Jordan Peterson Knows What You’re Thinking
The rockstar of modern psychology strips the mythology off divisive beliefs.
Posted Feb 13, 2018
By Alexander Blum
Jordan Peterson is a Canadian psychologist whose seemingly overnight ascent to cultural rockstar comes after years of deep scholarship in many disciplines. His new book, 12 Rules for Life, is atop bestseller lists, and millions have followed his lectures on YouTube. He has a penchant for seeing the application of micro-scale information to societal problems. Over a breakfast Skype from New York to his hometown of Fairview, Alberta, he spoke on topics ranging from intellectual and economic inequality to sexual mythology.
AB: Your interview with Cathy Newman on England's Channel 4 has been so popular that you’ve done multiple interviews after about the interview.
JP: I know, that's pretty strange, eh?
AB: It really hit a nerve. In one interview after the Channel 4 debacle, you said that Newman’s behavior was “animus possession”. That's a term with precise Jungian meaning. What does it look like when someone is acting out an animus possession?
JP: The fundamental attribute is the use of arbitrary opinions, often but not necessarily with an intellectual flavor, to provoke. It's something more akin to a characterological challenge than to an intellectual exchange. And the purpose of it in some sense is to see if you’re foolish enough to engage in the argument itself, even though it’s not a real discussion, and to assess whether you’re competent, I suppose, or capable of holding your temper. People who engage in it try to locate themselves – it’s a test. And the right way to pass a test when you’re dealing with someone who’s animus-possessed is not to take the bait, no matter what. If you engage in the argument, you lose. Whether you win or lose the argument, you lose by engaging in the argument. Because you validate the claim that the territory that’s been staked out in the manner it’s been staked out is the territory that should be subject to dispute.
It’s very complicated. It's like the famous Supreme Court case about pornography – I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. Jung thought of it as the possession of the female psyche by the masculine aspect of the psyche, and he thought of it as something that was like an anima possession in men, that would be characterized by an excessive false emotionality. I think you see anima possession on the part of the men who are involved in the feminist movement, who are doing everything they can to be treated like allies of the feminist movement. That’s the male version of it. To drip compassion, to be harmless, to be overemotional, all as an attempt express an unintegrated femininity. So you could say an animus possession is an expression of unintegrated masculinity, and an anima possession is an expression of unintegrated feminine traits.
AB: Why use the Jungian terminology?
JP: The anima/animus possession issue is a variant of how people get possessed by ideas. Ideas have personalities. This is the thing where the psychoanalysts have it over the cognitive psychologists. The psychoanalysts figured out a hundred years ago that ideas are alive. We think of ideas as statements about the structure of reality, but they’re not. They have a viewpoint. They have a goal. Nietzsche knew this. He said that every drive attempts to philosophize in its own spirit. Brilliant encapsulation. But an idea has a set of perceptions. It has an emotional nature. It has a certain type of motivation. It has arguments at hand. You see this with people who are addicted. The addicted personality comes complete with rationalizations of its own nature. You see this play itself out in the large-scale population, it’s like there are spirits who occupy a transcendent space that use human beings as avatars for their expression.
It was so self-evident with Cathy Newman that people couldn’t help but notice it. That’s why that interview attracted so much attention. That interview was almost entirely about her. She laid out her presuppositions continually, I think someone counted that she said “so you’re saying” 26 times in the interview, and only once did she really grapple with me, and that’s when she was taken aback. That was the only time that animus front fell. That was the only time we connected on a genuine level. That was the only point in the interview where communication was possible.
AB: So what do you think of our society, with spirits quite literally afoot – I think you mean that the psyche is a real entity, in and of itself, that it’s not just the consequence of neurons, and that it can’t just be described at a physiochemical level.
JP: Even if it can be described at a physiochemical level, our understanding of what “physiochemical” means will transform as we get more sophisticated in our attempts to understand consciousness. Even if it is an entirely reducible phenomena, ideas still inhabit us like personalities, and they inhabit us as a collective like personalities as well. You can think of the entire Internet as a place where ideas embodied in cyberspace are having a war, and it’s not much different than the war of Gods in heaven, which has been taking place since there’s been human beings. If you think of individuals as neurons in a web, you can think of Gods as entities that inhabit that web. They’re embodied ideas that persist across long periods of time, and they do go to war; that’s how polytheism turns into monotheism across time. Sometimes these wars are real, they aren’t just conceptual; people actually die to determine which God is going to rule. So there’s a hyperspace consisting of networked minds in which these archetypal ideas exist, at the same time that they exist in each person. You’re a mirror of the broader social reality. You’re a node in it, but you’re a mirror of it as well.
