The Chimp Paradox Summary and Review

by Prof Steve Peters
Has The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Movies like Planet of the Apes, expressions like “Monkey see, monkey do,” and songs like “Hey, Hey, We’re The Monkees” are only a few of the many references throughout pop culture to our not-so-distant relatives. However, beyond reminding us of our evolutionary past and playing a role in what’s popular in modern culture, chimps actually occupy a psychological space within all of us. We all have a chimp-like part of our brains affecting our everyday decisions, emotions, and interactions with other people. Sometimes, it’s the root of a conflict between the more rational and human side of our brain, influencing us to behave in ways we’d normally try to avoid. This book summary will delve into the universe that is our brain and work to unpack some of its most important basic reactions. In this summary of The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters, you’ll learn
  • how to determine whether your chimp side is governing your actions;
  • what the computer part of your brain is; and
  • that we have four major methods of communication.

The Chimp Paradox Key Idea #1: The two primary modes of thinking within the human brain can easily come into conflict with each other.

It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to know that people don’t always act rationally. The reality is, even when people know what the most rational response should be, we often end up doing something entirely different. But why is this? This is because the human brain is divided into two distinct parts. The first is the “human,” or rational, part, which is located in the frontal lobe. This is the section of the brain that thinks and acts based on fact. The second part, which lives in the limbic system, is known as the inner chimp. This section of the brain is entirely more primitive and immediate. This means that the chimp half of the brain acts primarily due to feelings and emotions, rather than logic. Of course, these two methods of processing information often come into conflict with one another, and when this happens, it’s usually the chimp brain that wins. After all, the limbic system, which is evolutionarily much older, works faster, sending stronger impulses to action. For example, perhaps a man named John complains to Pauline, his wife, about an incident he experienced that morning: their neighbor’s car was blocking their driveway, and since John was late for work, he had to ask the neighbor to move it. Hearing this, Pauline asks why he’s complaining; their neighbor had moved his car quickly and the problem was resolved. The human part of John’s brain is able to hear her statement, and take it as fact. But if his chimp brain were to prevail in this situation, Pauline’s comment might come off to John as criticism. This might lead him to question why she never supports him, or result in him defensively stating that he’s not making a big deal out of the experience. Nearly everyone has found themselves in an irrational fight at some point. To avoid these uncomfortable clashes, it’s important for the human brain to manage the quick reactions of the chimp brain. In the next book summary, you’ll learn precisely how this is possible.

The Chimp Paradox Key Idea #2: Manage your inner chimp by giving it room to vent.

You now know that the human brain is made up of two distinct sections, and it’s important to ensure that you manage them both. Here’s how: First, in any given interaction, you should begin by determining which section of your brain is directing your behavior: Is it the human or the chimp? To figure this out, you can ask yourself simple questions that begin with, “Do I want…?” Through answering these questions, you’ll figure out which part of the brain is taking charge. For instance, you might ask yourself, “Do I want to behave this way?” or “Do I want to feel these feelings?” If the answer to these questions is no, that’s a sure sign that the chimp brain has taken control. To make it more concrete, let’s say you’re obsessively worrying about being late for a meeting. You could ask yourself, “Do I want to be worried about this?” And if the answer is no, you’ll know that you’re dealing with an inner chimp problem that has to be managed. Once you’ve figured this out, you’ll be able to reign in this more emotional half through giving it a bit of exercise. We’re not talking jumping rope or jogging. Instead, this exercise simply means giving the chimp half of your brain the freedom to vent. For instance, picture a certain interaction that angered you – say, someone bumping into you at the supermarket without so much as an “excuse me.” The important step here is to let yourself express the anger you’re feeling in an uncensored and safe environment that would allow you to rant about the situation for ten minutes through saying whatever comes to mind. By making space for this time you’ll likely satisfy your inner chimp, and the anger will fade into the background. The thing is, though, for this technique to actually work, it’s necessary to find an environment that’s truly safe. Don’t go ape on the person in the supermarket. Instead, you can find a space that’s all yours, so that you can state everything that was on your mind in the moment it happened. Don’t worry about how long it takes; just keep going until the emotions begin to subside. That’s how you manage your inner chimp. But, of course, it’s not that simple. There’s another, third section of the brain that has a big part in this — one you’ll learn about in the next book summary. We read dozens of other great books like The Chimp Paradox, and summarized their ideas in this article called Habits. Check it out here!

