You may have heard of the Chimp Paradox, but it can be very confusing when trying to attribute our own behaviours to this theory. In this article, I’ll explain Steve Peters’ Chimp Paradox, and how it presents itself in our everyday life.
Steve Peters is an English psychiatrist who works in the industry of elite sports, best known for his work with British Cycling. Peters did psychiatrist training until he became a distinguished doctor. He is now a performance coach who advises Olympians and elite athletes.
In January 2012, Peters published his book, The Chimp Paradox which has gone on to sell over 615,000 copies in the UK. This book helped people to understand Peters’ simple analogy, the ‘Chimp Model’, which relates to the irrational and emotional areas of the brain as a chimp vs the logical areas as a human. Dr Steve Peters has used this model to help athletes deliver their absolute best, but it is applicable to non-athletes in day-to-day life.
The Chimp Paradox helps to simplify our conscious mind by splitting it into three clear components and explains how these areas work together and against each other, having a direct effect on our emotions and how we behave in various situations:
- You – ‘You’ are the human element of the model. The human is a ‘conscious, thinking and analysing being’ with the processing work taking place in the dorsolateral part of the prefrontal cortex in the brain. Humans work with facts and truth, making deductions from logical thinking and processing.
- The Chimp – The Chimp is an independent thinking brain that is not under your control. Working from animal instincts, feelings and impressions, the Chimp will often draw conclusions and puts information together using emotionally driven thinking. The Chimp is closely tied with the limbic system of the brain.
- The Computer – The third component is the Computer. The computer is where our automatic responses, values and beliefs are stored. The Human and the Chimp are able to reference and access memories from the Computer. The automatic behaviours can be good or bad, and they’re reactions based on experiences.
How do these components affect our decisions?
When it comes to making decisions, it is either You (the Human) or the Chimp making decisions, and the Computer remains in the background as a storage area for memories, experiences, beliefs and values. If the Computer holds automatic reactions or behaviours that we don’t desire, it will need to be reprogrammed to create new behaviours.
If the Human/ You and the Chimp are in agreement, you’ll have peace of mind. However, if the Human/ You disagree with the Chimp, this will result in a hijacking. The Chimp will hijack our emotions and actions as it holds enormous strength. However, if we can recognise our Chimp, we can learn strategies to manage it, therefore gain control of our thinking using a logical manner.
The order of making a decision:
When we find ourselves in a new situation or face some sort of trigger, the Chimp is the first to interpret the information and dictate whether or not it is something to worry about. The three options from here are:
Option 1 – If there is a threat or extreme danger ahead, the Chimp will react on impulse. This could look like a fight, flight or freeze mechanism.
Option 2 – If there is no severe danger, the Computer will work to gather information on our core beliefs, values and experiences to decide how we will react.
Option 3 – If there is no danger, the Human will refer to the Computer for guidance and decide an action from the Human or store this information in the computer.
Applying the theory to day-to-day life
Simply The Nest blog explained the theory like this: ‘Let’s use a real-life example. You’re driving along, and someone cuts you up. Your chimp becomes activated immediately, and refers to the computer, who tells the chimp: people who drive like that are the worst! The chimp takes charge of the situation, tooting the horn, going mad, and maybe even driving dangerously fast to get alongside the other driver in order to wind the window down and really have a go at them. Your blood pressure rises, you start to sweat, your adrenaline flows, and it can take over half an hour to calm yourself down. Now let’s consider what happens if you have a different belief programmed into the computer – namely that there may be a very good reason why the person who cut you up behaved as they did; perhaps they’re rushing home to get to their kid’s school show. Or maybe you’ve just decided to put other people’s driving behaviour on your list of things that you can’t control, and therefore shouldn’t stress over. Either way, the person cuts you up, your chimp checks your computer, your computer tells your chimp to chill, your chimp settles down, and you keep on driving calmly and safely as if nothing has happened.’
So now we know how the Chimp can change our behaviours, how can we learn to manage the Chimp?
Learning to manage your Chimp
- Don’t fight the Chimp, but nurture it – Professor Peters explained that when he worked with Olympic cyclist, Victoria Pendleton, she would often ask how she could get rid of her Chimp for good. Truthfully, we can’t banish our Chimp. We need to learn to nurture our inner Chimp, meaning we communicate and build a relationship with it. The Chimp essentially needs parenting.
- Let the Chimp speak its truth – Managing your Chimp is a skill, but this doesn’t mean you should silence it. Nurturing the Chimp means you still let it have its say. Steve explains that allowing the Chimp to process its emotions allows the Chimp to then settle. Steve also explained that when he worked in British cycling, he had a rule that athletes could go to him and “let their chimp out”, on the condition that they had to complain for 15 minutes straight. None of the athletes could ever manage to rant for 15 minutes non-stop as the Chimp gets exhausted. The Chimp decides “I can’t even be bothered listening to myself!” Allowing the Chimp to speak, leaves the Human (You) to listen and eventually, reason takes over.
- Be careful who the Chimp talks to – Peters explains that it is important to choose your audience wisely. If your Chimp needs to express itself immediately, the Doctor says “do it sensibly”. By this, he means, don’t express yourself to the people who are engaged in battle with you. Express yourself to people who are actually willing to listen.
- Go over things a few times – Steve explains that “emotion takes a long time to process,” therefore, sometimes we need to run our minds through some challenging things before the Chimp is able to accept it. Revisiting a situation will most likely result in the Chimp saying, “do you know what, I’ve said my bit now and I’m beginning to see it differently.”
- Get your self-esteem from who you are, not what you do – In life, we need to avoid the Chimp from governing our self-worth. “If my self-esteem is on the chimp system, which is what I achieve, then if I don’t achieve everything at the right level I’m always going to have low self-esteem,” Steve explains. To the Chimp, no amount of success will ever be enough. “The chimp will chase success but once it’s got that it will redefine it.”
- Reflect on whether you’re meeting your values – Steve recommends spending 10 minutes every day reflecting on whether you’re meeting your values. By doing this, you’re putting the human system firmly in the foreground and forcing your chimp to take a back seat.
- Show the Chimp who’s boss – We can develop simple habits that help us with controlling our emotions and keeping the Chimp in check. One habit is simply smiling. We know that “our facial expressions are intricately linked to our mood state,” says Steve, “you actually evoke the mood starting to appear in your head.” The professor explained that when “most of us when we get out of bed in the morning just naturally go with the mood we’re in, and often it’s not a great mood”. Instead, we should ask ourselves what mood we want to be in, being proactive.
- Do what works best for you – Steve emphasises that we are all unique, therefore, something that works for one person, won’t necessarily work for the next. “If things resonate, great. If they don’t but it sparks ideas, go with your own ideas”. Steve stresses that it is important to care for our psychological health and actively reflect. If the Chimp model doesn’t work with you, then find something that does. Dr Steve Peters says, “but whatever you do, don’t do nothing.”
“Aggressive emotional reactions nearly always lead to worse outcomes, pausing allows you to make the best response.” – Steve Peters