Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules: #1) Stand Up Straight with your Shoulders Back


Introduction to the Series

This is the first of a new twelve-part series on Dr Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life. I will assess each rule, one per post, as he presents it in this talk, given at the How To: Academy, London. I acknowledge that it might be better to review the book, rather than his verbal presentation, but I’d rather not buy a copy, since I do not wish to fund him, and if we cannot assess a work from the author talking about it, something is very wrong.

I have made no bones about the fact that I dislike Peterson and am concerned about the influence he has had since his rise to fame in 2016, but I am setting out to give my full attention to his work and to consider if I may have missed good aspects of it, or misunderstood it.

Among those who defend Peterson, the claim is widespread that critics don’t actually listen to what he’s saying (and his fame got a great boost from an interview with Cathy Newman, in which she demonstrated that failing pretty solidly), so I’ll listen closely to what Peterson says. However, there are two caveats:

  1. What we say does not express everything we mean by it, because our words can reasonably be taken to imply other things. “Reasonably” is the operative word: we must, of course, be cautious. We can make wrong assumptions about what people are implying if we don’t check them out. If I said, for example, “We’re in climate crisis. Meat-eating creates vast amounts of CO2. There are over 170 million pet dogs and cats in the USA alone, mostly eating meat,” would I be implying that we should cull all the pets, or think carefully before owning one, tax pet food highly, or develop vegetable subsitutes? I might be implying one or more of these, none, or something else.
  2. Sometimes we give away important things by what we don’t say. Politicians are particularly guilty of failing to answer questions.

We give enormous amounts of information away about our attitudes and beliefs, likes and dislikes, allegiances and diplomatic constraints, beyond the actual words. Audiences can be expected to build a whole heap of associations around an author’s work. So it is unreasonable to expect a critical analysis to focus only on precisely what someone says.

For sake of brevity, I will sometimes paraphrase and summarise, but being careful to represent it as accurately as possible. You’ll know when I’m doing this from the lack of quotation marks and block quotes.

Without further ado, then, here begins the first part…

Rule #1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back

Petersons Lobster

Peterson demonstrates flexion

Biochemistry

Peterson begins by comparing us with lobsters. Lobsters, like humans, he says, regulate their mood with serotonin in correlation with their social status. High serotonin levels, he says, are associated with high status and feelings of confidence, and also with the flexion (extension) of the body, and low serotonin is associated with low status, depression and slumping.

Peterson describes how deliberately standing up straight with your shoulders back sends signals to your brain (and to other people) that you’re confident and competent, which commands respect.

Standing up straight, on the face of it, is good advice, particularly for anyone who is feeling depressed and tending to slump. Indeed, this kind of advice has been given for centuries, long before anyone knew about hormones, and if the benefits of a straight posture can be established by psychological experiment, how this happens is actually irrelevant. It might happen by little wires connecting the muscles to the brain rather than biochemistry.

However, facts are interesting, as Peterson says:

I discovered that Lobsters govern their postural flexion with serotonin, and I thought, ‘God, that’s so interesting!’ – flexion is this, to stand up straight – I thought, “Wow, that’s so interesting, because depressed people crouch over; I wonder if there’s any link between those two things.” So then I read a whole pile of papers on lobsters’ neurochemistry – and lobster’s neurochemistry is actually quite well understood, because they have a fairly simple nervous system, and so, if you want to understand a complex nervous system it’s a good idea to understand a simple one first and then sort of elaborate upwards – and it turns out that serotonin governs status, emotional regulation and posture in lobsters just like it does in human beings, so that just blew me away. So one thing that Chapter One is about is that if a lobster is defeated in a dominance battle, you can give it essentially anti-depressants and it will fight again.

Transcribing the words, however, begins to reveal some questionable lines of logic. It’s true that studying the neurochemistry of simple animals can help us understand more complex ones, but even such “simple” neurochemistry is often involved, and the effects of serotonin in humans are extremely complex and much less well understood than this blunt correlation suggests. Indeed, the Wikipedia article almost immediately relates:

[Serotonin] has a popular image as a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness, though its actual biological function is complex and multifaceted, modulating cognition, reward, learning, memory, and numerous physiological processes.

A “popular image”: indeed, all and sundry in the “content provider” world are telling us how to “increase your serotonin levels”, as though it were a synonym for well-being (which isn’t the case). “Modulating”: yes, and don’t take that as always in a positive direction. Depending on concentration and location, serotonin can have contrary effects. Plants use it in their spines to cause pain, which is also an effect of injecting it, and merely ingesting it causes diarrhoea. High levels of it are associated with several problems including chronic high blood pressure. (That’s so interesting.)

Even Peterson mentions in passing that lobsters have another hormone working antagonistically with serotonin, octopamine, which humans don’t even produce. So to “elaborate upwards” from lobster to human biochemistry is fraught with danger of drawing erroneous conclusions, and certainly is not the same as saying, “serotonin governs status, emotional regulation and posture in lobsters just like it does in human beings.”

