Your Inner Chimp (and How to Manage It)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Chimp Paradox" by Steve Peters. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the chimp paradox model? How can understanding your inner Chimp help you to become happier and more confident? How do you know when your inner Chimp has taken over? 

According to Steve Peters (author of The Chimp Paradox) understanding the inner Chimp is crucial in finding success, happiness, and confidence. In this article, you’ll discover what the chimp paradox model is and what practical steps you can take to handle your inner Chimp. 

Learn more about the inner Chimp below. 

Understanding the Inner Chimp

Each of us has a psychological Chimp inside our brains, primitively reacting to the world and prompting us to act emotionally, impetuously, and irresponsibly. If you’ve ever struggled to stay in control of your urges, succumbed to temptation, or sabotaged your own success, your Chimp has probably taken the reins for a bit.

Fortunately, our brains also have an inner Human who, when functioning properly, keeps our inner Chimp under control and allows us to interact with the world in a stable, positive, productive way. In The Chimp Paradox, psychiatrist Steve Peters outlines a mind management program that can help you manage your inner Chimp and lead you to happiness, success, and a sense of balance between your emotional and thinking selves.  

What Is the Chimp Paradox Model?

What is the chimp paradox model? Explaining this begins with a discussion of three key elements of your inner mind, each of which loosely corresponds to a physical area of your brain and serves a unique role in your psyche.  

These elements are: 

  • The Chimp, controlled by your limbic lobe
  • The Human, controlled by your frontal lobe 
  • The Computer, controlled by your parietal lobe

Planet 1 is a split planet on which your Chimp and your Human both live and operate. A moon, representing the Computer, revolves around it, guiding and stabilizing the planet. In general, the Chimp is emotional, the Human is rational, and the Computer is habitual—it’s the command center for your unthinking habits and knee-jerk reactions. The Chimp and Human are the two primary forces driving your reactions to the world.

They each have different ways of thinking and differing agendas, but each defers to the Computer for guidance on how to carry out those reactions. 

Understanding Your Inner Chimp and Human

Your Chimp (your emotional side) and your Human (your rational side) are two separate, independent sources of thought. At any given time, your reactions and decisions are controlled by one or the other. You can sometimes recognize the conflict between these two elements when you find yourself talking to yourself, having battles in your head between emotion and reason. 

There is scientific evidence showing that only one of these influences controls us at any given time. Brain scans can detect blood flowing to one area over another depending on which is being used: If you’re having calm, rational thoughts, more blood flows to the frontal lobe—the Human area. If you’re having emotional, distressed thoughts, more blood flows to the limbic lobe—the Chimp area. 

The Chimp and the Human operate with different thought patterns, agendas (goals), and laws. We’ll explore each of these differences below.

Your Inner Chimp

The Chimp makes decisions emotionally, basing thoughts on assumptions and hunches. This can be either good or bad: Sometimes, your “gut feeling” is accurate and perceives something subtle that your rational mind misses. Other times, gut feelings are based on overly negative, defensive, or paranoid thoughts, and can direct you wrongly. This is the paradox: The Chimp’s emotional nature can be sometimes helpful and sometimes harmful. Understanding how your Chimp thinks and operates will allow you to harness its emotional drives when they can benefit you, while limiting the harm they can cause when they turn negative. 

Your Inner Human

In contrast, your inner Human makes decisions rationally, basing thoughts on facts and logic. The Human’s main job is to balance the Chimp’s emotional instincts with sensible ones. 

The importance of the Human part of the brain (the frontal lobe) is evidenced by what happens when it stops working properly. People who have suffered injuries to their frontal lobes lose the ability to regulate their emotional impulses. A famous example of this was Phineas Gage, a railroad employee in the late 19th century who survived an explosion that thrust an iron rod through his eye and out the top of his skull, destroying his frontal lobe but leaving him otherwise functional. After the injury, his personality completely changed; while he had once been careful, responsible, and thoughtful, he instead turned foul-mouthed, impulsive, and aggressive. 

