I have recently been struck by the number of books in a relatively new genre, the latest of which is is The Chimp Paradox, written by Dr Steve Peters, the psychologist behind the British Olympic Cycling Team, the Sky cycling team, and Liverpool FC.
Peters describes the human brain as having two competing systems. First, the limbic system, which Dr Peters calls it your ‘chimp’, (a primal system which serves to keep you alive and away from the bottom of the food chain), and second the frontal lobe where many thinking and decision making functions have their origin (the ‘human’ in Peters’ lexicon). The chimp and the human brain vie for supremacy in each of our skulls.
This is what nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls ‘system 1’ and ‘system 2’ in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is at the end of a remarkable career as a behavioural psychologist investigating human behaviour and the unconscious influences on it - often coming from the chimp, or ‘system 1’ brain.
Kahneman and Peters concede that both parts of our brain are useful, but Malcolm Gladwell, another of the authors in this area, points out in Blink, ‘system 1’ is what enables a firefighter to use all their experience to say ‘this fire just doesn’t feel right’ and pull all their firemen out of a building before it collapses. ‘System 1’ is what we use when we meet someone when we are trying to decide whether to trust them, and helps us to make accurate quick judgements of character.
Sometimes, of course, we use the ‘chimp’/’system 1’ when it isn’t useful: when we explode with anger about something trivial, when we react emotionally and disproportionately, when we lack perspective. This might be because someone has invaded our animal territory, and we are actually trying to defend it. Because ‘system 1’ is instinctive, we can also use it sometimes without realising it.
One of Kahneman’s experiments relates to a workplace honesty box for donations towards the cost of coffee, tea and other refreshments. He found that a poster of a human face looking directly out of the picture were put in the room, people would put more in the honesty box. This is ‘system 1’, or our ‘chimp’, making people instinctively do something which is actually irrational.
A key part of our learning as people as we get older is which system to use for which decision. For example which is better for choosing a university: ‘system 1’ - the ‘chimp’ - which goes on feel and intuition, or ‘system 2’, which analyses all the costs and benefits of different courses and different locations. Which might be better if we are deciding whether or not to buy a pair of shoes? Which might be better in deciding whether or not to go out with a boyfriend or girlfriend?
You can use both the ‘chimp’ and the ‘human’, ‘system 1’ and ‘system 2’, to make a decision too.
Perhaps education should involve more opportunity to reflect on these issues, so that experience of decision making can be used to improve young people’s capacities in these areas.