Socio-politics

Peterson then runs on to something more political, however:

You can move a lobster in its dominance hierarchy by moderating its levels of serotonin, and I thought that’s so interesting because what it means is that the counter that keeps track of our status – we have a counter, in a sense, in our minds that keeps track of our status – is a third of a billion years old, and what that also means is that the idea of the hierarchy – let’s call it the “dominance hierarchy”, because in lobsters it’s a physical prowess hierarchy – is at least 350 million years old. So I read that and I think, “Well so much for the idea that human hierarchies are a socio-cultural construct!” It’s like, no that’s wrong. it’s not just a little bit wrong, it’s unbelievably wrong, it’s mindbogglingly wrong! [applause]. Yeah, we have a neurochemical system that modulates our understanding of those hierarchies…

Yeah, we do. We have a neurochemical system that modulates our understanding of everything. We are, in fact, neurochemicals and other chemicals. But, okay, facts are interesting.

One fact that’s interesting is where the audience first applauds within this talk, as noted above, when Peterson asserts so forcefully that the age of “dominance hierarchies” indicates that these are not “a socio-cultural construct”. What Peterson is famous for, of course, is not his biochemical hypotheses (and these aren’t his original discoveries, he just read about them and “elaborated”) but his socio-political views, specifically, his vehement criticism of certain kinds of attempt to level or ameliorate the existing human “dominance hierarchies”. It is that political point that the audience has apparently been waiting for, and it is that point that he stresses above all else in this section.

It’s really important to notice this, and it is this that worries me about Peterson. I’m tempted to suggest it is a “bait-and-switch” technique, so prevalent among peddlers of misinformation. The biochemistry (rather than ropes or gears or Descartes’ gossamer threads) is utterly irrelevant, but is stressed as a “really interesting” scientific fact that helps, by shallowly representing it, to support some other point the speaker wishes to make (i.e., anyone who tells you humans made up the idea of our social hierarchies is wrong).

It should not have gone unnoticed by anyone with a modest education, or who’s owned a couple of pet dogs, that the point so emphatically – so “mindbogglingly” – stressed, as if it were a stunning new discovery, was always mindbogglingly obvious: dominance hierarchies are everywhere in the animal kingdom, and we’ve been studying them for decades, if not hundreds of years. It is also common knowledge that evolution builds on ancient biochemistry, sometimes using the same chemicals to mediate similar, but not identical processes.

What appears to have gone down so well with the audience is not scientific elucidation, but a dig at the “postmodern neo-Marxists” that Peterson is such a vocal critic of (whom he’s not mentioned yet, but won’t be long getting to).

I’m not particularly inclined at the moment to research who, if anyone, ever asserted that only humans have dominance hierarchies. Was it “postmodernists” or “neo-Marxists” or some other group or person? Did anyone at all? Does it matter? I am happy enough to accept that Peterson and many of his followers feel strongly that the Western world has been corrupted by such an idea, leading to rampant “identity politics” and “political correctness”. I’ll leave the issue for now, since it is bound to crop up repeatedly, except to say that some of the difficulties around these may simply represent the unforeseen negative effects of a general good, comprising all manner of social improvements made over the centuries. Post-modernism (in the political sense) is about humans waking up from the ubiquitous tribal delusion that they are the best people with the best culture and the most important rights, and everyone unlike them can go hang.

Peterson goes on to relate another “mindboggling idea”:

Where this counter that you share with lobsters rates you in terms of your hierarchical position determines the ratio of negative emotions to positive emotions that you feel,

and he also asserts that this is connected with people’s belief systems. He draws these together by stating that he has a certain status in a hierarchy by being a professor, the validity of which depends on his knowledge, and if someone in the audience challenged him and showed that he’s wrong, he isn’t going to be upset just because he’s wrong, he’s going to be upset because they are challenging the validity of his position in the hierarchy in front of the audience and

by doing that, you mess around with the neurochemical systems that are regulating my emotions, and so, if you’re interested at least in part in why people are so prone to defend themselves and their beliefs in the service of their position, then that’s why. And so that’s a great example of how you can learn these unbelievable things by stumbling across a rather obscure biological fact. It just – what would you say? – it’s like a series of dominos, and that’s why biological facts are so useful. It’s like, we don’t have to argue about whether or not hierarchies are social constructs…

Again, none of this seems “unbelievable” to me, or new, or relevant, since we might – as I said – simply experiment directly to discover whether challenging people’s beliefs has these effects (and, moreover, we would have to anyway, because merely asserting it because chemicals is entirely insufficient to establish these behavioural relationships). Normal scientific process would put it the other way around: first, observation would establish that societies exhibit hierarchies of power or dominance (or competence), and that individuals protect them, or challenge those of others (if these phenomena exist), and then biochemical mechanisms might be sought to explain the observations. At best, what Peterson describes is merely a conjecture.

