Book review - The Chimp Paradox, by Professor Steve Peters

You ducked a meeting you should have attended ... you bailed out of delivering a tough message ... you felt intimidated by the crowd ...you sided with colleagues to badmouth a friend ... you took a stupid risk just to show you could ... you claimed the credit for something you know you didn't do ... you felt hurt and defensive in response to reasonable criticism ... you didn’t speak up in a meeting ... you broke a promise ...

You look back at your behaviour and you are baffled. You beat yourself up. You know you are better than that. But you did it anyway. And you know you will do it again.

What's going on?

Professor Steve Peters’ book, "The Chimp Paradox" provides a way of getting to grips with it all. Peters has worked in clinical psychiatry for over 20 years. The Undergraduate Dean at Sheffield University Medical School, Peters is also the consultant psychiatrist to Liverpool Football Club, and to the England football side. He has worked with the cycling knights Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins, with Ronnie O'Sullivan and with Victoria Pendleton. They have all spoken about how he helped them improve their performance.

Peters starts with the brain. He describes its seven parts - of which three make up what he calls the "psychological mind": the frontal, the limbic and the parietal. Peters is very clear that this is not scientifically accurate; it is a dramatic simplification that provides a working model. He then gives the three elements of the psychological mind labels that help us understand how they interact. The frontal is the Human, the limbic is the Chimp, and the parietal is the Computer. These three brains, says Peters, are joined up, but they struggle against each other to gain control.

The Human (the frontal) is you – the rational, the thoughtful, the sober, the disciplined, the caring, the focused, the calm, the professional. But the Chimp part of your brain is an emotional being that developed separately in the womb, and only later connected to your Human brain. The Chimp is the source of feelings, of emotions. The Chimp is four times stronger than the Human, and can hijack your behavior. You are not responsible for the nature of your Chimp, and the Chimp is not good or bad - it’s just a Chimp, after all - but you are responsible for managing it. The third part of the psychological mind is the Computer. The Computer is the repository of your habits, routines and automatic responses. Both the Human and the Chimp lay down programs in the Computer – some are good and helpful (Peters calls these “autopilots”), but some are destructive and destabilising - “gremlins” - formed after the age of about eight, and can be changed - and “goblins” - hard-wired from early childhood, and impossible to modify. As you grow up and learn from your life, you create, adapt and strengthen the programs in the Computer.

The Human is generally in charge when everything is going along quietly. You are working away, dealing with people calmly. The Computer is humming along in the background with its autopilots helping you cope with environments and tasks that you are familiar with. The Chimp is asleep. But then there’s a threat to something your Chimp cares about. It wakes and immediately becomes alert and anxious. What does the Chimp care about? Mainly survival, and in the jungle that’s all about physical security, being a member of a troop, being able to get food, being able to reproduce, and guarding territory. A colleague starts talking about running a project that you are responsible for.  Your territory is threatened. The Chimp doesn’t like it. The first thing that happens is your Chimp checks the Computer to see if there are any programs that deal with this sort of thing. If you are lucky, there’s a nice autopilot in place that is used to dealing with territorial threats of this nature; it quickly calms the Chimp by telling it to listen to the colleague and take the input as constructive. If there is no autopilot in there, the Chimp will start to get anxious – and Chimps see things emotionally. They don't think – they react. The see the world in black and white, they jump to conclusions, they are paranoid, irrational and assume the worst. The Chimp’s anxiety will hijack you and get you to respond – fight, flight or freeze.

Peters called his book “The Chimp Paradox” because the Chimp can be destructive, but can also be your friend. Perhaps more importantly, understanding the interplay of Human, Chimp and Computer can give you an insight into your behaviour. He explains how you can build better autopilots to help the Computer, and how you can manage your Chimp. The payoff may not be an Olympic gold medal, or victory in the Tour de France, but it might just be that you become the person you want to be (which is the person Peters says you really are) a little bit more of the time.