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The Chimp Paradox: What UX Can Learn From A Book About Emotional Intelligence

by Aaron Christopher
8 min read
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Exploring themes in the book ‘The Chimp Paradox’ and how they connect to UX.

It was a book that got me through lockdown and was one of the most insightful reads on emotional intelligence. The chimp paradox was steeped in psychology, which allowed me to learn a lot about how the human mind works, but it was only upon reflection that I realised the impact of the book could go beyond the core topic, and could actually improve my approach to UX.

Our mind has 3 main parts

The human mind has 3 parts to it that receive, relay and respond to our surroundings and the information we are given. These are the Chimp, the human and the machine; and each has a differing approach as to how it deals with what is presented to us. The chimp interprets information based on emotional, illogical thinking and will receive it before the human who perceives things more logically and rationally. The human part searches for facts and logic in order to decide how to interpret the information. The final part, the machine, learns from experiences that either the human or chimp has stored and remembered.

The chimp is more powerful than the human

A chimpanzee is five times as strong as a human being. Similarly, your emotional Chimp is five times stronger than you are.” [1] Once you understand this you can start to manage it and the thoughts it feeds you. This is especially important when you also realise it receives the information first, and the way it relays back the interpretations to you are based on jumping to conclusions, and only seeing things in black and white. It provides this information to the human to either accept or reject.

How is this connected to UX? Because you need to be aware that it is very easy to start to draw incorrect conclusions based on emotional interpretations until you take a step back.

We are a pre-programmed computer

As defined in the book, our computer has two functions, the first is ‘to think and act automatically by using programmed thoughts. The second is to act as a reference source for all your beliefs and values’ [2]. It is used as a memory bank to serve as a reference point and is 20x quicker than our chimp. So why is this important? Because a lot of what we do is pre-programmed based on past experiences which are stored by the computer. As a result, we are often in autopilot mode drifting along in a world without friction or where things are done from learned behavior. This also connects to Jakob’s law in part.

How is this connected to UX? In essence the computer is our mental model. Its a place where our experiences are stored so that when we face it again we know how to approach it

What if?

It’s a question that arises from the chimp as it continues to challenge the world around it in order to help its survival. It’s a dangerous question as it often evokes emotions that are negative and result in extreme emotional thinking such as depression or anxiety. What if? is also a question that can be dangerous in the context of UX because it often derives from an idea with no user-centred source or research.

For examples the product team may ask, what if we introduce xxxxx

The truths of life

The book explores a topic that is referred to as the stones of life. They explain it as ‘your ultimate reference point.’ [3] which also has a subdomain of the truths of life. These are ‘how you believe the world works, and you can prove they’re true through examples and experience. You’ve either worked them out or accepted them from somewhere.’ [4] They are, therefore, a set of beliefs or rules that you believe are true as to how life works that you just have to accept.

As an example my truths of life are: life isn’t fair, expect the unexpected, nothing is guaranteed

My equivalent truths of life or ‘truths of UX’ are:

Good UX should be invisible, there is no such thing as a bad user or participant, everyone thinks differently, users are unpredictable

How is this connected to UX? While there are indisputable rules of life, there are also indisputable rules in the world of UX which you can base your work on too

Life force

The book poses the scenario: imagine you are 100 years old and on your deathbed with 1 minute left to live. Your great great grandchild asks; before you die tell me what I should do with my life. The way the question is set up is important for 2 reasons:

  • It puts you in a frame of mind of reflecting on your experience;
  • It makes sure you treat the question with care as it’s introduced a personal element that makes you empathize more.

This is similar to a question I have started to use, in which I ask participants; ‘If you could tell yourself one piece of advice having used this’, or ‘how would you describe this to a friend or family member.’ I do this because it is based on the same principles behind the life force question. Its purpose is to find answers that have genuine thought put into them based on a previous experience.

Finding the gremlins (the truth behind negative emotions)

The book also explores the topic of ‘gremlins’ which they see as destructive negative emotions which are stored in our memory. In order to remove this emotion, the book advises us to think back to a time when we felt an emotion we didn’t want. In order to overcome it we have to understand why and bring in facts to overcome it.

