Book review: The Chimp Paradox
I’ve never done a book review before. Well, not since my O levels, anyway. Bear with me and let me tell you about this wondrous book that I have read. It’s the only book I have attempted to re-read for a number of years. I think I came across it thanks to Amazon’s “People who have bought books you have read also bought…” feature. Since that time, I have never been far from it and have bought untold copies of the damn thing to give to people who I thought might benefit from it. Dr Steve Peters – you owe me big time (although, to be fair, I think the debt has been repaid a thousand times over).
The Chimp Paradox is a simple mind model. The purpose of it is to help people get a better grip of their emotional responses to things and to behave in ways that are more under control. Holy crap! It’s a great book!
If you are a wannabe neuroscientist, you will know that our brain structure features a set of components that some call the limbic system. Dr Steve Peter’s calls it your chimp. It is a primal system which serves to keep you alive and away from the bottom of the food chain. No chimp, no survival of the species.
You will also know that we have a frontal lobe where many executive functions have their origin. Dr Steve calls this your human. It is a more recent development which serves to help us understand and rationalise the world. No human, no civilisation.
Regrettably, the Great Architect didn’t take the time to deprogram the chimp when s/he decided that we were all to be thinking creatures living in centrally heated towns and going to the opera of a weekend. Which means, mes lecteurs, that we are evil, teeth-baring, arse-wiping, chest-thumping, windscreen wiper-ripping, tree-swinging, banana-munching machines of pure unadulterated force and muscle, all wrapped up in floral dresses and sensible heels/cheap suits and shiny shoes. What could ever go wrong?!
Steve Peters argues that what goes wrong is that our chimps are constantly on patrol and looking for danger. Everything in the world that passes through our heads gets chimpspected first. The Chimp has oversight of everything. Sometimes it’s a bit dozy and lets things go; other times it’s too preoccupied with delousing itself to spot a danger and lets it through the system. But most of the time, it is on high alert and if it senses a threat, it will stand up, beat its chest and get you into hot water. If the human tries to interject, the chimp will remind it that chimps are five times stronger than a human. The end result, we end up with feelings that we don’t want and actions that we later come to regret.
How do you know when the chimp is in charge? Well, says Dr P, you can ask yourself, “Do I want to feel this way? Do I want to be doing what I am doing?” If the answer is, “No. Not really,” the hands pulling the strings are simian.
We can’t get rid of the chimp. Nor should we want to. It has its function which is to keep us alive and out of danger. But we don’t want it acting like it’s in the jungle when really it’s in a staffroom or a classroom or a car or a house. Dr P tells us that while we cannot free ourselves from the monkey menace, we are still responsible for controlling it and this is within our reach.
This is where the human needs to establish awareness and appropriate systems to deal with monkey madness. Dr Peters calls this part of the mid model the computer. The computer is basically a set of strategies and programmed behaviour that helps us to control the chimp. He also sets out a number of steps that we can use to manage the chimp: we exercise it, we box it in and we reward it. How? Buy the book, people!
The book includes advice on how to overcome the need to be perfect; how to deal with stress; how to overcome other people’s weird inexplicable behaviour towards you; how to understand why others clearly think/know that you are an arsehole; how to enjoy challenges; how to go through life without succumbing to stress-induced breakdowns, either physically or mentally.
Now…how did it help me? Let’s begin with the fact that I am a parent of three children. A working parent of three children. A working parent of three children who is employed in a stressful job. A working parent of three children who is employed in a stressful job and who is convinced that s/he is not particularly good at his/her job. And who drives. And who has a long queue of debtors, all waiting for me to pay them. And whose children turn clothes to rags within minutes of wearing them.
I read this book and…pufff! I was able to get a different perspective of why other people were complaining about me at work. I began to understand how I could have done things differently.
I read this book and…pufff! I was able to respond to provocative situations in a manner that allowed me to depersonalise what previously had seemed like direct attacks on my integrity.
I read this book and…pufff! I read this book and was able to get a much better understanding of what I wanted from life.
I could go on, but won’t. Here are ten nuggets that I took from this book. I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who occasionally feels overcome by the challenges that life throws at you or who feels puzzled about why people treat them in undeservedly harsh ways or who occasionally lose their temper and say or do things that they later regret. It’s worth every penny!
1. Some people will like everything that you do; some people will hate everything that you do. Most people won’t really give a shit.
2. You are never presented with a stimulus that forces a behaviour. All stimuli are invitations to act in a particular manner. You can tell the inviter where to stick the invitation.
3. It’s perfectly normal to lose your temper from time to time. Be like Baden-Powell and don’t beat yourself up when it happens.
4. Always look for confirming and disconfirming evidence before you react to others. The human needs facts to ground it; the chimp prefers its own suppositions.
5. You need very, very few people in your troupe. You need to look after them.
6. When faced with frustrating moments, project yourself into the future and ask yourself how much Future You will really give a damn about what is causing the frustration. Most times we stress over the most trivial nonsense. Perspective, Picasso! Perspective!
7. Being the best you can be is not the same as being the best.
8. Guilt serves no purpose whatsoever. Abandon it, like a weak Spartan baby. Done something wrong? Apologise and try to put it right. If the other person doesn’t want to forgive you, that’s their problem, not yours.
9. Got a problem in life? Look at these possible causes in this order: 1. You 2. The circumtances behind the situation 3. Other people. Always ask yourself, what can I do differently that might get me a more desirable outcome? Stop asking yourself, What should others be doing?
10. Look to replace the word should with the word could. This is not an inviolable rule. Sometimes it is only appropriate to think of what should happen. But we tend to make this the first (and sometimes the only) option.
There is a lot more wisdom in this book. It’s a text that will stay by me for a long, long time to come yet. And I am going to re-read it again, starting today. If you get it yourself, I hope you’ll stop by and let me know what you thought.