Summary of The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters

The way people react in situations is not always rational. We have all experienced this – even when we know what the rational response should be it’s not the one that comes out. Why does this happen? Well, our brain is split between the rational and irrational and these represent the human and inner chimp parts of our brain respectively. The frontal lobe is associated with rational thought and acting on facts whilst the limbic system acts somewhat irrationally based on feelings and emotions. 

Interestingly, when these two parts of the brain go against each other, the limbic system almost always wins. The primitive nature of the limbic system allows it to work faster to provide a reaction. Thus it reacts faster than the rational frontal lobe. So, how does one begin to control the chimp brain and allow the rational human brain to manage our reactions all the time?

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • How to manage your inner chimp
  • The automatic functions of the brain
  • Knowing how to communicate with others
  • The physical implications that our brains can inflict

Key lesson one: How to manage your inner chimp

The first step in managing your reactions is knowing which part of the human brain is in control. To determine whether it is the human or the chimp, you have to ask the question “Do I want?” You have to question your behaviour and your emotions at that given moment. If it is not something that you want to experience then the chimp is most likely in control.  

Once you know for certain that it is your inner chimp in control then you need to give it a little room to vent. The most important thing here is that you have to be in a safe environment to do so. For example, if someone cuts you off badly whilst driving, you should express your uncensored anger. However, this should not be done whilst you are driving or expressed to the person who cut you off. You can do so later when you are alone and in a place of safety where you can vent freely. Spend as much time as you need to say everything you wanted to before. This will allow you to get rid of the emotions bubbling within you.

This technique will calm down the chimp part of your brain without it reacting in the moment. It becomes easier the more you do and will eventually allow you to see things from a different perspective. To be more specific, you will begin to realize how different people react differently because of their different brains. Sometimes we make the mistake of believing that everyone’s brain functions the same way as ours. This simple mistake is the reason for countless misunderstandings. For example, a father of an 18-year-old autistic boy used to get easily angered by his son’s behaviour. The kid would finish an entire bottle of shampoo when he showered and would question his father endlessly when he returned home from work. When the father eventually worked past his emotions regarding these behaviours exhibited by his son, he was able to see beyond his inner chimp and come up with a rational solution. Obviously, his son did these things for a reason and he decided to portion out the shampoo into smaller bottles so that he could finish a single one each time he showered and set up a limit to the number of questions the son asked his father. 

It was simply a matter of the father taking the time to understand that his son’s brain worked differently from his. To be able to understand others, you need to remember three things. Firstly, don’t make assumptions about people. The way a person acts is not always a reflection of their personality, they could just be going through a rough patch. Secondly, you should not have unreasonable expectations regarding people. This is a sure way to set yourself up for disappointment. Lastly, get rid of your prejudices. Try to get to know the person first without any preconceived judgments. 

Key lesson two: The automatic functions of the brain

The human brain also possesses a part called the computer that is responsible for automatic functions. These automatic functions result from learned behaviours or patterns and are essential in our lives. They have developed over the years and make our lives easier by performing these functions as if we were on autopilot. 

However, we must keep in mind that not all automation is useful. There are also elements referred to as goblins and are based on the destructive patterns in our lives due to the experiences we have had. Goblins have seemingly innocent beginnings but the associations they bring about can be unhealthy. For example, if a child brings home a report card with good results, their parents might hug them and hang it up on the fridge. This is an innocent action but the child might associate their parent’s affection with performing well. This puts pressure on the child as they grow because they will strongly believe that they will not receive love and affection unless they perform well. To neutralise this effect, parents could instead tell the child that they love them and are proud of them before looking at the report card. This eliminates the connection between the two and does not allow the goblin to form. 

So, what do you do if the goblins are already in place in our brains? First, you have to try to find them. Goblins can be quite well hidden and it takes a bit of time to actually find them. Once you do, however, you have to replace it with a positive pattern. For example, when your ideas get criticised it might make you feel like that you are not as worthy as others. This will hold you back from ever suggesting anything to anyone. You have to start telling yourself that you are just as good as the people around you to replace this goblin

Key lesson three: Knowing how to communicate with others

Technically speaking, given the human and chimp parts of our brain, communication can occur in four basic ways between people. Firstly, your human brain can communicate with another human brain. Secondly, your human brain can communicate with someone’s chimp brain. Thirdly, your chimp brain can communicate with another’s human brain. Lastly,  your chimp brain can communicate with another chimp brain. 

By understanding these four ways of communication, you can avoid all sorts of misunderstandings and problems. Just think about all the arguments you have been in or witnessed – they usually could have been cleared up quickly if they had been dealt with rationally. Most people tend to discuss problems with everyone except the person they have an issue with. This never solves any problem. Instead, you have to approach the person and the issue assertively but not aggressively. 

Aggressive communication usually means that your chimp is in control because it is emotional communication. However, assertive communication is your human brain explaining your point of view and why you are having a problem with the person. So, the next time someone yells at you, know that it is their chimp brain reacting and that you can use your human brain to calmly steer them into a rational conversation. 

Key lesson four: The physical implications that our brains can inflict

The human brain and the chimp brain can actually also have an impact on your health. Besides the obvious mental implications which come from reacting emotionally, the brain can affect your physical well being. The human part of your brain often wants to be healthy and exercise whereas the chimp part will be happy to laze on the couch with junk food. 

Focusing on a problem like ending up unfit and overweight only strengthens your inner chimp. This occurs because focusing on the problem makes you feel worse about yourself and you will look for comfort in food. Instead, you should focus on what you want. In this example, you want to be fit and healthy. So, you can be proactive and implement some exercise and a healthy diet. If you fall off the wagon with this plan, then you have to go back and focus on your goal and not on how you failed to follow through. In doing so, you focus on how good you felt when you were following through with your plan and activate your emotional chimp to your advantage.

The same must be said for your overall happiness. There are things in life that we want in order to be happy and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. The problem comes in when you spend too much time thinking about how to achieve this happiness or on how others have what you want. If you do this, you will fail to see and experience all the happiness and achievements that are happening in your life currently. The chimp part of our brains will always be seeking more happiness, it is what it does. But understanding that it will never be satisfied is important. You have to experience happiness as it occurs and not focus on what you still need to achieve. 

The key takeaway from The Chimp Paradox is:

The human brain is divided into the rational human brain and the irrational chimp brain. The chimp brain acts on feelings and emotions and understanding this is key to solving most problems that we face. If we don’t work at managing our inner chimp, it will almost always overpower our rational thoughts. Therefore, with practice, we can learn to vent appropriately, communicate efficiently and live our lives happily.

How can I implement the lessons learned in The Chimp Paradox:

Whenever you interact with someone, either professionally or personally, be sure to identify their inner chimp as well. If you know how they react emotionally, it will give you a better understanding of them. In addition, it will allow you to build a stronger relationship with them. You can’t change people, but you can understand their perspectives and be able to communicate with them efficiently.

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