Educational leadership & learning

Dr Steve Peters: The Chimp Paradox

Hampshire Primary Headteacher Conference 2014

Myself and colleagues had an inspiring morning session listening to Steve talk about the human brain. Below are some snippets from his presentation. I know that they do not compare favourably to the privilege of hearing him speak, but if you haven’t had the opportunity you may find this summary useful. If not blame your chimp!

If you want to watch him in action I can recommend the following links:

  • Start by thinking about who you want to be as a person. You have this choice – but do you have the emotional skills
  • Optimal performance: how much do your emotions / thinking / behaviours prevent you from optimal performance?
  • Elite athletes spend hours every day training their bodies for specific disciplines. How much time do they spend training their minds? How much time do we?

Steve talked about a triangle of change, and that you needed all three points for success

  1. Suffering or reward is required
  2. Psychological mindfulness is required, i.e accepting that difficulties and barriers are in your mind and taking self-responsibility for managing it
  3. Commitment is required

Steve then briefly explained a lot of complicated science with long technical words about some of the different parts of the human brain. This is why he has created the ‘Chimp Model’ to explain it – because it is much simpler and makes sense. It may not always sound like real science – but it is absolutely based on it.

Essentially there are three key Leaders or Operators in our brains: You, your Inner Chimp and the Computer.


Consciously aware and deals with facts, truth and logical thinking.

Inner Chimp

Not under your control. Very powerful and reacts quicker than the You part of your brain. Deals with feelings, impressions, and emotional thinking. It is neurotic, it is a machine – but it is not actually you. It doesn’t see perspective or reason. You cannot control it but you have a responsibility to manage it


Passive and will run the mind if both You and the Inner Chimp stop. It is an automatic machine which you can programme and works faster than the Chimp

  • We are not responsible for the nature of our Chimp (it is nature and has a powerful impact), but we have a responsibility to manage it
  • The Chimp is not the enemy. It is not wrong. It certain situations it can be useful i.e. when you are in danger). Chimps can be astute – they can assess feelings and levels of honesty
  • Experience is our guide, so we need to start from past experiences. Use these experiences to programme your computer. When you Chimp is about to be released it will check with the computer and if the computer can suggest an appropriate response the Chimp can be managed.
  • Chimps run out of energy usually within 7 minutes. So if you can ‘exercise and exhaust your Chimp’ by sharing emotions and expressing feelings, you can then ‘turn your computer on’ when the Chimp is exhausted.
  • The Computer is not perfect though. It predicts events and situations but not always accurately. It filters and interprets information to give us faulty or biased memories, and then can hold onto these incorrect memories

Steve then left us as school leaders with some final questions:

  • What do we want for others?
  • What do we want from others?
  • What are we looking for, and how much is based on our values and assumptions?

It was a fascinating and inspiring presentation which genuinely made me think and reflect about myself as a person and a school leader. The ‘sting in the tail’ he quite rightly left us with (with a twinkle in his eye) was:

“You may not agree with me, but you’ve been doing this for one morning whereas I’ve been doing it for 30 years. So who do you think might be right?”

My strongest recommendation though would be to read Steve’s book.


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