes the book so interesting is that it feels rigorous and grounded in research in a way that popular psychology books usually don’t.

The elephant can be influenced over time, of course, and Haidt describes three ways of doing so that have a significant research base. From an instructional design standpoint, the book was a nice reminder of what we are up against. Despite the best of intentions on the part of learners to engage with instruction, the elephant wants to do things that are more immediately gratifying. Instruction is inherently hard, it encourages struggle, and it can be easy for our elephants to choose quick gratification, leaving our conscious minds to cover for it: “I already know this content.” “I’ll just quick check email; I can scan while I listen.”

Actually, it’s not quite true to say that our elephants don’t want struggle–otherwise no one would ever play video games over and over just to beat the boss monster. Elephants want just exactly the right amount of struggle: not too hard, not too easy, and constant feedback of performance.

Hard to achieve that with lecture.


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