Insight article

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Like any bit of folklore, you could draw a few morals from this one. And in a way, that fact is an illustration of the moral I’d put forth for this story: that given a small bit of evidence, we naturally place that bit of evidence in the context of something we understand already. We’re not always great at constructing brand new concepts in our minds. We call this ‘narrative bias’, our tendency to situate new information within a narrative already going in our minds.

Six blind men in India were discussing exactly what they believed an elephant to be. Each had heard how strange the creature was, yet none had ever seen one before. So the blind men agreed to find an elephant and discover what the animal was really like.

It didn't take the blind men long to find an elephant at a nearby market. The first blind man approached the beast and felt the animal's firm flat side. “It seems to me that the elephant is just like a wall,” he said to his friends.

The second blind man reached out and touched one of the elephant's tusks. “No, this is round and smooth and sharp – the elephant is like a spear.”

Intrigued, the third blind man stepped up to the elephant and touched its trunk. “Well, I can't agree with either of you; I feel a squirming writhing thing – surely the elephant is just like a snake.”

The fourth blind man was of course by now quite puzzled. So he reached out, and felt the elephant's leg. “You are all talking complete nonsense,” he said, “because clearly the elephant is just like a tree.”

Utterly confused, the fifth blind man stepped forward and grabbed one of the elephant's ears. “You must all be mad – an elephant is exactly like a fan.”

Duly, the sixth man approached, and, holding the beast's tail, disagreed again. “It's nothing like any of your descriptions – the elephant is just like a rope.”

They were all right, and they were all wrong, but it’s tough to imagine coming to an understanding of something so strange as an elephant without being able to see it.

Nailia Tasseel