Imagine a modern politician on a podium, giving a keynote speech. Look very hard. Now picture coarse hair starting to grow all over his or her (more likely his) body. His arms get longer. His forehead starts to slope backwards. His speech reverts to grunts and screeches.

He has become a chimpanzee.

Now look at the audience. They are also turning into chimps. But they are still enthralled. Through posture and vocal tone, the speaker chimp is commanding their attention and a high level of excitement and interest. If he wanted to, he could get them so excited that they would start a riot, or even a war with another tribe of chimps.

“But we’re not chimps!” I hear you cry. “We’re modern, sophisticated humans!”

Well … we’re not exactly chimps, but we’re descended from proto-chimps. Chimpanzees are our nearest relatives. The fossil record show that there was an earlier type of ape whose lineage split into chimps, bonobos and humans about 6 million years ago. We share an astonishing 96% of our DNA with chimps.

So it’s not unreasonable to assume that there will be aspects of human behaviour that parallel the drives and instincts of chimps and our other primate forebears.

In his ground-breaking book ‘The Chimp Paradox’, psychiatrist Professor Steve Peters explains our chimp legacy by asking us to imagine that we each have three brains – the Chimp (childish, selfish and emotional) the Human (rational and responsible) and the Computer (storage of thoughts, behaviours and information). Peace of mind and happiness rely on the Human brain asserting its control over the other two.

Now I’m taking the chimp metaphor even further.

I argue that our modern communication problems, including fake news, hate speech, lack of respect for truth and prioritising the trivial over the important, all stem, first of all, from our failure to take proper account of the chimp inside us.

I also contend that some of the blame attaches to two groups of modern professionals that service the Alpha Chimp market – journalists (hacks) and reputation managers (the people who create and maintain heroes).

Quick disclaimer: I’m really not attacking all journalists or all speechwriters or reputation managers, as I know and respect the good guys out there. And I’ve been a journalist, a speechwriter and a media trainer.

Hold the front page! The lowdown on hacks…

Journalists make a living doing something that humans have always done for free – gossiping about each other.

Evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar of Oxford University believes that one of the first uses of language was – gossip.

It was originally a primitive method of surveillance. Primates have always lived in groups for safety, and stray individuals would occasionally turn up wanting to join. But the group is vulnerable. Does the newcomer want to kill us? Eat all our food? Steal our mates? So it was important to check newcomers out, and the obvious way to do it was to talk about them behind their back.

Besides, it’s fascinating to keep up with what our friends and neighbours are doing…

Once printing was invented, it was only a matter of time (well, about 200 years, actually…) before newspapers came along. They appealed to the same appetite for tittle tattle as campfire gossip, with a bizarre mix of international sensational accounts of magic, public executions and disasters. And the people who wrote this stuff became a profession – journalism.

My introduction to this noble calling was a local paper in suburban London, the Waltham Forest Guardian. And I soon got confused about what is, and what is not, a story, in the eyes of newspaper editors.

To help me decide which sets of facts were stories, I developed an acronym for the ingredients of news, which I use to this day. I call it the CHORTLE formula – Conflict, Human, Odd, Relevant, Topical, Local, Engaging. To count as a news story, I reckon any set of facts needs to have at least three of these.

And if the ‘story’ is being cooked up for malicious or propaganda purposes, you can use CHORTLE to deconstruct it.

Hail to the hero!

Back to the group of early humans sitting by their campfire. They almost certainly had a chief. He and his warriors went out hunting one day, managed to kill a deer and came back feeling very pleased with themselves. “Didn’t I do well?” says the chief to the campfire diners. “You did great, sire!” says one of the warriors. “You were better than great!” says another warrior. “You hunted like a God!”

And that was the beginning of that other great motivator of human storytelling – flattery.

Which eventually led to The Arts and Religion.

How it worked was that the chief and the warriors had witnessed the hunt and no one else had. So they could add a little colour. Outdo each other in bigging up the achievement of the chief. “You fought off a lion, sire!” “You climbed a mighty mountain!” “You tracked the beast o’er hill and dale!” “You fought the mighty creature to a standstill!”

They’re all buzzing with the thrill of a successful day’s chase, so they sing a little song. They dance a little dance. They feel the collective joy of the group, and it seems as if a divinity is protecting them. So they say a little prayer.

Over time, as the chiefs get richer and more powerful, they hire people just to do the artistic flattery. Particularly brave or noteworthy hunts get immortalised in words that can be repeated. To make them easier to remember, they make some of them rhyme. They put some of them to music. They play different roles, pretending to be different people so that they can live again the wonderful day when the chief vanquished the beast.

Then hey presto, we have writers, actors, musicians, dancers, directors, choreographers, set designers …

Meanwhile chiefs still need to present with impact, so they hire specialists from that subset of the arts that manages reputations – scriptwriters, speaker coaches, media trainers, publicists – to convince a world of chimps that they really are the boss chimp.

How to detect the truth

It’s a tall order, taking on the armies of people from multiple industries who have been pressed into service to convince you that certain facts are true and others false – and that certain people are credible and others not.

But here are some quick tips, based on these insights into chimps, hacks and heroes, that may help you avoid today’s thickets of pitchforks and flaming torches and reach the truth.

Think about how you feel right now. If you feel tense, angry, stressed or otherwise emotional, try and calm yourself before you make an important decision or judge a piece of communication. Decisions are often made for emotional ‘chimp’ reasons and then justified afterwards with logic.

If this is a video or TV report of a speech, is the speaker angry? If it’s a persuasive speaker, the speech is likely to make you angry too. Chimps communicate through emotion. Humans through reason and logic. Analyse the words used, not the way they’re said.

If it’s a text-based news article, does it contain aggressive words? Using fighting words is an old newspaper trick to pep up a dull article. Ignore the aggressive language and think about the content.

If this information were written down, would it still persuade me? Video is more persuasive than audio or still images or text alone. But just think about the meaning.

Does this communication speak badly of any group of people? Or any individual? When people run out of valid arguments against something, they attack their opponent personally. Ignore this. Bear in mind that a person you generally like and agree with can come up with something you dislike or disagree with. And listen carefully to people you generally oppose, because they might some up with something that makes sense.

Check your facts. When the rhetoric turns nasty, you need to be sure of your facts. Ask yourself the key question ‘who says?’ That will make you look for the source of any allegation. A list of fact-checking websites in all parts of the world is held on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fact-checking_websites

Is the conflict genuine? Journalists love conflict, as they know people are drawn to it. But sometimes a polite difference of opinion is presented as a major row. Read between the lines.

Who does it affect? Ask yourself how important the story is. How many people does it affect? How? Is it worthy of my attention?

 Stop liking and sharing! Liking and sharing encourages mental laziness. A liked or shared post may contain all kinds of untruths, half-truths, unsubstantiated assertions. It may be old and recycled. A picture may not be genuine. It may not be of the event it describes, or it may have been photoshopped.