Peterson’s choice of words suggests to the unwary that discovering these chemical processes in lobsters leads to knowledge that undermines the political position he wants to attack. He appears to be demolishing that political position from hard biochemsitry, when he’s just constructing conjectural links. Now, in passing, he qualifies this:

a given hierarchy is influenced in its structure by its socio-cultural conditioning, let’s say, but the fact of the hierarchy…

Did anyone notice in that little aside three-hundred-million years of species’ physical evolution just being entirely ignored, as well as millions of years of animals’ social evolution, and thousands of years of human social evolution? This is an entirely inadequate summary, suggesting by the omission of quite a lot of relevant facts that we are just lobsters with some “socio-cultural conditioning” overlaid. We’re not. Giving a defeated boxer some anti-depressants tends not to make him get up and fight again, and this fact isn’t merely because of his socio-cultural conditioning. We’re not lobsters that have been indoctrinated by Marxists! So we do, in fact, “have to argue about whether or not hierarchies are social constructs”, if we’re to understand them properly.

And now Peterson ties a line and sinker to his deepity-hook:

so, the part of your brain that detects and regulates your response to hierarchies is older than the part of your brain that recognises trees! Like, it’s old – it’s really, really fundamental!

Man, those Lefties must be real morons, eh? Trees. Wow.

Okay, I’m sure plenty of readers won’t agree that he’s setting all this up for political purposes, or that even if his end-point is political, it’s a valid argument. Let’s continue and see how that goes.

Another little aside:

…and almost all social animals organise themselves in hierarchies, because…

Hmm, “because…”? He doesn’t finish the thought, but goes on to talk about something else. To continue the thought might lead him to acknowledge the point I made earlier. Why not “elaborate upwards” by studying, say, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas or orang-utans (or even rats and mice), since they are all pretty easy to observe and will have hierarchies much more closely related to our own than those of lobsters? Could it be for the sake of impressing us with how old serotonin is? We can study humans, and not “elaborate” at all.

A lot of people study other apes, other primates and other mammals, of course, and discover facts that shed more nuanced and valuable light on human politics. Lobsters don’t spend hours grooming each other, maintaining friendships and alliances. They don’t work cooperatively to solve problems, whereas chimpanzees most certainly do. Why not build our thesis from those relationships rather than the instinctive fighting behaviour of lobsters? If finding old systems is important to him, why not consider how bacteria or viruses operate, and from that assert the correct approach to getting on in society? There are functions of bacteria and viruses that have human analogues. They may not have central nervous systems, but they operate on biochemistry.

Here Come the Marxists!

The reason Peterson leaves the sentence trailing is to talk about a business colleague and former student of his, who told him to stop using the term “dominance hierarchy”, because it was “infested with Marxist presuppositions.” I’ll quote a chunk verbatim, giving a taste of the emphasis too:

We had a discussion about that, and he said, well, it’s predicated on the idea that you climb up the human hierarchy as a consequence of the expression of power. It’s like, that’s wrong: you climb up valid hierarchies as a consequence of the expression of competence. And that’s actually technically right, and he was exactly the right person to tell me that, because he had done his PhD on what predicts success in Western hierarchies, and the answer is quite clear: general cognitive ability […] intelligence, roughly speaking […] And trait conscientious accounts for about 50 per-cent of the variance in long-term success. And you think, “Well hey, how do you want your society to be structured?” It seems pretty good to me that smart, hard-working people are the ones most likely to succeed. That’s not a bad empirical test of the validity of the structure, especially given how much vagary there is in life, you know, lots of random things happen to people in life, but it’s better to be born three standard deviations above the mean in intelligence in the West than it is three standard deviations above the mean in wealth, in relation to where you’ll end up when you’re forty. So, he said to use the word, “competence hierarchy” and we decided that, and I think that’s much better.

It’s a pity I don’t have the source (do let me know if you know it), and he doesn’t even name the person in the talk, but a few things strike me as odd about all this.

First of all, so far, he was happily talking about dominance hierarchies, and describing how lobsters establish their dominance. He mentioned in passing that they fight. Now, all of a sudden, he says he already “decided” along with his colleague not to call them that, but he’s still calling them that.

Secondly, the problem with sociological studies is that they are very equivocal, sometimes pointing one way, sometimes another. They are very sensitive to uncontrolled variables in experimental design. It is very likely that “intelligence” and “conscientiousness” will be factors in predicting future “success”, but I find it hard to believe that wealth does not play a very prominent role too, and many studies can be found to support that view, such as those cited here. I quote:

Research has shown that children of poorer parents display substantially worse math and reading skills by the time they start grade school. Other studies have revealed that these wide gaps in pre-school skills persist into adulthood and help explain low educational attainment and lifetime earnings.

