Market research and the Elephant and the Rider

Market research has been transformed in recent years by the teachings of Daniel Kahemann in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahemann leveraged years of research into practical insight, most notably with the idea of System 1 and System 2 thinking.

He describes System 1 thinking as fast, intuitive and emotional, whilst System 2 thinking is slow and deliberative and these systems work side by side.  His thesis is that whilst we think we are rational beings, we actually think much less than we think we think and most decisions are based on intuitive understanding. So what does that mean for marketers? Which system of thinking should we aim to appeal to?

In Jonathon Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis he looks at this issue from a slightly different perspective and describes the mind as being divided between the Elephant and the Rider. Haidt believes that the Rider represents conscious, verbal reasoning, whilst the Elephant is our emotional reactions and automatic responses. The two of them work closely together in their role of articulating the justification of decisions with the rider frequently acting as the mouthpiece for the elephant’s intuitive decision-making.

However, it can be argued that the Rider is not just a mouthpiece and can nudge the Elephant into a certain direction. Given that the Elephant is stubborn, if it really doesn’t want to do something then no amount of reasoning from the Rider will get them to do it.

As marketers, we can often spend a lot of time focusing our efforts on persuading the Rider, but if decisions are truly made by our quick, emotional ‘Elephant’ side, then our marketing strategy needs to change to suit that aim.

elephant and the rider analogy


If we were to sum up the Elephant’s needs in a short sentence it would be ‘the Elephant just wants to feel good’, but feeling good is a dependent variable. When it comes to a product or service, the Elephant will have a different metric of what feels good. For example, the Elephant might want a car that gives off a certain perception of their lifestyle, whereas purchasing a fire alarm will help make the Elephant’s family feel safe which also feels good.

We therefore need to understand the underlying dynamics of each category separately – what is it that the Elephant truly wants, and which brands satisfy them?

Researchers have no problem understanding the Rider – we can talk to the Rider all day long, they know what they want and respond well to focus groups and survey questions.  In research, the Rider dominates the conversation despite the Elephant being the one we really need to get to know.


So how do we get past the Rider so we can talk to the Elephant? Well, we have a few techniques at our disposal…


The growth of online questionnaire software has given us one of our biggest weapons in talking to the Elephant – time-restricted questioning.  Ask a rational question, then the Rider will think about it rationally and provide a rational, deliberative answer. But what if we don’t give the Rider any time to think rationally and join the conversation? What if we just put the rider under time pressure so they have to allow the Elephant to answer?  If we do this for certain key questions we can bypass the Rider and more easily tap into the underlying emotions of the Elephant.

Elephant and the rider



Another weapon at researchers disposal is understanding consumers’ first choices.  Professor Peter Kenning showed that respondents’ reactions to their favourite brands activated an area of the brain associated with emotional and intuitive thinking rather than reflective, conscious thinking. Interestingly, non-favourite brands activated a completely different area of the brain.

This experiment shows that it is possible to get the Elephant to talk to us if we use the right techniques.  By exploring issues like top of mind awareness or first choice preferences we can gain an understanding of what the Elephant likes. Once we know what the Elephant likes, we can then develop our own strategy to become their first choice.



We can also gain an understanding of what the Elephant needs by digging deeper into our analysis.  In a study we completed for an educational provider, we measured both functional and emotional attitudes to the company. As expected, the Rider thought the functional aspects were important in brand choice. However, by using multivariate analysis techniques to go beyond what the Rider was saying, we were able to understand what the Elephant thought was important – this turned out to be emotional attributes like the quality of relationships with the provider.


Essentially in research you need to look beyond people’s initial answers to gain a deeper understanding of what they really want. Direct the Rider, motivate the Elephant and then you’ll shape the path.

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