AB: It seems that ideological possession is deeply prevalent today. Coca Cola wants to emphasize diversity, JP Morgan as well. Capitalism itself has totally absorbed diversity and equality as a marketing scheme to consumers. What’s going on here?
JP: It's very short-sighted. These capitalist organizations haven’t done their homework, they don’t understand that they’re allowing anti-Western ideologues into their territory, they have no idea what they're doing, and they’re really going to pay for it. I think a fair bit of it is guilt over inequality. The literature associating inequality with social instability and poor health outcomes is pretty convincing. The correlation between the GINI coefficient, which is an estimate of inequality, and male homicide, is about 0.9; you never see a correlation that high in psychology between two variables, under any circumstances, and I think people have become more sensitive to that widespread inequality in the West because the working class has taken a hit for two reasons.
JP: One is because increased technological sophistication gives highly intelligent people even more of an edge; it’s a multiplier. A fairly large percentage of the population, probably ten percent, isn’t functionally literate. Probably double that that aren’t computer literate. That’s a big problem. If you’re a smart person and you’re good with a computer, you’re a bloody monster: you can succeed spectacularly with almost no extra help. We have a small company with only three people, we’re running tens of thousands of psychological interventions a month. The multiplication force of technology on cognitive differences is massive. That’s a big social problem and we don’t know what to do about it.
The other thing that has happened, particularly in the West, is the working class has been sacrificed to some degree to raise the standards of living in the rest of the world. China, India, Southeast Asia and Africa are way richer than they used to be. A lot of that transformation has been purchased at the expense of the upward mobility of the working class in the West, especially in the United States.
People feel guilty about the inequality, and when they get a chance they want to show that their hearts are in the right place. Then they fall victim to idiot-ideological fixes. The tendency of those who have to get more applies not only to every human society that’s ever been studied but also to non-human phenomena like the height of trees in the rainforest, the size of cities, and the mass of stars. Linear differences in ability produce nonlinear differences in outcome. That's a fundamental economic conundrum. And you can add another one to that.
It doesn’t look like wealth can be generated without generating inequality. Because you have to let people compete on what’s essentially a meritocratic battlefield. A system is meritocratic if you’re rewarded when you contribute to its function. Western societies are pretty meritocratic; IQ and conscientiousness are the best predictors of long-term life success. Faster people who work harder benefit more. But the problem is they benefit in a nonlinear manner; one of the consequences of that is that people have a proclivity to stack up at zero. Then they’re in the underclass, and that’s bad news. It’s hard to get out of the underclass, and the underclass has every reason to flip the board.
AB: If you’re born with good nutrition and caring parents with high conscientiousness and a high IQ, you’ve won a lottery. But the Left doesn't seem to want to admit that IQ is heritable, or that personality differences are real.
JB: We need to start having an intelligent conversation about productivity and inequality. Another problem people won’t admit to is the inevitability of inequality, and that it has a destabilizing effect. The right-wingers don’t want to admit that for some people, there are no jobs; they think that conscientiousness in and of itself will do the trick. But if you have an IQ of less than about 83, you’re going to have a bitch of a time finding something economically productive to do in an increasingly cognitively sophisticated economy. We do not know what to do about that. Giving money to poor people is not a sufficiently sophisticated answer. Most of the problems we have now are not easily solved by money. That’s not to say that some money isn’t better than none.
But back to the corporations: I think they are concerned about inequality, they’re concerned about an uneven racial playing field, and they’re also terrified of being targeted as part of the oppressive corrupt patriarchy. But they aren’t really defending their own contributions. One thing an effective corporation does is hire people. A job is a way better solution to someone’s problems than money is, because it stabilizes them. I don’t care how open, how creative you are, without a routine people just fall apart. Money doesn’t give you a routine; a job does.
AB: That sounds like a problem with universal basic income.
JB: I suspect that a universal basic income would be a cheaper solution, economically speaking, than the grab-bag of social welfare programs we have right now, especially with their massive overhead. But we don’t have any evidence that it would solve the problem. Basic-level social science is clear: Do not assume your well-intentioned intervention will have the consequences that you desire and no other consequences. That’s like being able to predict the results of your experiment beforehand. The most famous example is the Cambridge Somerville Youth Study. Tremendous resources were dumped into ameliorating the consequences of low socioeconomic status environments on kids in the 1930s. Parents took parenting courses, communication courses, literacy courses, and the kids were brought out to summer camp for two weeks. It was a matched study. The people in the intervention group ended up doing worse on almost all of the measures. Bringing kids potentially headed for delinquency out to summer camp for two weeks a year and grouping them together was such a bad idea that it overwhelmed the positive effects of all the other interventions. The Somerville Youth Study was a landmark in social engineering, because it went very wrong despite the fact that it was very carefully designed and everyone was hoping like mad that it would help. And despite the fact that the participants and the people who ran it reported that it was one of the most meaningful things they had done in their lives. It could be that a guaranteed income works, but it could be that it produces unintended catastrophes. We don’t know.
