You can see how easy it would be to turn an easy change problem (shrinking people’s buckets) into a hard change problem (convincing people to think differently). And that’s the first surprise about change: What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.
The answer may surprise you: They ran out of self-control. In studies like this one, psychologists have discovered that self-control is an exhaustible resource. It’s like doing bench presses at the gym. The first one is easy, when your muscles are fresh. But with each additional repetition, your muscles get more exhausted, until you can’t lift the bar again. The radish-eaters had drained their self-control by resisting the cookies. So when their Elephants, inevitably, started complaining about the puzzle task—it’s too hard, it’s no fun, we’re no good at this—their Riders didn’t...
Self-control is an exhaustible resource. This is a crucial realization, because when we talk about “self-control,” we don’t mean the narrow sense of the word, as in the willpower needed to fight vice (smokes, cookies, alcohol). We’re talking about a broader kind of self-supervision. Think of the way your mind works when you’re giving negative feedback to an employee, or assembling a new bookshelf, or learning a new dance. You are careful and deliberate with your words or movements. It feels like there’s a supervisor on duty. That’s self-control, too.
Much of our daily behavior, in fact, is more automatic than supervised, and that’s a good thing because the supervised behavior is the hard stuff. It’s draining.