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On clams and chimps

I would really like to read a blog post about what you were like before you saw the chimp coloured light. Were you always the cool clam customer you are now or did you actually change? Also, if you did change, what caused you to change? – Russ Mayne

Everything is changing and nothing ever stays the same: truth #1, Russ! What was I like before? The past is a fiction: truth #2. The self that we think we know is an illusion. Its memories, its opinions, its needs and wants are nothing more than products of the mind. They are not real; they are not reliable; they are not me: truth #3.

Your questions are hard to answer, young Skywalker. But I will try…

Before the Simian Sun rose, there was a man. The man went through his life with relatively few hardships. From time to time there would be a flare up at home, frustration at work, digital gestures from within the confines of a car. The usual stuff. But the man was generally unharmed by this: he knew that people were strange and that some folk were just downright unpleasant. He spent next to no time plotting the downfall of his enemies and only saved up thoughts of torture and degradation for those who really deserved it.

Some people, though, utterly perplexed the man. They tended to fall under the category of Evil Arsewipes. They ate away at his confidence and they fuelled the Forces of Paranoia that amassed when they heard the trumpets of discord begin to sound. Sometimes these people would take him to task on the internetular web pages. They would scoff at his words of wisdom; ascribe foul, nefarious motives to his contributions to online debates ; belittle him; abuse him. Sometimes they would take him to task at work. They would challenge him; dispute heatedly with him; defecate over his calm and measured responses; and build a network of opposition to him. Sometimes they might even attack him through the telephone. They would work for utilities companies and would adopt an unhelpful, destructive tone with him. They would confound his simple requests. They would enjoin with most knavish tricks to deny him his rights. In short, our man had to deal with the usual griefs that come along in  life.

And like most people (Fogarty, 2015), our man was sure that these things were being done to him, against him and he quite simply couldn’t work out what he had done to deserve this (Boys, Petshop and Springfield, D., 1987). Of course, all of the evidence piling up was beginning to suggest that it may have been because some people are just bastards. But our man, like you, was a scientist. He didn’t wanted to look for confirmatory evidence; he wanted disconfirming evidence. Unfortunately for him, it was all around. People generally seemed quite pleasant. The people who were treating him mean had also once treated him well. Reason suggested that the Evil F-Faces on the other end of the telephone probably had nothing personal against him. One particular individual who appeared from time to time to make his life more miserable than could ever be imagined was the same individual who had contracted (legally, no less) to live with him from here unto eternity and meanwhile, all that she had, she would share with him and all that she was, she would give unto him.

Faced with conundrums (conundra???) like these, our man did what any self-respected man would do: he turned to the booze…SHIT….NO….he turned to the books. The first book he picked up may, or may not, have been The Self Illusion: Why there is no you inside your head. Actually, a quick review of his Amazon account reveals that this was indeed the first book he read that set him on the road to Damascus. Take that, Truth #3!!! Anyway, this book introduced him to a body of science that suggested that the mind was a slippy little mo’farah which could not be trusted to show you the world as she truly is. This is where our man began to discover, Horatio, that there were more cognitive biases in heaven and hell than in all his philosophy. The curtain began to twitch.

On 8 Jan 2013, our man began to read the scholarly Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me). Once again, cognitive biases and their influence were discussed: in particular, confirmation bias and dissonance theory. The mention of dissonance theory began to result in synaptic orgies. Dendrites and axons were hooking up with more vigour than they had done since the 60s. There was clearly going to be a cognitive baby boom sometime soon. Here we had a theory that explained how people put themselves at the centre of their narrative and distorted all facts to reinforce this fiction. [This explains why I felt, on Sunday 15 April, that IATEFL was all about me]. Other books read in 2013 (bloody dissonance theory…other books bought in 2013…) included Pieces of LightThe Logic of Scientific Discovery, Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour and Making Habits, Breaking Habits). But the next really big shift was the reading of The Invisible Gorilla: a look at how even our eyes deceive us.

There were other books…but Our Man is using his kindle here as a source of memory. The effect was the same: our man was beginning to realise that the brain was a highly ineffective machine, if effective meant “able to let us see the world as it is”. Somewhere either before, during or after all of this, our man began to formulate the theory that we were nothing more than big hairless apes with only a rudimentary understanding of the world. Said he to himself, “the so-called blessing of our intellectual prowess may be no more than a curse that has rent us from seeing the world as it really is.” He may have added the odd “Verily” in there as well.

Perhaps it was the combination of apes, gorillas, cognitive biases, etc that made our man pick up the book he had disregarded for so long at the train station bookshop; perhaps the book had been referenced elsewhere in his reading. Whatever the reason, it seems that by August 2013, The Chimp Paradox had been read and liked so much that our man had bought a kindle copy of it to highlight like crazy.