The Chimp Paradox Key Idea #3: Automatic functioning is essential to human existence, but it has a destructive side.

You now know about the human and the chimp sections of the brain, but it’s time to learn about yet another part. It’s called the computer and it’s responsible for automatic functions based on learned patterns. Because working on autopilot is such a major influence on human functioning, this section of the brain is essential. Such automatic behavior is based on patterns you’ve learned, beliefs you’ve absorbed, and programs you’ve established. For example, in doing actions like making your morning coffee, chewing your lunch, or brushing your teeth, you’re participating in activities that you’ve done daily for years, and perhaps even decades. You move through these actions without nearly any conscious effort. Naturally, such an ability has its benefits. For example, if your family growing up was loving, you’ll default to an assumption that people love and value your presence. However, not all automation is useful. There are also nefarious elements to the automatic functioning of the brain. These are called goblins. These are the destructive patters you’ve formed over the years, based on lived experience, which are stored in your computer brain, just like their more useful counterparts. For example, imagine a child brings home a drawing she made at school. A well-intentioned dad might compliment the child’s work, hug her, and put the picture up on the fridge. While that sounds like the best-case scenario, it may have unintended side effects. For instance, the child might begin to think that she’ll only be loved for her achievements, thereby creating a pattern of thinking along the lines of “I’m unlovable unless I perform well.” Obviously, thinking patterns like this are dangerous, so we should do everything we can to discourage goblins from forming in the first place. It may have benefited the girl had the father taken a different track. First, he could have put the drawing aside, hugged his daughter and told her that he loves her and is proud of her. After that, he could then look at her drawing, and give her the choice to put it up on the fridge if she wants to, which will neutralize any connection she might form between her achievement and his love. That being said, this approach really only works for nipping goblins in the bud. So, in the next book summary, you’ll learn how to get rid of the ones that already exist.

The Chimp Paradox Key Idea #4: You can rid yourself of your goblins by identifying them and replacing them with positive alternatives.

So, we now know that goblins are real, and they can be the cause of some serious trouble. In order to handle them, it’ll be necessary to get your computer into shape through implementing positive patterns. Here’s how to do it: First, its necessary to identify which goblins are actually living in your computer. This initial step is essential since both the chimp and the human parts of your brain look to the computer when they don’t know how to act. And if there’s a goblin in the computer – say, a negative behavioral pattern – the result will be unsettling for both the emotional chimp and the rational human. The problem is, goblins are well hidden, which can result in a myriad of issues. For instance, imagine you’re standing in line to buy a coffee, and someone cuts in front of you. The human side of your brain will want to politely tell them that you were already in line, and the chimp side of the brain will want to lunge and knock the person to the floor. But before either of these impulses can be acted on, they’ll look to the computer. Now, if there’s a goblin in the computer saying that you’re not as good as other people, both the chimp and the human will back down and you won’t react at all. A goblin like this will stop you from doing a long list of things, but the first step in defeating it is identifying what it is. Once you’ve figured out that there’s a goblin in your computer, you can simply replace it with a positive pattern. This means that, if your goblin is telling you that you’re less worthy than other people, you might try adopting a positive thinking pattern instead – for instance, that you are just as good as the people around you. Once you do this, it’s essential to be attentive to your state of mind so that you’re able to notice when this negative goblin starts to rear its ugly head. Every time it does, make sure that you replace it with the positive view until it becomes absolutely automatic. If you’re able to construct a new autopilot for yourself, you’ll then be able to conform difficult situations politely, without second thought.