Contrary to Peterson’s assertion, it seems incontrovertible that generations of people remain predominantly in their socio-economic group. Wikipedia states as much on its page, “Socioeconomic mobility in the United States“:

If a parent’s income had no effect on a child’s opportunity for future upward mobility, approximately 20% of poor children who started in the bottom quintile (in the bottom 20% of the US range of incomes) would remain there as poor adults. At the other end of income spectrum, if children were born into wealthy families in the top 20%, only 20% would stay in that top income category if their mobility opportunities were equal to every other child’s in the country.

But long-term income statistics show this isn’t happening. Mobility opportunities are different for poor and wealthy children in the US. Parental incomes and parental choices of home locations while raising children appear to be major factors in that difference.

According to a 2012 Pew Economic Mobility Project study[19] 43% of children born into the bottom quintile remain in that bottom quintile as adults. Similarly, 40% of children raised in the top quintile will remain there as adults.

Peterson bases his position on this study of one of his own students, whose intelligence he flatters to ridiculous excess, which I feel is to push the idea that his findings can be trusted above those contrary ones. I don’t feel I am being unreasonable to suggest that he is cherry picking. One’s birth status – including particularly wealth and location – has an enormous impact on one’s earning potential, not to mention the range of prejudices in job interviews based on sex, race, accent, school type attended, age, and even height.

It’s a Power Hierarchy

Indeed his assertion leads to an interesting irony. The goal his student measured is “success”, which Peterson doesn’t define here – that’s excusable, as this is just a talk, not a book – but here’s the rub: it is reasonable to assume that “success” denotes (approximately) wealth, and wealth is, of course, associated intimately with power – the power to exercise personal freedom, to buy stuff, to influence others, to exercise power over others, to create more wealth, and to invest in one’s future and one’s childrens’ future. Power (the freedom to exercise one’s wishes) is the reason people want (economic) success. But this is what his friend told him was the error in the “Marxist” comprehension of social hierarchies. So his friend was wrong. Wealth and power are the dominance hierarchies of our socio-political structures everywhere. In combination with the relative persistence of economic classes, this also reverses their decision: “dominance” is a better adjective than “competence”. And what better way to begin dominating people around you than to stick out your chest and make yourself bigger like a mad lobster?

Before we leave this idiotic logic, INTELLIGENCE + HARD WORK = WEALTHY FUTURE, we should also note that, like wealth, “intelligence” and “trait conscientiousness” are largely contingent on inheritance – in the latter cases, genetic inheritance. Wikipedia again:

During most of the 20th century, psychologists believed that personality traits could be divided into two categories: temperament and character. Temperament traits were thought to be biologically based, whereas character traits were thought to be learned either during childhood or throughout life. With the advent of the FFM (Five-Factor Model), behavior geneticists began systematic studies of the full range of personality traits, and it soon became clear that all five factors are substantially heritable. Identical twins showed very similar personality traits even when they had been separated at birth and raised apart, and this was equally true for both character traits and temperament traits. Parents and communities influence the ways in which conscientiousness is expressed, but they apparently do not influence its level.[10]

Your ability to work hard, to strive for success, is largely genetic. Intelligence isn’t one of the five factors, and it’s complicated, but it’s thought to be a very strongly heritable characteristic, too. So, the upshot is that none of us has much choice about the major factors that will influence our future wealth, rendering what seems at first sight an incontrovertibly sound social value, meritocracy – reward the best with the best – something more like genetic meritocracy, and the world experimented with that idea already.

One Rule to Bind them All

This brings up the third point I want to make. Although it remains to be seen, in later “rules” perhaps, whether Peterson’s advertised “success” is more than merely the economic kind, it is worth remembering that people are different, and have other goals they hold at least alongside money-making. They pursue a meaningful life, loving relationships, service to others, knowledge, self-expression, contemplation. Some, indeed, pursue poverty, an irony awaiting us no doubt when Peterson tries to shoehorn his supposed Christian sympathies into his Right-wing ones.

I suggest that what people want is happiness, and Peterson hasn’t indicated so far that he’s interested in that achievement. There is good research showing that happiness does not track wealth; deficient finances may seriously negatively impact happiness, and happiness increases as far as it satisfies the more fundamental levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but thereafter, it makes little difference (or makes people miserable).

The fact that people have enormous variability in their personality is important, because it means that a rule (and particularly its intended results) won’t suit everyone and might often suit only a small minorty of an audience. I and several people I know find the idea of climbing up social hierarchies by competing for wealth and status repugnant and counter-productive to the goal of living a satisfying life, and see people who do so as sad, selfish, shallow and untrustworthy – in extreme cases, psychopaths doing untold damage to the rest of society. And when one such – with imperceptible intelligence and conscientiousness, but with inherited wealth and an obsession for climbing the greasy pole – reaches the position of President of the United States of America, we are reminded that social hierarchies are generally sclerotic and oppressive ones based on power, rather than “valid” ones based on competence.

