The chimp paradox - Book review

The chimp paradox - Book review

You've probably gone through life believing that there's only one entity inhabiting your body - you! Sure, we share our bodies with tons of creepy crawlies that coexist symbiotically with us, bacteria that help us digest food and bugs that hoover dirt from our eyelashes. But what if we told you there was another, much more powerful entity living in your body, and it's probably controlling your life in more ways than you think? That's precisely what Prof Steve Peters argues in his book The Chimp Paradox: The Acclaimed Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence, and Happiness.

Introducing The Chimp and the Human

The Chimp Paradox states that there are two separate entities within all of us; chimp and human. The chimp thinks we still live in a Darwinian world where our survival could be threatened at any moment. Its only goal is to preserve your life and keep your genes going. The chimp is a fiercely independent emotional machine that competes with your human side. It reacts very quickly to stimulus and is prone to being irrational, impulsive, easily upset, and aggressive. It has a 'jungle mentality' and relies on instinct to process information and make decisions.

By contrast, your human side wants to help you thrive. It's the rational, analytical part of the brain where we consider the world around us and weigh up all the facts before taking action. In the right mindset, we're capable of incredible feats of patience, courage, compassion, and measured thought and reflection.

To illustrate the differences between the human and the chimp, let's consider an example. Suppose you accidentally bump into someone while walking on a narrow pavement while looking at your phone. The person seems visibly irate and raises their arms to push you back and calls you a name, but at that moment, you say sorry, and the situation de-escalates. Regardless, you're shaken and upset. When you get home, you tell your partner the story, starting with "I almost got in a fight". Trying to look on the bright side, they say, "luckily no one got hurt".

If you're still operating with a jungle mentality, you might perceive that comment as dismissive criticism and start an argument. But if you're in human mode, you can rationalise that maybe it wasn't the response you wanted, but they ultimately meant well.

So, if the chimp is prone to sabotaging our social interactions by being overly emotionally reactive, then why do we have a chimp at all? Your chimp can process information and act much quicker than your human. In evolutionary terms, it's better to overestimate the danger and urgency in a situation and react swiftly and strongly than to fail to act quickly enough. If you think you saw a lion when walking through the savannah, it's better to disappear as fast as possible than ponder on it too long and end up as dinner.

The chimp has its utility, but it's overkill in a world where most of us will only see a lion in a zoo. We don't need to be in survival mode all the time, and the chimp is holding us back. Instead, we need to find a way to manage the chimp - to train, so our human side can step in and take control.

In the book, Peters says, "The person that you want to be is the person that you really are." Or, to put it another way, if you're not feeling successful, confident, and happy, it's probably because your chimp is getting in the way. However, if you can harness the strength and power of your chimp, you can achieve remarkable things.

Summary of Lessons in The Chimp Paradox

In this section, we'll look at the ways you can control your chimp, as outlined in The Chimp Paradox.

Observing Your Feelings

When we go into chimp mode, we are often entirely unaware of it at the time. Our brain becomes clouded with a strong emotion, and we become sure of our opinion. Typically, it's only much later when we've had some time to relax and reflect that we realise we overreacted and weren't thinking rationally. But does this mean we are doomed to repeat the same cycle? How can you correct yourself when you have so much conviction and so little insight in the moment?

Peters' answer to this is observing your state of mind. For example, when you start feeling stressed, upset, or angry, try to take a step back to ask a few questions. You can ask, "Do I want to feel this way?", "Will I be proud of how I acted later?", "Who's in charge here? If I don't want to act like this, then why should I?"

Controlling your Chimp

Have you ever had a thought you just couldn't get out of your head? If you haven't, then you're in the minority. An estimated 94% of adults have experienced an intrusive thought they couldn't shake at some point in their lives. For some people, these thoughts can be things like worrying that you left the hob on and your house is about to explode. For others, it might be fears of a partner cheating, constant worries of death or severe injury, or a nagging feeling that nobody likes you. This is your chimp at work.

So, how do you control your chimp? The Chimp Paradox outlines two primary ways of handling your chimp:

Distraction: Distracting your chimp means giving it a task. If you start doing something else, then you can interrupt your negative thoughts and reset your brain. This task could be anything, including planning an upcoming trip, cooking, going for a run, doing some push-ups, and so on. The key is to pick an active rather than passive task. For example, watching TV isn't a suitable method of distraction because it's easy to let your thoughts wander in front of a screen.

Boxing the Chimp: If you can't distract your chimp, it could be because it's overwhelmingly frightened, angry, or sad. The only thing left to do is to box it. You can do this by venting your feelings. For example, you can write an unsent letter or confide in your friends. The idea is to vent your feelings until the chimp becomes tired, at which point you can box it away for the day.

Setting Effective Goals

Certain things trigger our chimp and leave us dwelling in negative emotions. For example, we often feel disappointed when we don't meet our goals. We can be left feeling like we're a failure or stuck on a hamster wheel.

However, the problem might not be you; it could be the goals you set. If you want to eliminate negative emotions from your goals, you need to develop better goals. This means choosing goals that don't rely on external factors. For example, instead of setting the goal of "getting a promotion at work", you instead set goals like:

  • Read up on interview techniques.
  • Analyse the job description.
  • Do further studying that will help me in my job.
  • Sign up for a new course.

By setting goals that don't rely on external factors, you can still be proud of the progress you made. Not only will you be in a better position to get the promotion, but you've still gained something even if you fail in landing the job.

Dealing With Social Situations

The chimp can be tricky in social situations. The chimp tends to be insecure and over-tuned to its environment. It might perceive criticism when it's not there and feel upset, or it might be falteringly nice when it's inappropriate (when someone is taking advantage of you). The best way to control your chimp in this situation is to set rules and boundaries before you leave the house.

For example, if you set rules like:

  • I will leave at 10 pm.
  • I will seek clarity if I'm confused about a talking point.
  • I will only contribute positively (I won't join in if someone is talking negatively about someone else).
  • I will decline an invitation to Mary's party.

If you internalise these rules before you attend the social gathering, your chimp can remain dormant for the night. You don't have to think on the spot because you already have the answer. You won’t spend time worrying about if you’re stupid for not understanding the conversation, you’ll simply ask for clarity.

Who Would Benefit From Reading This Book?

If you've ever felt like you sabotage your success or happiness, frequently have a self-identity crisis, or that your emotions sometimes dictate your life, this is the book for you. By reading The Chimp Paradox, you become better equipped to understand your emotions and make them work for you instead of against you.

It's also an excellent book for anyone who tends to be sceptical of the self-help genre. While there are a significant number of excellent books in the self-help category, it's also fair to say that there's a lot of "salesy" or anecdotal type books that don't have a lot of scientific rigour. The Chimp Paradox stands out here. Prof Steve Peters is a consultant psychiatrist who rose to prominence through his work with the British Cycling Team, coaching them to overcome negative behaviour. The book is grounded firmly in the science of the human brain.