Managing Your Inner Chimp 

Managing your Planet 1—your psychological mind—means reconciling the conflicting thinking, agendas, and laws of the Chimp and the Human in each of us. In general, your goal is to allow your Human to drive your actions, not your Chimp, because you’re less likely to behave in positive, productive ways when your Chimp is in control. Your Human thinks about the future, deciding on actions that will ensure that later, you’ll be happy with how you used your time. In contrast, your Chimp functions in the here-and-now, deciding actions based on how it feels in the moment. 

You can’t change your Chimp’s nature (its instincts or drives), but you can manage them. Your Chimp is your responsibility as much as your dog would be your responsibility: If your dog attacks someone, you can’t simply shrug and say, “It was the dog, what can I do?” In the same way, you can’t can’t use your Chimp as an excuse to justify your own poor behavior—for example, you can’t snap at someone and then simply say, “It was my instinct, no big deal.”

It takes time and practice to get good at managing your Chimp. To start, follow these three steps:

  • Step 1: Recognize when your Chimp is taking over.
  • Step 2: Understand how your Chimp works.
  • Step 3: Work with your Chimp to prevent outbursts.

Step 1: Recognize When Your Inner Chimp Is Taking Over

When you have an immediate emotional reaction, you can recognize it as your Chimp by asking yourself if you want to feel this way. For example:

  • If you’re worrying about something, ask, “Do I want to feel anxious?”
  • If something upsets you, ask, “Do I want to feel angry?”
  • If you can’t motivate yourself to do something you know you need to do (such as catch up on a work project or organize your basement), ask, “Do I want to feel apathetic?”

If you answer “no” to these questions, then your Chimp is in control of your emotions. 

Step 2: Understand How the Inner Chimp Works

You can’t get control of your Chimp unless you fully understand how your Chimp operates and why it’s so difficult to ignore. Your Chimp’s urges are hard to resist because of two primary reasons:

1. The Chimp’s reactions are more immediate: When our brains process information, messages go first to the Chimp, not the Human, to determine the threat level. If the Chimp decides there’s no danger, the message gets passed to the Human. But if the Chimp detects danger—or desire—it reacts immediately. This is why your emotions are often triggered before you’ve had a chance to fully assess a situation.

Once your Chimp logs an emotional response, it decides on a course of action and then looks to your Human for confirmation. This is why people typically make decisions emotionally and then justify those decisions rationally: For example, you might decide to eat a cookie at lunchtime because you want to, and you’ll justify it with excuses like, “It’s only one,” or “I didn’t eat any cookies yesterday.” 

You can gain control of your Chimp by recognizing that when it decides on a course of action, it’s merely making a suggestion, not a command. So, when your Chimp wants that cookie, and asks your Human for permission to eat it, your Human does not have to say yes. 

2. The Chimp’s reactions are more powerful: In nature, a chimpanzee is about five times as strong as a person. The inner Chimp is similarly five times as strong as your inner Human. The emotional reactions of the Chimp are therefore harder to ignore and control.

Because your Chimp is so much stronger than your Human, you can’t control it by confronting it head-on in a battle of wills. Your Chimp’s desires will simply override your Human’s willpower. For example, you may have willpower in the morning to eat healthy all day, but by lunchtime, when faced with a snack, your Chimp will ignore that morning resolution, and will compel you to give in to the temptation. 

To resist your Chimp’s power, you’ll need a plan that works with its nature but still allows your Human to drive your actions, which brings us to Step 3:

Step 3: Work With Your Inner Chimp

To control your Chimp, you must recognize that its instincts and drives will always be there. If you try to simply ignore them, they will inevitably pop up and take control of you—for example, telling yourself before bedtime that you’ll get up early and exercise won’t prevent your desire for extra sleep from rearing up when morning comes around. And if you don’t have a pre-planned method for dealing with that desire when it arrives, it will drive your actions. 