Peterson’s rules are supposed to be “for life”, implying for everyone’s best life, but they only apply to a minority. Had Peterson written one of those how-to-get-ahead books, “12 Rules for Success”, I wouldn’t mind as much, but his book would have drowned in the sea of similar tomes and not reached the top-lobster position at Amazon. There will be a natural filter that comes into play, attracting the lobster-minded to Peterson, but the misapplication is potentially damaging, causing other people, whose natural inclination lies in another direction, yet who happen upon his work and think it ought to apply to them, to fight for supremacy in the power hierarchies of society, causing them unnecessary stress, humiliation and failure. That’s the thing about hierarchies (and Peterson draws a triangle often when he says it): they’re pointy at the top, so if we characterize everyone lower down as losers, we’re just a dick.

Peterson now sums up Chapter One as,

a bit of a meditation on the nature of hierarchies and the biochemistry of hierarchies, but it’s also an injunction on how to present yourself, because you want to present yourself to the world in a manner that doesn’t disgrace you in some sense […] and you don’t want to disgrace yourself because the consequence of disgrace is emotional disregulation, more pain, less positive emotion, so the best way to present yourself is to stand up, forthrightly, and to stretch out and to occupy some space.

You make yourself sort of vulnerable by doing that because you open up the front of your body, but it’s a sign of confidence, and that way people are most likely to give you the benefit of the doubt […] not only does it directly regulate your mood by standing up, because […] postural flexion is associated with serotonin and emotional regulation, but also because if you straighten up and you present yourself in that manner then other people are more likely to take you seriously, and that means they’ll start treating you as if you’re a number one lobster instead of a number ten lobster, and that’s another way that you can at least give yourself the bloody benefit of the doubt, and confront the world in a courageous manner, and that’s a really good way of figuring out how to establish yourself in multiple competence hierarcies, because one of the general rules of thumb about how to be successful is to confront things that frighten you forthrightly and with courage, and that’s kind of a universal strategy for success.

As a vague little pep-talk about impressing people, this isn’t terrible, but it has some odd contradictions, which I think might belie some deeper confusions. Instead of expressing a positive reason, he comes up first with “so that you don’t disgrace yourself”, but it’s maybe a minor issue.

It makes sense that opening the front of your body makes you vulnerable, and therefore shows confidence, but the end of this passage suggests that it’s a kind of faking of confidence, because he says it’s how to “confront things that frighten you”. Now, I accept that sometimes these kinds of techniques can influence how we feel, but it could also be important to work from the inside out, as it were, working out what you’re frightened of and fixing it (surely the business of a therapist is to encourage people in that) rather than “presenting yourself” with a deliberately induced stance so that people “give you the benefit of the doubt”. Actually being confident, rather than aping (lobstering?) the posture associated with confidence, comes from doing more serious work on yourself. This dovetails with my concern about the social hierarchies we’re constantly implored to take seriously (the popularity contests of celebrity, social media hits and now mainstream politics) but which are based on lies, surface appearance, empty words, repetition of propaganda…atop of which number-one lobsters like Trump or the Kardashians proudly squat with their chests thrust out (or their butts).

He ends with a revealing anecdote about going for breakfast with some of his graduate students, who were

a very competitive bunch, very fractious and witty and always trying to get one over on each other, and making some witty put-down

and how they did this fun thing in the restaurant, pretending they had lobster claws and clacking them above their heads

when they’d got one over on one of their colleages.

‘King prawns. 😉

To a certain sector of the population, as I said, I’m sure, this is a good way to be (and I can, of course, see the beneficial side of collegiate competitive banter), but it’s a stark reminder that climbing up a hierarchy isn’t like climbing up a wall – you’re climbing up people. You climb by exchanging places with somebody else, by “getting one over on them”, and they now occupy a lower position in the hierarchy through that “put-down”.

Fear and Aggression

And this might explain the negative slant of the summary – the avoiding of disgrace and coping with fear by posturing, pretending you’re confident – those people are perhaps particularly frightened of the idea of lowliness, people for whom “humility” only means “being humiliated”, and who hate other people getting one over on them, putting them down. I would encourage anyone with excessive fears of that kind to discover good ways to overcome them, rather than respond with fake confidence or retributive put-downs on someone else.

Making oneself bigger is intimidating: it doesn’t invite respect so much as attempt to command it. The injunction has probably been repeated longest and loudest in the armed forces. Standing up straight with your shoulders back is a posture that expresses something Peterson appears to have been careful to avoid mentioning, aggression, which (staggeringly interestingly) is the typical response throughout the animal kingdom to fear. There are, however, other responses to fear, more couragous than sticking your chest out and clacking your weapons. Perhaps there are better responses to the society you live in than trying to climb up it.

