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Jordan Peterson: there's scientific evidence behind common sense

Updated: Aug 22

Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules For Life offers reminders of yesteryear received wisdom, backed up by science and argument.

Eighteen years ago I sat in a staff meeting as the headteacher appealed for ideas about how to deal with the school’s behaviour problems at my first teaching post. An Art teacher raised his hand and pointed out that behaviour might have been adversely affected by the high sugar snacks available in the school vending machines. When a year eight drinks a can of Coca Cola at eleven o clock, supplied by the school no less, was it any wonder that the child behaved poorly for the next two hours?

The staff reaction to this suggestion was not so much a Eureka moment because he was, after all, pointing out the blindingly obvious. Let’s call it a Coca Cola moment, since this teacher had discovered that when considerable volumes of sugary drinks are poured into a child there is a sort of behaviour overflow that is too conspicuous to ignore. The response was even harder to ignore: “if anyone can tell me how we can recuperate fifteen hundred pounds of profit a term, then let me know; until then the vending machines will remain.”

So on that occasion The Remainers won, but it did little to improve behaviour in this particular school. What we needed was an expert to emerge into the limelight and point out what was obvious to the layman: sugary snacks do not do wonders for children’s behaviour or concentration. On this occasion the expert’s name was Jamie Oliver who, shortly after this meeting (but clearly not because of it), led a healthy eating campaign in British schools, which included controls on what could be sold in school vending machines. Sure, students could still get their hands on sugary drinks, but at least schools were not facilitating and profiting from the unhealthy snacks that contrived to their own educational downfall.

This anecdote brings me to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life, a highly entertaining read which I cannot recommend enough. Now I was always told not to slouch, but to stand up straight and with a straight back. Slouching never quite looks right and when I lapse into it these days it never feels quite right. I recently witnessed an assembly where the pastoral leader encouraged the students to stand up straight and look proud. No one was surprised at the message and in the 1980s, as I recall, this was just accepted wisdom. It didn’t need science or experts to reinforce this idea; people knew it and it just sort of happened. Now, messages like ‘don’t slouch’ can get experts a book deal. All Jamie Oliver got was a seat at a commons select committee.

In his recent book 12 Rules For Life, Canadian Cognitive Psychologist and You Tube icon, Jordan Peterson, sets out twelve key rules for success, fulfilment and a purposeful life. He then uses The Bible, scientific research and logic in support of his rules. It’s a cross between a self help guide and a book that book sellers like to call ‘Smart Thinking’ (or books that make you look intelligent on the tube).

What fascinated me when I read Peterson’s book was how much of it emanated from the common sense advice that I received when I was a child. What was once good judgment is now the domain of the expert and I wonder whether Professor Peterson is amused or bemused at how lucrative former mainstream ideas have become.

It turns out that standing up straight with shoulders back in a position of assertiveness actually facilitates the secretion of serotonin, a neurotransmitter which promotes elevated mood through “postural flexion” (Peterson, 2018, p.7): in short, serotonin is the brain chemical of winners. Hence, when you encourage someone to stand up straight, with shoulders back, it aids their serotonin secretion which in turn prepares them for a challenge. In this regard humans are similar to lobsters since the ‘alpha’ lobster, with the straight posture, tends to be the one at the top of a hierarchy.

It is simple, but effective advice. Peterson has developed a particular following with young, adult males, as I undestand it, based on his Youtube talks. Whilst it is good that schools spend more time and money on counselling, peer support, PSHE and outside speakers to combat mental illness, it does no harm to point out some of the more obvious (and cheaper) lessons available. Peterson brings a timely, if not terribly trendy reminder, that ultimately health improvement (mental or physical) can only really happen with the active participation of the individual. Students need to get this: the individual has to take control. If a secondary school student is not sleeping, eating, socialising or exercising well, there is little that anyone else can do. Suffice to say, students would benefit from reading this book themselves.

A second rule, which I had already considered, but not in the pithy way that Peterson puts it: “compare yourself to what you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today” (p.83). Here’s an interesting question to put to your form class in tutor time. Imagine that you are about to receive an important grade in class along with everyone else (naturally the first thing that students do will be to find out who got which grades). You have two options. In Option 1 you achieved a B grade and everyone else achieved C or lower. In Option 2 you achieved an A grade and everyone else achieved an A*. Which is preferable?

Despite acknowledging the importance and inevitability of hierarchies Peterson’s rule makes an interesting point about learning and progress. There is little real value in comparing yourself to others. The A grade you achieved might be excellent given that you normally get C grades; or an A grade might actually reveal your laziness and poor preparation. Relative comparisons to others offer little clarity about the individual. It is not that pecking orders don’t matter, more that the way to ascend the pecking order is not to keep reminding yourself where you are in it.

Peterson’s lucid book is well worth a read, another must for the staff and pupil development shelf of the school library. It might offer a useful accompaniment for the Religious Studies teacher and the PSHE teacher. Suffice to say it also comes highly recommended for the social sciences, especially to challenge the notion that all psychology and sociology must emerge from what might be understood as a liberal, left position.


Peterson, J. B. (2018) 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote For Chaos (Penguin Random House: United Kingdom) Ebook Kindl

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