These days it’s common for corporate email accounts to set a delay, putting a few seconds between hitting ‘send’ and the message leaving your outbox. It’s there to reduce the likelihood of missing attachments, and to avoid including the wrong recipients by mistake. But if we’re honest, it’s also there to give us a chance to undo a rash decision and take back something said in haste.
We’re all consummate professionals until something rubs us up the wrong way then instead of rationalising, we straight-up react. It might feel good to let off steam, but if it’s not the right time or place we can end up causing real damage. As evolved as we are, our conglomerated brains retain a place for an angry evolutionary predecessor who just wants to rage and break things.
Understanding how to control him (and when to let him vent) is the subject of ‘The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme for Confidence, Success and Happiness’ by Prof. Steve Peters.
What makes it great, in a nutshell?
The Chimp Paradox is very well known and respected and its greatness rests partly on its deceptive simplicity. Peters, a consultant psychiatrist, simplifies the brain’s architecture into two rudimentary areas, one devoted to rational human behaviour, the other given over to shrieking and throwing things like the opening moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
What makes the book really interesting is that Peters shows that by understanding and mastering our inbuilt behavioural responses, we can control them in ourselves and understand them in others.
The paradox at the heart of the book is simple but infuriating. Peters introduces us to key ‘beings’ or ways of thinking that effectively live inside our heads, namely the human and the chimp. He actually adds a third, the ‘computer’ – which provides useful shortcuts as well as destructive automatic beliefs – but here, we’ll concentrate on the key battle of chimp vs. human.
The chimp resides in us all, making snap decisions independently of our rational minds, which can be really helpful, or spectacularly destructive. The paradox is that, love him or loathe him, the chimp can be your best friend or your worst enemy. The chimp relies on instincts and drives, controlling your flight or fight response – great for getting you out of danger, but very unhelpful in relationships and your professional life.
Understanding your chimp
The book opens with recommendations from the likes of Sir Chris Hoy, Steven Gerrard, Victoria Pendleton and Ronnie O’Sullivan. In fact, it was originally aimed at athletes and Peters now works as a performance coach with Olympians and other elite athletes. But his observations apply to much more than competitive sport, and his book is a primer on human behaviour for all situations.
Peters offers an illustration in which a man, John, complains to his wife Pauline that the neighbour’s car was blocking their driveway. He has to ask the neighbour to move it, which makes his morning more stressful as he’s already late for work. Pauline asks why he’s complaining – the neighbour quickly complied and the situation was resolved. If both humans are in charge, that’s a fair and sensible exchange. However, if John’s chimp were in charge that day, Pauline’s comment might sound like a criticism. Chimps don’t like criticism and they tend to come out swinging. Now imagine Pauline’s chimp is also in charge and suddenly an innocuous incident becomes a slugging match. It’s entirely avoidable, but only if you learn to put that chimp on a leash.
Accordingly, a key theme of the book is ‘management, not change’, which begins with learning to recognise that you’re not always functioning the way you want to, because you’re not always the person you want to be. It’s a bit like the biases identified in behavioural economics, in that as humans, we’re hard-wired to respond to certain situations in particular ways. You can’t get rid of these responses, but you can learn how to spot and manage them.
Understanding this means grasping that when you have feelings, thoughts, or behaviours that aren’t welcome, you’re being hijacked by the chimp. From an evolutionary perspective, new stimuli go to the chimp first for processing, before the human gets a look in, which increases the danger of an unhelpful response. Peters argues that the solution is to understand you don’t have to accept the chimp’s response – it’s making an offer, not issuing a command. It’s incumbent on you, the rational human, to accept or reject that route.
Giving the chimp some exercise
But the chimp still needs to vent, and Peters categorically states that willpower is not the answer. Trying to ignore the chimp is like holding your breath – it won’t work forever and sooner or later there’ll be a noisy explosion. The trick is to work on not venting in the moment, because chances are you’ll attack the wrong person or cause yourself trouble in the long run.
He suggests allowing yourself to spirit the chimp off to a safe space where you can vent in a controlled environment. It doesn’t have to end in shouting at pigeons in the park – even making the choice to not reply to an email straight away, and instead making a tea with a colleague could be enough to make the chimp feel heard and get the human back at the controls.
It’s a surprising thought, but it’s actually really difficult to stay angry. Of course it’s easy to bottle it up and seethe silently for years, but when you actually let go it can be over surprisingly quickly. When Peters worked with the British cycling team he invited the athletes to ‘let their chimp out’ – complain for 15 minutes non-stop. Not one person was able to stay angry for the full 15 minutes. As Peters points out, the chimp gets exhausted and the human, listening and rationalising, is able to take over.
On one level the book is a guide to understanding yourself, why you react in the ways you do and how to manage those reactions according to the circumstances in which you find yourself. Peters likens your chimp to owning a dog – you may not always understand it, but you’re responsible for it.
But it’s not just about self-mastery, it’s about understanding where other people are coming from too. If you’ve ever said something apparently innocuous only to have someone blow up in your face, the book goes a long way to explaining what happened. It’s not enough to shrug theatrically and ask ‘what was that all about? As an adult and as a professional, it’s up to you to make sure you don’t react in a way that escalates the situation further.
As a final thought, an interesting takeaway from this book is that mastering the chimp isn’t just a way to keep your emotions in check and understand the behaviour of others, it’s also the ability to allow yourself to be happy. The chimp always wants more – of whatever it is – more recognition at work, more victories, more ice cream. That’s a big part of Peters’ influence on elite athletes: victories are unfulfilling without the time to enjoy them, there’s no point in winning a gold medal if you’re no happier for doing so. We’re not machines and the ability to consistently perform requires us not only to achieve, but to enjoy those achievements.
Don’t let the chimp ruin your long-term happiness by chasing a non-existent place of perfection. Understand the chimp, accept its faults, but reach a place of understanding too, so that when you achieve something you’re proud of, you can hand it a banana and appreciate the moment together.