Did I mention that serotonin is complicated? For example: Social Phobia Linked To High Levels Of Serotonin: Time To Rethink SSRIs And Other Anxiety Drugs?

The researchers say that levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, in people with social anxiety disorder are not too low as previously believed — instead, these anxious people produce too much serotonin. And, the higher the level of this neurotransmitter, the more anxious they feel.

Or this – Serotonin engages an anxiety and fear-promoting circuit in the extended amygdala – even the abstract of which demonstrates just how complicated serotonin is (and how a little knowledge is a dangerous thing).

Serotonin (also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT)) is a neurotransmitter that has an essential role in the regulation of emotion. However, the precise circuits have not yet been defined through which aversive states are orchestrated by 5-HT. Here we show that 5-HT from the dorsal raphe nucleus (5-HTDRN) enhances fear and anxiety and activates a subpopulation of corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) neurons in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (CRFBNST) in mice. Specifically, 5-HTDRN projections to the BNST, via actions at 5-HT2C receptors (5-HT2CRs), engage a CRFBNST inhibitory microcircuit that silences anxiolytic BNST outputs to the ventral tegmental area and lateral hypothalamus. Furthermore, we demonstrate that this CRFBNST inhibitory circuit underlies aversive behaviour following acute exposure to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). This early aversive effect is mediated via the corticotrophin-releasing factor type 1 receptor (CRF1R, also known as CRHR1), given that CRF1R antagonism is sufficient to prevent acute SSRI-induced enhancements in aversive learning. These results reveal an essential 5-HTDRN→CRFBNST circuit governing fear and anxiety, and provide a potential mechanistic explanation for the clinical observation of early adverse events to SSRI treatment in some patients with anxiety disorders.

Peterson seems to have pulled off a great little mind trick here, then. People who aren’t paying attention will think something like this:

Stand up straight with your shoulders back. That will increase your serotonin levels, which makes you feel good and confident, like a winner, a top lobster, and you’ll win (in the social hierarchy based on competence, not power like those idiot Lefties say) because you’ll be more respected (and you’ll probably get more intelligent and hard working too). Yay.

Or, just maybe, looking aggressive could help you cope with your social anxiety disorder for a while, and might blag you a stressful job working for other appearance-obsessed people you wouldn’t otherwise get, and you can run on that hamster wheel trying to get promoted until you finally die of heart disease. Just an alternative view.

But Peterson said it’s “kind of a fun rule, as well as having a scientific side,” so that’s okay. Any criticism I had was irrelevant. I took it all too seriously.

Post-script

I didn’t research the idea that posture actually changes one’s biochemistry in anything like the sense Peterson suggests (partly because I wasn’t sure he was saying that, though I think the implication is there) until the day after posting this. I’ve now found a most enlightening piece in Current Affairs (very much worth reading in its entirety to understand more about the particular style of self-help-book phenomenon that Peterson’s fits into). It critiques Angela Duckworth’s Grit, and Amy Cuddy’s Presence, and also implicates Malcolm Gladwell centrally in the genre. It includes this:

Cuddy’s major idea is “power poses,” the notion that if one adopts an open and expansive body posture, one can become less nervous and a better leader. Supposedly, the correct poses trigger one’s brain to increase the production of testosterone and lower the amount of cortisol. Cuddy’s initial experiments suggested that adopting a power pose for a few minutes had a measurable effect on body chemistry, pharmacologically inducing confidence and competence.

As attractive as that sounds, unfortunately, the central findings of Cuddy’s work have largely been discredited. […] Noted statistician Andrew Gelman of Columbia University and a colleague of his, Kaiser Fung, […] wrote in Slate that the “power poses” concept was a prime example of “social scientific malpractice”: the small sample size of the original study meant that “variation is high, so anything that does appear to be statistically significant (the usual requirement for publication) will necessarily be large, even if it represents nothing but chance fluctuations.”


Up next, Rule #2, Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. What could possibly be wrong with that?

gray steel cooking pan near orange lobster

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13 Responses to Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules: #1) Stand Up Straight with your Shoulders Back

  1. Another day another bloody money making Guru. 12 rules! What an ass. Well done you for ploughing through his stuff. But to be honest I only listened to a few sentences on a YouTube video to realise I definitely did not need the wretched fellow anywhere near my life.

  2. lettersquash says:

    Hi Anthony, yeah, he’s a big deal in some quarters. I was thinking of you when I wrote the bit about people who hate all that greasy pole climbing! I’m hoping the other eleven rules will be a bit quicker to get through, since there’ll be some repetition of his political stance. Thanks for stopping by – BTW, in case you missed it, I approved your earlier comment on another thread, but I’d missed it for ages for some reason.

  3. I did notice, thanks. I haven’t been very active recently. Perhaps I have run out of things to say! The world does not seem to get any better. And certainly no more interesting.

  4. Yakaru says:

    Christ, why not just take a few beta blockers if he’s going to treat neurochemistry like that?

