Don’t let your Chimp take charge of your money

Don’t let your Chimp take charge of your money

Right now in the UK there’s a frenzy of drivers queuing for fuel. Whilst there’s no actual shortage of fuel – just a shortage of HGV drivers to transport it to petrol stations – people are responding emotionally to the Government telling us don’t panic buy” and the contrasting media coverage of queues at forecourts. This has inflamed the situation and we’re seeing similar results to the lockdown stockpiling of March 2020.

The emotional reaction of many people to this situation makes me think of The Chimp Paradox”, a concept created by Professor Steve Peters in his bestselling book of the same name. The concept aims to simplify complex neuroscience (the activity of different parts of the brain) into a framework that’s easy to grasp. I frequently use The Chimp Paradox when I coach people on their decisions around spending, saving and investing.

To explain the concept of The Chimp Paradox, firstly, think of your brain divided into three separate components: 

  1. Human 
  2. Chimp
  3. Computer

These three components actually correspond to three different areas of the brain:

  1. Frontal lobe = Human
  2. Limbic system = Chimp
  3. Parietal lobe = Computer

It’s much more useful just to think Human – Chimp – Computer instead of understanding brain anatomy and function!

  • Your Human is logical and rational: it knows what to do for the best when decision-making and it knows how we want to be functioning.

  • Your Chimp is the mischievous and emotional part of us: it’s an independent, emotional thinking machine but can hijack commonsense. It often makes decisions that don’t serve you – it’s not good or bad, it’s just your Chimp!

  • Your Computer runs the programs in your mind and stores everything: it’s like your body’s autopilot, for example, taking control of your breathing or riding a bike. It’s continually programmed with experience after experience, creating new pathways. It’s the reference point for both Human and Chimp.

The next step is understanding the relative power of these three components in your brain:

  • The Chimp is five times stronger than the Human
  • The Computer is 20 times stronger than the Human

Your Chimp is far more powerful than your Human, which explains why making changes or the ‘right’ decisions can be fraught with failure. Using willpower alone is like arm wrestling a Chimp that’s five times stronger than you. It also means we have to be very careful about what programs we’re running in our super-powerful Computers!

Let’s just say you (or your Human) decides to take control of your spending and says to itself “I’m going to pay more of my debt this month and not buy things i don't need.” But then you discover your favourite online shop has a sale on. Your Chimp starts twitching with excitement, convincing you that the sale has items you need. Whilst your Human tries to resist the temptation, your Chimp steers you to the online shop, just for a look. “Go on - buy it!” squeals your Chimp, whilst drawing upon Computer memories such as: “You always feel more confident with new clothes"; " You deserve a treat after the week you've had!”. Your Chimp craves immediate gratification, but isn’t necessarily aligned with your values or long term goals.

So what can your Human do? There's no escaping your Chimp: everyone has one and they’re extremely strong-willed. The key to success, suggests Professor Peters, is learning strategies to manage your Chimp:

1.  Exercise your Chimp, then box it in:

  • Exercising your Chimp means expressing your emotions, but in a managed way. If something feels unfair, for example, your partner is making financial decisions that make you feel unsafe, the worst thing to do is to communicate from that place of emotion.
  • Exercise your Chimp first: go for a run; talk to a trusted friend; rant as much as you want in a private journal. Afterwards, box-in your Chimp so your Human can take control of communication.
  • Failing to exercise your Chimp will just keep it raging and, if you let your Chimp take control of communication, it can wreak havoc!

2.  Distract your Chimp, or feed it a banana:

  • You can apply immediate solutions to help control your Chimp’s impulsive behaviour.
  • One of my clients who struggles to control her online shopping keeps a “I really need it” list beside her computer. If she’s browsing online and her Chimp starts to take control, she refers to her list. Her Chimp gets to satisfy its urge and she buys something she actually needs.
  • Another useful online shopping strategy is to delay your purchases until the next day by leaving the items in your online basket overnight. This can often result in the retailer offering you a discount to complete the purchase, or you may not even feel the need to checkout.

3.  Learn to nurture your Chimp:

  • Understanding the triggers for unhelpful behaviours lets us discover what emotional need your trying to meet? Then you can find other ways to nurture your Chimp!
  • Instead of making an impulsive purchase as a way of regulating your emotion, find alternative strategies.
  • Another client of mine recognises her overspending triggers include: anger, distress and the sinking feeling of becoming overwhelmed. Shopping allows her to come up for air and gives her space to escape from herself and others. Talking this through, we rehearsed some new strategies she now adopts when her Chimp is poised to take over:
    • 7:11 breathing
    • lighting scented candles and sink into a tub or reading a book
    • getting curious about the feeling instead of tryng to numb it
    • reaching out to a close friend to vent
    • focusing on the picture on her wall representing her desired new reality

Likewise, we need to take control of how we’re programming our Computers and what references our behaviour and decisions are based upon. Some people I talk to who run their own businesses keep wondering why they’re always charging too little; why they never seem able to have any money despite significantly increasing income; why they repeat patterns of poor behaviour over and over again. In this situation, it’s a case of reprogramming your Computer.

Professor Peters talks about ‘Goblins and Gremlins’, embedded deep in our Computer programs, which I refer to as ‘self-limiting beliefs’. For instance, one client told me that "Money was scarce as I was growing up. Now I've got it, I want to be able to spend it". These can be like glass walls which we often don’t know exist until we bump into them – even then, we can choose to ignore them. The programs are so ingrained that they can feel an immutable part of self “That’s just how I am!”. We often don’t see it as a belief so any attempt to change will be doomed. The question you need to ask yourself is: “What programs am I already running?”. If they’re unhelpful to your current life plans, what can you do to change them? We all need to reveal what’s become embedded in our Computers, make an assessment, then make changes if the programs are unhelpful. 

In the same way that we shouldn’t allow our Chimps to take control of our current decisions around buying fuel, we also shouldn’t allow them to control our decisions around spending, saving and investing. If we can train our Chimps and reprogram our Computers, our Human can lead a fulfilling life where our personal finances are completely aligned to our life values and plans.

Like other types of coaching, the Financial Coaching I provide at Wise Monkey is ultimately about understanding yourself better. We can all change: I know this absolutely and categorically from my own lived experience and from hundreds of clients that I’ve worked with over the years. Awareness is the key to getting our Humans, Chimps and Computers working harmoniously. 

So, my advice is train your Chimp, feed it a banana every now and then, and rehearse a new strategy the next time it decides to panic buy!

Related reading

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Ditch New Year's Resolutions - develop good habits instead
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5 Habits of successful savers
Sowing the seeds for financial success

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