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Taming the Raging Elephant

• Greg Boyd
Guest Panelists: Shawna Boren, Kevin Callaghan, Lambers Fisher

When we disagree, we usually assume that reason, not emotion, is driving the interaction, but actually the opposite is true. Greg explains how our default is to use reasoning to justify our emotions, and how knowing this can help us respond well during a heated discussion.

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In general, people argue because they think their position is correct and they are trying to persuade the other of “the truth” of what they believe. But is this really what’s going on? On some level, in these situations we all know that we are not going to persuade the other person of our position. In fact, angry arguments generally have the opposite effect. The other person doubles down and usually concludes that your views are even dumber or more disingenuous than they had previously thought.

What is the purpose of this behavior when we all know that it will not actually cause the other person to hear or believe what you are saying? All behavior is done for a purpose; if the purpose of a shouting match isn’t to persuade others, what is it?

From a scientific perspective, the function of angry shouting matches among humans is not all that different from that of fighting gorillas. The fighting between gorillas begins with posturing, screaming and beating of chests in an attempt to intimidate their opponents. If that doesn’t succeed, the two go at it until one retreats or is killed.

Humans are most unlike gorillas in our higher cognitive abilities – our ability to reason – which is mostly associated with our pre-frontal lobe cortex. However, we are most like them in that we, by-and-large, share the same reptilian brain stem, and thus share with them the same fight or flight responses to perceived threats. The uniquely human aspect of our brain is what gets shut down when we are triggered by someone with whom we disagree.

This is why angry people often act like roaring, chest-pounding gorillas, even when they cloak the chest pounding as rational arguments about “the truth.” However, “the truth” is that when we’re engaged in angry shouting matches, nothing rational is actually going on.

If you want to influence another person, you have to keep them thinking. Once their reptilian brain stem kicks in, their ability to process rationally disappears. The ability to persuade is off the table.

To further understand what is going on when we argue, Greg dives deeper into the findings in Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, where he uses a rider on an elephant to illustrate the relationship between reason and our more emotional brain.

The elephant operates on the basis of emotional feeling, which is set in its ways. The rider represents our higher cognitive functions, reason. We tend to think that the rider steers the elephant because we see ourselves as rational beings who believe rational things and always engage in rational behavior. However, from a scientific point of view the opposite is the case. Reason actually does two other things. First, reason helps the elephant get what it wants. Second, reason serves as the elephant’s PR department, justifying the elephant’s desires to go where it wants to go.

If this is the entire story, then we’d have to accept that we humans never make truly rational decisions, and any discussion about truth would be impossible. Thankfully, there is more. We know the rider can, at least in some circumstances, say no to the elephant, but we rarely do so. It takes significant discipline to tame that emotional elephant, but it can be done. This is why the Bible tells us over and over to take thoughts captive, to be transformed by renewing of the mind, and to think on things that are true and good.

With this I mind, let’s reconsider those engaged in an emotional disagreement. If you find yourself in dialogue with an angry rider who is looking for a fight, the only way you can hope to influence him is by talking to the elephant, not the rider.  While elephants go in different directions for a multitude of reasons, at our core, our elephants all want the same thing: to feel loved, accepted and respected. When encountering a raging elephant roaring through the mouthpiece of a rider, the best thing you can do, at least at first, is to speak to the needs, concerns and fears of the elephant. A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire,” Proverbs 15:1 observes. If we heed this, then the rider can actually move the conversation toward reason and avoid the vortex of emotional embattlement.

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Topics: Conflict, Peace

Sermon Series: A House Divided

Downloads & Resources

Audio File
Study guide
Group Study Guide
The MuseCast: October 13

Focus Scripture:

  • Psalm 37:8

    Bridle your anger, trash your wrath, cool your pipes—it only makes things worse.

  • Proverbs 29:22

    Angry people stir up a lot of discord; the intemperate stir up trouble.

  • Proverbs 15:1

    A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire.

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One thought on “Taming the Raging Elephant

  1. Doug says:

    Pastor Boyd and Contributing Panel Members,
    Thanks for the very good teaching of Oct 11 (Taming the Raging Elephant). Lots of good ideas to help illuminate things.

    Was the inclusion of evolution necessary? Yes, I understand you were explaining
    how the brain works, the survival benefits of a fight or flight mechanism, and how
    our elephant is very often the real driver of our thoughts and actions. The important point is: the fighting and reasoning parts of our brain/mind are here, and how do we work with them? How they got here is secondary to this discussion.

    The same evolutionary explanations could be included in almost any sermon. Why do we have a deep sense of fairness? It gives advantage. Why do we have this very
    strong sense of right and wrong? Same explanation.

    It would be enough to simply say that we have an elephant and a driver (or justice, or sense of right and wrong) and not at this point go into a discussion about how they came to be.

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