    “they’ll start treating you as if you’re a number one lobster instead of a number ten lobster”
    –Or they will indeed treat you like a number ten lobster but you won’t realise it because you’re so full of yourself.

    I shouldn’t be, but I am surprised at how superficial his reasoning, how medieval his view of science, and how shallow his awareness of human psychological well being is. It’s all in keeping with the impression of dimwitted authoritarianism masquerading as clever.

    He seems to talk as if humans only have one kind of hierarchy, and, as you mention, as if the only good place to be is at the top. We have so many symbolic ways of indicating deference and learning to do so when appropriate — that’s the basis of civilisation and civil society. (I’m sure, of course, I’ve misinterpreted him and he speaks at length about that in another book on pages 236-242.)

    And this is an inherently vicious way of talking: “so that you don’t disgrace yourself “. If I was his New Age counselor I would already be trusting my intuition and asking him about how he felt when he was getting the strap from his old man, and then carefully circling around towards the idea that it wasn’t good for him and he didn’t necessarily deserve it. (And expecting reflexive denial and defense of his father.)

  5. lettersquash says:

    Hi Yakaru… oh yes!

    I shouldn’t be, but I am surprised at how superficial his reasoning, how medieval his view of science, and how shallow his awareness of human psychological well being is. It’s all in keeping with the impression of dimwitted authoritarianism masquerading as clever.

    Yep, but are you surprised that he’s those things, or just that he manages to get so many glowing reviews? That was my confusion! Now I know, the glowing reviews are from the conservative types who feel the world is going wrong because people aren’t praising Jesus and belting their kids like they used to. Like this one I was just reading, which was all going reasonably (apart from being glowing) until…

    The title is 12 Rules for Life, which makes it sound like a self-help book, which in some ways it is. The proper title should be more along the lines of, The Philosophical Roots of Western Civilisation. In our secular times, it is something like a Confucian tract for a civilisation that has lost its way and refuses to be guided by religious teachings.

    That’s from https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2018/03/future-judgmental-father/

    I forget just how superficial, medieval, shallow, dimwitted and authoritarian a huge sector of the USA is, and how full of reactionary fear and loathing it is, so they lap this stuff up. The roots of Western civilization. Confucius. Fucks sake.

    Or, as wikipedia says,

    Adam A. J. DeVille took a very different view, describing the 12 Rules for Life as “unbearably banal, superficial, and insidious”, claiming that “the real danger in this book is its apologia for social Darwinism and bourgeois individualism covered over with a theological patina” and that “in a just world, this book would never have been published”.

    But in a way they’re both right – the roots of western civilization were social Darwinism, pretty much.

    If I was his New Age counselor I would already be trusting my intuition and asking him about how he felt when he was getting the strap from his old man…

    Hmmm, me too. I’m wondering how his mind will eventually unravel. There is a YT video of him claiming that he’d stopped eating everything except beef (IIRC), and for quite some time. He swore it, he wasn’t cheating either. Honest. It stopped some symptom or other he’d had. Several commenters wondered how scurvy hadn’t set in yet. He only eats beef, but lets out the odd porky pie, methinks.

  6. Yakaru says:

    Oh my god — Quadrant used to be a bit leftie kind of, from what I recall, though I never read it. Now “civilisation has lost its way because it refuses to follow religious teachings”. Which papers does that idiot read? And Peterson is the answer? Christ almighty.

    I am surprised by that level of fawning, though with some academics mention Jung or some kind of “modern” intellectual take on the Bible and they instantly take up boot-licking posture. And surprised that his ideas are even more superficial and silly than I remembered from the little I’ve heard from him…. And only eating beef? WTF?

    I hadn’t realised he was really serious about the benefits of standing up straight as a means of psychological control. Seems a fast track to denial and walking around with a stick up one’s nether regions and a hopeless struggle against ones own feelings and sensitivities. And the use of “disgrace” just reeks of a poisoned psyche, not to mention his apparent failure, as a psychologist, to recognise it as a symptom of depression.

    So he has 12 of these rules? Does he also a list punishments if you break them?

  7. lettersquash says:

    It’s going to get a whole lot sicker. I’m starting to get worried just how dark it gets down this particular rabbit hole. Still, good to have something more challenging to get my teeth into than the Reverend Benny Hill, thanks to your encouragement, both on the topic and by doing such an in-depth demolition job on Lipton.

    I might be wrong about the beef. Looks like it was beef and greens. Seems to have cured a lot of his health problems, and others are reporting similar results. I suspect the benefit comes from removing some toxic crap that’s in most refined foods, and they’d be better on a balanced diet without certain kinds of toxins, hard to do without going organic…but I’ll not start that again just now!

    No, no punishments for breaking the rules, they’re just “kinda fun”, him writing so as to work things out and learn. You know the score.