Preventive: Indulge Your Chimp’s Drives

You can get control of many Chimp drives by acknowledging its drive and meeting its needs in appropriate and harmless ways. For example, you could: 

  • Release aggression: If you have an aggressive Chimp, finding an outlet for that aggression, such as participating in sports or banging on drums, can satisfy those urges. 
  • Establish boundaries: Defining your territory will help your Chimp feel relaxed, secure, and content. This might mean carving out a physical space for your own belongings at home, or it might mean defining your job responsibilities at work so that your colleagues don’t try to encroach on your role (or unload their responsibilities onto you). 
  • Redirect: Sometimes you can fulfill your drive with something that’s similar to the drive’s true desire. For example, sometimes people who have strong maternal drives but don’t have children will work in fields that allow them to care for other people, like teaching.   
Reactive: Exercise Your Chimp

By indulging your Chimp’s drives in small and socially appropriate ways, you can often keep those drives in check. However, at times, your Chimp will inevitably assert itself: Something will happen that will upset you, unnerve you, or stress you, and your Chimp will awaken.

To stop your Chimp from gaining control of your brain when it does assert itself, you can use three techniques:

1. Listen to your Chimp: Allow your Chimp to “exercise itself” by expressing its emotions. When your Chimp vents its feelings, it typically calms down. Therefore, allow your Chimp to get its feelings off its chest—to say whatever it feels, even if those feelings are irrational. Most Chimps only need about 10 minutes of an outburst and will then feel calmer and more in control. If the process might take longer, or your Chimp needs more than one exercise, allow as much time as your Chimp needs.

Of course, you must be sure that you vent in this way in an appropriate setting. Vent to someone you trust, who will understand that your feelings are coming from your Chimp and won’t punish you for them later. You may even feel more comfortable writing down your thoughts instead of voicing them to someone.

Once your Chimp has gotten all its thoughts and feelings out, it can take a rest and your Human can take over. At this point, let your Human examine the things that your Chimp has brought to light. It’s very likely that many of your Chimp’s complaints are irrational, but some may be legitimate problems that your Human needs to address.

2. Talk to your Chimp: Once you’ve allowed your Chimp to talk, it’s your turn. Address your Chimp’s complaints so that you can put them to bed and “box up” your Chimp, constraining it safely away. Reason with your Chimp: Explain why you should act a different way than it wants to act. Don’t try to dismiss or ignore your Chimp’s objections; agree with your Chimp when it has legitimate points. However, explain other facts and logic that it will have no choice but to agree to.

For example, maybe someone cut you off on the road and your Chimp was activated. Agree with your Chimp that the other driver was obnoxious and drove dangerously, but point out that there’s nothing to be gained by driving poorly in response—tailgating the other car or cutting her off in return won’t solve anything and will only put both of your lives in danger. Since your Chimp can’t argue with this logic, it will usually calm down. 

3. Distract or reward your Chimp: Another method of managing your Chimp is to “offer it bananas.” that is, offer it something it will want and that you can use either as a distraction or as a reward.

An example of a distraction would be reading a book while you’re waiting for someone, or listening to music while you’re doing an unpleasant task like folding laundry.

An example of a reward would be a promise of something pleasant after you’ve done an unpleasant task—like having a second cup of coffee after you’ve responded to five work emails. Additionally, praise or recognition from other people can be powerful rewards: For example, if you’ve been putting off cleaning up your basement, you might invite some friends over to hang out in your newly organized basement, which will propel you to get the task done in anticipation of their praise.

Your Inner Chimp (and How to Manage It)

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Steve Peters's "The Chimp Paradox" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Chimp Paradox summary:

  • Why we struggle to control our urges, succumb to temptation, and sabotage our own success
  • How to manage your inner chimp to become happier, more balanced, and successful
  • Why your psychological world is like a solar system with 7 planets

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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