The Chimp Paradox Key Idea #5: The chimp tends to forget that different people have different brains.

Having the ability to appreciate where other people’s viewpoints come from is essential to moving through the world, and if you want to do this successfully, it’s even more essential to calm down your chimp brain. Once you’re able to do this, you’ll start to realize that different people have different brains. Some people are surprised to learn this, since many assume that all brains work just like theirs does. But this assumption will inevitably lead to misunderstandings, which in turn, anger the chimp. However, when you’re able to keep your chimp quiet through the methods in the previous book summaries, you’ll be able to appreciate different perspectives on life. While extreme, a good example of this is something that the author encountered in his work. One of his clients was the father of an 18-year-old boy who had some unusual traits caused by his autism. For instance, the son would use an entire bottle of shampoo every time he took a shower. Another issue was that, every night when his father returned from work, the son would greet him with an endless stream of questions until the father couldn’t take it anymore. These behavioral idiosyncrasies clearly demonstrate how utterly different human minds can be. Clearly, the average person’s brain isn’t quite as unique as that of this boy, but, nonetheless, connecting with and understanding others can be very difficult. Doing so often requires a great deal of patience and creativity. (The father eventually solved the issues with his son by putting portioned-out bottles of shampoo in the shower and setting a rule of no more than three questions per evening). So, to make understanding others easier, keep these three points in mind: The first step is to ensure that you aren’t making any assumptions about people. Just because someone appears distant or distracted doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re unfriendly. There might just be some distress in their lives that they’re working through, which you would know nothing about. Next, make sure that you don’t form unreasonable expectations of other people. It’s incredibly important to remember that people make mistakes, which means that expecting them to constantly be perfect at everything they do is just a recipe for disappointment on your part. And, finally, you must abandon all prejudice, even the positive. It’s best to simply take people as they are and truly get to know them.

The Chimp Paradox Key Idea #6: There are four basic modes of communication that people use, so knowing the best way to get your point across without aggression is key.

Now you know how easy it is to misunderstand others. Next, picture how frustrating it gets trying to communicate with different people. It’s no secret that communication, or a lack thereof, can be the root of a long list of problems, but the good news is, it’s a skill you can practice. However, before we reach that solution, it’s important to have a grasp on the four basic ways that people communicate, each one involving both the chimp and human brain. First, your human brain might communicate with another human brain. Second, your human brain can communicate with someone else’s chimp brain. Third, your chimp can communicate with another person’s human brain and, finally, your chimp can communicate with another chimp. This final communication strategy tends to yield pretty ugly results, creating a calamity that’s reminiscent of anytime a couple is in an argument. To avoid such circumstances, let’s take a look at how to set up the ideal communication conditions from the get-go. In order to start off in a productive way, it’s necessary to approach issues as they arise, speaking in an assertive, yet nonaggressive manner. We have a tendency to vent our problems to everyone but the person we actually have an issue with. This is truly not a productive way to go about things. It will get you much further if you talk to the person directly while ensuring that you are not aggressive in your confrontation, as that will usually make matters worse. The truth is, aggressive communication is emotional communication, which means that it will most likely result in an emotional response. Assertiveness, on the other hand, is about explaining where you’re coming from. For instance, imagine that you arrive late to a dinner date with a friend, who then gets upset and begins yelling at you. Approaching this situation with assertiveness would involve three things: telling the person what you don’t want, explaining how the situation makes you feel, and stating what you do want. More concretely, this might involve you telling your friend that you don’t want to be shouted at, that you feel intimidated when he does that, and that you’d really prefer it if he spoke to you in a quieter voice.

The Chimp Paradox Key Idea #7: Getting healthy is easy if you focus on solutions instead of problems.