JP: What you want more than anything in life is a noble purpose. You need a philosophy of good and evil to orient yourself properly in the world. You need to know what’s terrible, and what’s the opposite of that, and you need to implement that in your life. Meaning is more valuable than money. In fact, money is generated as a consequence of genuinely meaningful pursuits. What companies do well? There are exceptions, but generally companies that put the quality of their products first tend to do better over time. They’re also the companies that treat their employees properly and have reasonable hiring practices. One of the things that the Marxist critique of capitalism never grappled with is how probable failure is for capitalists. Everyone fails. Companies don’t last very long; there’s a million ways to do it wrong and very few ways to do it right. Capitalist organizations are a lot more fragile than people think. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t always a few massive corporations that dominate everything. But they’re not the same corporations across time. So you have the underlying Pareto distribution problem, which is that a small percent of whatever the entity is (total number of companies) are doing most of the output, but on top of that you have constant transformation in the players. Marx was right in that capital tends to congregate in the hands of fewer and fewer players across time. But what he wasn’t right about is that they aren’t the same players.
AB: Now we have massive companies like Amazon, where Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, he owns the major marketplace online, he’s going into healthcare. He’s even implementing wristbands to guide his workers' movements.
JP: We could easily be in a situation where every single thing we do at all times is being tracked. That’s what’s going to happen in China, by all appearances.
AB: So privacy and individuality are coming under severe threat less as a consequence of the malice of a specific boss than the structural problems of becoming too big?
JP: That’s another point that the Right and Left could come together about. The Tower of Babel is an ancient warning against gigantism. If you try to raise your temple to the heavens, then it will fragment, and everyone will begin to speak a different language. In 2008, people were saying “too big to fail.” The right cliché should have been “so big it will certainly fail.” As organizations scale, the less a company is actually touching the world; most of it is just communicating with itself. The whole thing loses touch with its environment and falls apart. Maybe it’s a real analogue of the surface area problem: The larger you are, the smaller your surface area is in proportion to your volume. That’s why insects can’t scale; they breathe through their skin. You’d think the Right and the Left could get together and say that “too big” is a problem.
AB: Do you think massive globalization can continue as is, or will there be a major backlash toward more regional arrangements?
JP: The trick is addressing that question at both levels of analysis simultaneously. A highly functional integrated society has to be a hierarchy of boxes. There has to be functional individuals inside functional families inside functional local communities, then states, then countries. And maybe there can be a loose organization that’s global above that. But unless those microstructures are also highly functional, you certainly can’t expect the highest-level abstraction to work. The state can’t take over the function of the family. We know that; those experiments have been run. The most effective ones were maybe the Israeli kibbutzim, but they were abandoned, because even at that relatively small scale (it wasn’t state, it was more like town); it didn’t work. Paying attention to what’s extremely local is an antidote to collectivism, identity politics, gigantism.
AB: And that local, individual and communal level is heavily informed by what you said earlier about personalities. Can we go deeper into notions of how the personal psyche is ordered? In your book and lectures, you characterize the masculine with order and the feminine with chaos, a kind of Apollonian-Dionysian dynamic.
JP: People have been criticizing my association of the feminine with chaos, but that’s not my association; that’s an ancient archetypal idea. They’re also laboring under the misapprehension that chaos itself is “bad”, even though I’ve made it clear, and it’s clear in the Jungian corpus, that the chaotic is also the source of everything new and revitalizing. Order tends to degenerate into deadly, paralyzed stasis. Both are so inevitable that talking about them as good or bad is beside the point. They’re both everywhere, and you have to manage them.
An excess of chaos makes people anxious, unstable, desperate, nihilistic and overwhelmed. An excess of order makes them constricted, bored, resentful, over-predictable, and then brittle. Neither is a good solution.
AB: What would you say to a postmodern critic who rejects the Western canon as “patriarchal” because it associates the feminine with chaos, making it inherently misogynistic?
JP: First of all, that isn’t a Western phenomenon. The Daoists do the same thing. It’s worldwide. I think it’s fundamentally because women are the sexual selectors, so they’ve come to stand for nature. And nature is set in distinction to culture. I've wondered forever, why is order masculine, symbolically? You’d think those who think gender can be separated from biology would be perfectly willing to understand that gendered terms could be used metaphorically. I think a tremendous amount of it is ignorance.