  8. Woody says:

    A well reasoned (and well written) analysis of this man’s counter-factual claims. Unfortunately, as you have hinted at, his claims can drift in and out of the zone of what is testable and measurable. Immediately people like you and I feel the very hackles on the back of our necks raise in response. That’s what draws me to your writings. Like me, when confronted with an incredible, irrational or just unlikely claim, your first instinct is to research. What study has already gone into this field of thought? What keen minds have already approached the issue and what reasonable assumptions can be made about it? I may then add my own thoughts and come to a conclusion. For all I may feel that I follow and understand your writings, I always learn a lot as well and not always the kind of things I might expect to learn. I love it and thanks for you’re efforts. I extend the same to Yakaru,
    As I have hinted at in the past, I have put thought into creating my own blog and would still love to but recently I have taken on another writing project (beautiful fiction) which demands soooo much of my time and word-smithing, now is definitely NOT the time for me to be crafting posts upon a blog. For now I offer my comments on free-thinking posts which take my fancy, and if that is the extent of my on-line accomplishments, I can only hope that I have benefited a reader or two. I am but a humble rationalist and would feel great satisfaction from that alone. I have already received your second instalment of this series of posts and look forward, with baited breathe, on reading your thoughts.
    Here, the hour grows late and I am almost out of wine, I will soon curl into sleep.
    All the best to you brother,

    Woody.

  9. lettersquash says:

    Thanks Woody! I’m pleased to hear you’re writing “beautiful fiction”, and I’m sure that must take a lot of time and word-smithing. I’ve dabbled but never get very far – I’m not a natural story-teller. I was thinking since the subject came up of your possible blogging that maybe I’d invite you to do a guest blog post on here, but I’d not want to disturb that other project. Not sure it would be useful, but anyway, the offer’s there if it’s anything you might fancy doing without having to start a blog, maybe later.

    I’m having a difficult time with old JP, to be honest, for a whole lot of reasons I’ll probably have to think more about, and might put into the next post. He keeps surprising me, and I’m not sure whether I’m misjudging him in some ways. It’ll take a bit of untangling. Not that it matters much what I think, it’s mostly a kind of challenge to myself, learning and writing. All the best with the fiction!

  10. Woody says:

    Thank you so much for the offer John. Few others could truly do justice to your blog and I am honoured that you would place me in such prestigious company.
    While I insist on taking a little time to connect with my on-line friends, the vast majority of my time outside of the earth-moving truck-wheel industry must go to the story I am writing. And now is such a hot time … steel blades are reflecting a hot-orange arc under the angry sun, blood is spraying and grim-faced warriors scowl at the sweet kiss of hot steel. Creepy little wizards are are making evil deals with their foul gods and as gorgeous sunrise appears, mankind is fighting to survive the ancient curse rooted in the foul pacts sworn by their long-lost ancestors.
    I will keep your offer in mind and no doubt the hunger will strike me one day, not sure what the subject might be.
    Thanks again, friend. Much respect to you mate.

    Andrew.

  11. lettersquash says:

    No worries! Any time. Wow, that’s a wonderful piece of word-smithing right there. Fusion of the poetic and the rational. I’ve lost my poetic muse, but maybe I’ll move in that direction again one day, you never know. Cheers, John

  12. lettersquash says:

    Just correcting myself from earlier:

    I might be wrong about the beef. Looks like it was beef and greens.

    Nope, I found the video again, and his daughter nagged him again to cut out the greens, which he’d done for several months. He says the last of his health problems cleared up then. He also says emphatically “I never, ever cheat”, and, “Apparently, if you don’t eat carbohydrates, you don’t need vitamin C. Who knew?” – I’ve not been able to confirm that about vit C. Beef, salt and water, and “healthy” as can be (ignoring the obvious). 😀

  13. lettersquash says:

    And further to the all-meat diet, it does seem to be established that it reduces the need for vit C to zero. It looks from my brief research like an all-meat diet can sustain very good health. My reaction to the story seems to have brought out my prejudices, put there by nonsense we’ve been indocrinated with for decades and ought to have dumped by now. So Peterson did know something I didn’t. This is quite interesting, https://zerocarbzen.com/vitamin-c/ as is the linked Eskimo article from the early 20th Century, when people predicted someone eating just meat would die in a few days, and were shown to be completely wrong. Metabolism is a strange thing. I should say this is not my area at all and I don’t recommend the diet. For one thing, going on Peterson’s own testimony, he says if he included anything else – just a tiny bit of dessert or something – he was extremely ill for a very long time. The mind is also a strange thing though. He reckons he didn’t sleep for 25 days straight, just lay in bed frozen in terror for 8 hours, then got up again. I kind of think that’s not the dietary slip-up, but an underlying mental illness, a bout perhaps triggered by expectation of terrible consequences (nocebo effect).

    Peterson’s rule #9: “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”. Mmmm, more humble pie for me, please!

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