Now, you understand how the brain and its different parts can influence human behavior. Next, you’ll learn how the chimp and human brains can impact your health. Truly, the brain has great influence over your physical well-being, which means that it’s easy to improve your health through bringing your attention toward a solution instead of the problem at hand. In fact, the dilemma of physical health is quintessential to the human-vs-chimp debate. The human side of the brain is motivated to exercise and lose weight, while the chimp side simply wants to sit in from of the TV and eat an entire tub of ice cream. When we come face to face with this contradiction, putting our focus on problems such as our weight will do nothing but strengthen the chimp brain. This is because of the fact that when you feel badly about yourself, you’ll start seeking out the quick comforts of junk food and laziness more and more. So, rather than falling into this trap, make sure you focus on what you do want. In this case, that means getting some exercise and shedding a few pounds. This means, in order to get healthy, you need to be both proactive and responsive. This means simultaneously having a plan and being prepared to regroup and patch things up if that plan fails. For instance, perhaps you’re trying to get in shape. You get a membership to the local gym and schedule two workouts per week with a fit friend. Just like that, you’ve got a plan. But after two weeks, you discover that you keep missing your allotted gym time. Now, it’s time to be responsive. Instead of dwelling on your failures, it might help you to try telling your workout buddy that you genuinely enjoy your gym time and you’re proud of how much progress you’ve made so far. Such a simple comment will encourage your emotional chimp, whose only goal is to feel good and save face. Chances are, you’ll happily turn up at the gym next time around to prove to your friend that you meant what you told them.

The Chimp Paradox Key Idea #8: Seek out happiness and celebrate your victories.

Did you know that happiness is actually a choice? This doesn’t mean you can just turn around and be happy whenever you want, but instead, that life is full of ups and downs, through which you can actively work toward more good times and fewer bad ones. So how does this work? Doing this starts with adding good things to your life. Remember: there’s nothing superficial about seeking out what you need to be happy. For example, there are some material things that you likely need in order to feel happy and relaxed – like food, a comfortable apartment, and a shower. And of course, there are also emotional things you desire, like the love of a partner or respect from your colleagues and friends. Regardless of what it is you’re finding yourself wishing for, write down these desires and truly think about how you’ll be able to bring them off of paper and into reality. However, as you do this, make sure that you keep in consideration that pushing yourself to do too much might obscure the great achievements you’ll make along the way. This means, the true issue with happiness is that your chimp side will never truly be satisfied; this side of your brain is always searching for more, which can dangerously lead you toward achievement, not happiness. Picture an athlete whose main goal is to win an Olympic medal. Along the way, she picks up a large number of national titles and displays unrivaled athleticism. However, despite these accomplishments, she never celebrates. It’s even likely that, even if she does end up winning Olympic gold, she won’t be able to enjoy it. Instead, she’ll immediately move on to the next potential win. Living life this way is simply a recipe for disaster, and in order to avoid it, it’s necessary to appreciate the little milestones as you achieve them, as this is the only sure way to enjoy and experience the happiness you originally strove for. Once you have this down, you’ll be equipped with the complete toolkit necessary for outsmarting your inner chimp. Just remember to make healthy plans that counter your primal urges, let yourself vent in safe spaces, communicate with wisdom, and love and celebrate all your little successes along the way!

In Review: The Chimp Paradox Book Summary

The key message in this book: Our brains are made up of distinct parts, each one operating based on its own internal logic. Some are rational, thoughtful and objective, while others are highly emotional and impulsive, or simply automatic. These differences can easily cause for some internal conflict, but you can manage them through training, and simply being aware. Actionable advice: When choosing a partner, take both their chimp and their human into account. Finding a romantic partner can be difficult, but it’s easy to get a better sense of a person when you consider both parts of their brain. For example, a person’s human side might be loving, generous, fun, and engaging while their chimp side is vehemently opposed to monogamy. No matter what the differences are, it’s necessary to you to identify their characteristics, especially those that might be deal breakers for you, as it’s not really possible to simply change your partner’s basic personality traits.   Suggested further reading: Find more great ideas like those contained in this summary in this article we wrote on Habits