Our Christmas Book List – Part 3 – The Chimp Paradox

15th December 2022

The third book on our Christmas book list this year is a book that helped us reduce conflict and improve relations both within our team and with our clients. Written by renowned sports psychologist, Dr Steve Peters, The Chimp Paradox, in our opinion, should not only be read by people in business but by every adult and child in the whole world!

In short, The Chimp Paradox is a book that explains how your brain works using the analogy of your human brain vs your chimp brain. It shows you how to control your emotions, understand those of others and how to manage your emotions to act in your own best interest.

The Chimp Paradox argues that there are two competing forces in your brain. Your chimp brain and your human brain, and they compete against each other to control your actions. Your chimp brain is an ancient brain designed for fight or flight; It makes decisions quickly and subconsciously, based on emotion and feelings, with the sole goal of keeping you alive. Your human brain is your rational, evidence-based brain. It is the slower thinking but more reflective brain that makes decisions using facts rather than emotion. 

Your chimp brain evolved for survival. It thinks quickly and gets you out of danger. It’s instinctive. Your human brain helps you make decisions. It works slower, weighing up the evidence before coming to a conclusion. The problem is we cannot control which brain works when, so our chimp brain may take over when really we need our human brain to step in. Understanding when that is happening is invaluable.

Think of the immediate feelings you have when someone pushes in front of you in a queue, or says something antagonistic to you, compared to how you are feeling while you are reading this article. Being queue-barged, or insulted, instantly triggers your fight or flight response. It makes you angry, alert and your brain goes into overdrive. This is your chimp brain working. Reading, however, is more reflective, your brain works slower and more deliberately without that strong emotional feeling. That is your human brain. 

Both brains need to exist; they both have a purpose. The troubles come when you use the wrong brain for the wrong activity.

One of the main issues is that your chimp brain gets all new information first, it’s quicker at reacting and it’s much stronger’ which is why, in times of conflict, you feel it is difficult to control your emotions. This is fine when you’re being attacked by a sabre toothed tiger, and you need to act quickly and instinctively, but getting emotional, irrational and very reactionary is not such a useful reaction when you’ve just read an email or Tweet you don’t like. 

You might think that all you need to do is just to control those reactions, but, in the heat of the moment, it is difficult because your chimp brain is so much stronger than your human brain. 

In short, The Chimp Paradox shows you how to recognise when your chimp brain, or your human brain is doing the thinking, and gives you tools to control them. It explains that, while you cannot totally suppress your chimp, you can understand when it is active and learn how to manage it.

The example I like to use relates to the emotions people experience while driving because driving seems to bring out your chimp brain better than anything else. Think how you feel when someone tailgates you, or pulls out in front of you, or skips in front of you in a traffic jam. Think how you feel when someone steals your parking space while you’re waiting, or honks their horn if you take too long to go at a traffic light. That gut feeling of anger is your chimp preparing to defend you in the face of a perceived imminent threat. And sometimes you react accordingly, you may slow down to not let the person behind overtake you, you may get cross and shout at them, or you may just feel very anxious. This is your chimp talking. Now, imagine, instead of experiencing it yourself, you just saw it happening to someone else, or it happened in a film, your reaction is very different. It’s more measured, more considered, more rational. It’s less chimpy. That is your human brain thinking. I’ve seen many acts of road rage and aggressive driving directed at other people, and it never makes me angry. I just look and think, “that car’s a bit close to the other one”, or “that guy’s over-reacted a bit, hasn’t he?” It doesn’t make me start shouting or feel anxiety because I’m not being threatened, my human brain can look at the situation objectively and come to a much more rational decision.

This is why many people recommend not immediately sending a reply to an aggressive email. This is, also, why they recommend that you step away from a Twitter argument. It’s not because they want to stop a fight, it’s because they want your human brain to answer, not your chimp brain. They want you to answer rationally, not irrationally. The email you would send 24 hours after receiving a message from your boss criticising you is very different from the email you’d send in the heat of the moment.

Understanding how our brains and how other’s brains work in the heat of the moment has been invaluable in building our culture at Secret Source. The methods we learnt from this book helped reduce conflict and helped us build a culture of cooperation rather than confrontation. 
If you work in a team, or if you are in a relationship, you should definitely take a look at The Chimp Paradox. Not only is the theory fascinating, but it will give you the tools for you to be able to control your own emotions and understand those of others. It will help reduce arguments, just in time for that family Christmas meal.

If you’re interested in how we’ve built our happiness-first culture as well as how we’re continually challenging ourselves to make a happier company, please follow us on LinkedIn to get regular updates on our progress, and, if you’re curious as to how far we’d go at Secret Source to keep our team happy, check out the interview with our founder on The Karmic Capitalist podcast