Life certainly seems to have changed since then.

At the time of reading, our man was really struggling. There were things unfolding that seemed to be never-ending: attack after attack after attack; complaint after complaint after complaint. Our man was on the ropes. His exploration of what made people so damned crazy was offering a narrative, but it wasn’t helping the pain. It provided an explanation of what was going on (people are mad, you may be reading more into things than there actually is), but it wasn’t telling him how to feel better. If we drop the facetiousness for a little bit, our man was really struggling to come to terms with what was happening at work. He felt vulnerable, confused, ashamed…hell, pretty much any negative adjective that you might wish to append. He read The Chimp Paradox within a week. Then started reading it again.

Now, the question is if I actually changed…and, leaving aside Truths 1-5, it should be clear that I really can’t be the one to answer that question. I think I changed. For whatever it’s worth, my wife thinks I changed. But I think I can say with some degree of scientific credibility that something changed. What was it? A good question…and one that I have given much thought to. After all, by this stage of my reading, the Chimp model wasn’t really explaining anything mind-blowingly new to me; but it stuck. Where I had found some intellectual solace in the other books, there was something about this mind model that provided me with a very strong explanatory force and this was hugely helpful to me. So, having read the book, what changed?

Firstly, I have a way of understanding others’ behaviour that prior to reading I had really struggled to come to grips with. It isn’t personal any more: they have their chimps and their chimps are in charge. There is a clear cut distinction between who they are and who their chimps are. Both they and me suffer because of the poor reasoning of their chimps (and mine).

Secondly, I know better now than to try to reason with their chimps. Previously, when faced with somebody whose view of events was markedly different to how I saw things, I would fall back on reason, logic and Socratic thinking to ascertain a clearer picture of reality (i.e. to prove that I was right and they were wrong). Now I know that this is just like kicking them in their gorilla gonads. You don’t try to reason with a chimp. Let it go off on one and give it licence to say what it has to say. Once it’s tired, it can go back in the box and you can try and communicate with the human.

Thirdly, I found some useful gems of advice in the book: if you want to build bridges with somebody, it is you that has to build the bridge (after all, it is you who wants to build the damn thing). CHECK! Some people are going to hate you no matter what you do; some people are going to love you no matter what you do. CHECK! There is no rule that justice and fairness are the forces that govern the world and it is naive in the extreme to expect anything different. CHECK! Sometimes achieving peace and happiness in your life requires you to accept a situation that wouldn’t normally be your first choice. CHECK!

Fourthly, I found an explanation for my own errant behaviour. Sometimes (I can hear my wife snorting with derision) I can be absolutely unbearable. Typically, this is in the evening. I am grouchy to the point of the Marx Brothers; I am irrational, demanding, irritable etc. Whereas before I would have used dissonance theory to help me explain why I had every right to be that way, these days I am just aware of the fact that my chimp is more likely to turn up when I’m feeling tired. This removes the need to see others as Big Hindrances and removes the cognitive strain of always having to find justification for behaving like a toad.

Fifthly, I now understand (and I hope that you’re not asleep down there at the back!!!) that the way to reduce chimp attacks is to look after your chimp. PAY ATTENTION…THIS WILL BE IN THE TEST! This realisation came late in the day. I must have read and raved about the book for some time before it actually clicked. The point is to go beyond understanding why some people can be utter arsewipes from time to time. The point is to go beyond realising that the chimp does this and the chimp does that. The hero of the story is not the mischievous little monkey, nor the ponderous rational human. The real hero of The Chimp Paradox is the computer. It needs time and devotion because if it is fully updated and running the latest software, it will keep the chimp a-slumber for most of the time and will be well-placed to calm thing down quickly on those occasions when monkey mayhem ensues.

Some people say how they read the book and it made sense to them and then a few weeks later they lost it. This, they say, is proof that it is just the same as all of the other self-help books out there. But this is to miss this last and most crucial point. Looking after the chimp is a daily task. If you aren’t prepared to engage in it, then don’t be surprised to find that it fails you. A quick daily journal that helps you spot any underlying goblins and gremlins; a daily review of the Stone of Life; these two behaviours (which probably require 10-15 minutes of time per day) are the two most powerful behaviours for keeping the chimp in a good place.

So, am I the cool clam customer that I appear to be? I doubt it. I think anybody who knows me reasonably well will testify (on oath if necessary) that I am still prone to emotional judgements, rabid bombast, irritation, irrational demands etc. I am judgemental, short-tempered, opinionated and arrogant. Or at least, part of me is. The difference between Me Then and Me Now is the explanation I can give to rationalise this Dark Side and the behaviour that I use to try to minimise its effect in my life (and the lives of others).

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