As an example we feel like saying no to people because they will not like us if we say it. The fact is saying no to people won’t change their perception of us.

How is this connected to UX? This is the most closely connected to UX. Its all about understanding what makes something a bad experience and introducing something to improve it

3 ways to empathize with someone better

When meeting people for the first time, it’s very easy to draw conclusions about them based on what you first see. This is not what you should do if you want to understand them and their mindset. Instead, there are 3 approaches to help us understand people better:

  • Do not make assumptions about others
  • Do not have preconceived expectations of others
  • Beware of prejudice

How is this connected to UX? When conducting a user interview, adopt these 3 approaches to better empathise with them

Create facts before forming an opinion

This was summed up perfectly in the book. What we as humans need to do is ‘look for evidence then draw conclusions’ [5], rather than do what the chimp does which is ‘draw conclusions then look for evidence to support them [6]. In other words, chimps suffer from confirmation bias. UX is all about seeing fact from fiction and making sure that the product that is built is based on user-centered designs, not designs based on our own thoughts.

Have reasonable expectations of others

It’s up to you whether you want to try and understand others, but it would ultimately be to your advantage to do so’ [7]. This allows us to have reasonable expectations of others which is vital in order to truly understand their point of view and perspective.

Empathy is one of the most important parts of UX, as it allows us to truly put ourselves in the same frame of mind as the end user. One of the main points of the book that really resonated with me was; ‘if you had a cat you wouldn’t throw sticks for it to fetch and then get frustrated at the cat for not responding’ [8]. This is the same for people who are who they are, and you cannot be frustrated by their thinking and behaving the way they do.

How is this connected to UX? Simply put, everyone thinks differently. Accept it and learn from it and design based on it.

The square of communication

In order to communicate effectively the book teaches us the basis for communicating. To promote effective communication you have the 4 corners of communication of the square which are:

  • Right time
  • Right place
  • Right agenda
  • Right way

at the center of the square and arguably the most important is:

  • Right person

Getting the center of the square (the right person) wrong will mean that ‘you are probably wasting your time’.

How is this connected to UX? Communication is key when trying to land a message

Communicating messages (body language, internations, use of words, ambiance)

We can learn far more about what someone is saying by not just listening to the words they are saying, but by observing their body language, their ambiance (aura), their choice of words, and most importantly their internations which account for 1/3 of the way we communicate. This is made up of the person’s speed, loudness, and emphasis on words.

Eg I enjoy growing carrots vs I enjoy growing carrots vs I enjoy growing carrots

How is this connected to UX? It’s important to take note of more than just what is said, but also how its said.

The 3 sources of stress

The book details how our source of stress derives from 3 things. Their simple rule of thumb is that the origin will be from; ‘your own perceptions and attitudes to the problem, the circumstances and setting to the problem, and 3 other people involved in the problem’ [9]. Similar to UX, once we know the source of the problem (or stress in this circumstance), we can find solutions to alleviate it.

How is this connected to UX? Stress can be an emotion users experience in a product. If it is; we can review whether its come from the users perception (mental model), circumstance (environment), or other people (non-user first product)

I would really encourage anyone to read the chimp paradox, not necessarily to learn about UX but to help manage your mind. Mental health is an extremely personal and important subject to me and this book really does wonders for it!


[1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], Peters, Prof Steve. 2012. The Chimp Paradox

post authorAaron Christopher

Aaron Christopher,

Senior UX Researcher with a passion for integrating psychology to make empathetic digital experiences.

Ideas In Brief
  • The author shares the lessons learned from the famous mind management model called The Chimp Paradox, and how they can be applied in UX.
  • The Chimp Paradox is based on the theory that our brain is divided into three sections that receive, transmit, and react to our environment and information:
    • the chimp;
    • the human;
    • the machine.
  • In the article, the author demonstrates how these ways of perceiving information affect users’ experience and help to improve the approach to UX.

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