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From the author of Dragging the Elephant

Dragging the Elephant

The rider can force the elephant to pay attention. We do it all the time.

There’s a cost to this, though. It’s the cognitive equivalent of biking straight uphill. We have to expend a lot of willpower to make it happen, and willpower gets used up pretty quickly.

In a study by Professors Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin, participants were asked to remember either a two-digit number or a seven-digit number. They were subsequently offered a snack choice of either fruit salad or a piece of cake (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 Which would you choose? It may depend on hard you’ve been thinking.

Approximately twice as many people chose cake in the seven-digit group as in the two-digit group.

This, and several similar studies, suggests that the cognitive resources of memory, focus, and control are finite. You can control the elephant, but just not for very long.

This goes back to the idea that we can’t expect our audience to pay attention throughout if we are relying on their willpower alone. That’s like asking the rider to drag an unwilling elephant up a hill (it’s unlikely, and no fun for either of them).

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