And just as you cannot lay inequality at the feet of capitalism, you cannot lay hierarchy at the feet of the West. When Steven Pinker wrote The Blank Slate, which has to be damn near 20 years ago, I thought two things: “Well that was obvious” and “Why did he even write this? Everyone knows this, this argument is so over.” I think Pinker had his finger more on the university climate than I did. My scientific work has been mostly in the heavy biological end of psychology. No serious biologist on the planet would think human beings are a blank slate. The last people who made that claim were the behaviorists. By the early 1980s, the really sophisticated behaviorists had figured out that there were multiple independent motivational systems, and their operation was not purely dependent on learning. When I read The Blank Slate, I didn't realize that the social constructionists, they’re the humanities types basically, have no education in the sciences at all, especially biology. So they can make preposterous claims like “hierarchy is an inevitable consequence of the Western viewpoint”.
The case that I was making for the presence of hierarchies in lobsters, in 12 Rules for Life, was to say, look, it’s not that there aren’t problems with hierarchies. The problem with hierarchies is that there are winners and losers. It’s the same problem as inequality. But without a hierarchy, there’s no up, and that’s a catastrophe. Without a hierarchy there is nothing but conflict, which is why animals organize themselves into hierarchies. Clear winners and losers looks like a better solution than no one ever knowing who’s a winner or loser.
AB: Is the whole world right now, or at least the media world, ardently trying to avoid a confrontation with biological human nature? This seems to have defined so much of our public conversation, particularly with the Damore Google memo, where perhaps because of their guilt about inequality, many are resistant to acknowledging biological differences.
JP: Yes, guilt about inequality is driving denial of biology. That won’t solve anything; it will only make a lot of things worse. Google might be the first people who figure that out, because they’re now facing challenges on the left and the right, which I think is an inevitable consequence of playing identity politics. The James Damore lawsuit might be bigger than the CEO of Google, who recently said he didn’t regret firing Damore.
Some of it is just ignorance about statistics. Men and women are more the same on all personality characteristics than they are different; there’s more difference within the genders than between the genders. People don’t really understand that because they don’t understand how a normal distribution works. And so they don’t understand how it can also be true that women are more interested in people and men are more interested in things. That’s a pretty damn solid psychometric finding.
Even where there is a substantive amount of similarity, there can be massive differences at the tails. And because the relation between, say, temperament and productivity, creative production, is nonlinear, the difference at the tails can make a massive difference. The best example I can think of, one that most people can agree on, is that men are more aggressive than women. They’re more likely to engage in physical combat. If they try to commit suicide, they’re more likely to use lethal means. Their upper bodies are stronger. They’re more physically dangerous. But the difference isn’t that great. If you pull a random woman out of the population and a random man, it’s about a 60 percent chance that the man would be more aggressive. There’s mostly overlap with some substantive difference.
But if you look three standard deviations beyond the mean, almost all the hyper-aggressive types are male. One of the consequences of that is almost everyone in prison is male. Even though the difference at the mean isn’t that big, it’s the extremes that count. Almost all the really non-aggressive people are women.
AB: A recent study on the wage gap seemed to show that it’s mostly mothers versus every other demographic, rather than men versus women.
JP: Women definitely take a career hit if they have kids. The bulk of responsibility for infant care falls on women. Forget about even after birth – there’s the pregnancy. There’s a long-term payout for kids, but it’s over the expanse of their lifetime, while most of the cost is compressed into the first 18 years, and most of that is borne by parents, mostly women. And we don’t know exactly what to do about that. But ensuring equity of outcome for men and women regardless of their familial status is certainly not the solution. If women don’t have kids, then they take a family-less life hit. It would be useful in our culture if we could make having children the least amount of horror possible for women. But you have to be able to have an intelligent conversation about this sort of thing, and so far the evidence that we’re capable of that is pretty damn thin.
AB: Given the polarization on even basic facts of human biology and reproduction, it seems that the idea of uniting all ideas into one American republic is falling apart. Do you think that nation states as we know them will survive in the long term?
JP: I can’t predict any of that because the technological landscape is so completely unpredictable. I can’t say that I’m precisely pessimistic. I think we can weave our way through this with a bit of good will. There’s a lot of things in the world that are really good. The poverty rates worldwide are declining with unbelievable speed. About 300,000 people a day get hooked to the power grid now. We’re well on the way to limiting the catastrophic consequences of the five biggest transmissible diseases. I suggest that people concentrate on the development of their character and leave the ideological idiocy alone. By doing that, hopefully they turn themselves into the sorts of people who are capable of formulating problems, and solving them, and if enough people are like that, then we’ll solve them.
If we had a hundred people like Boyan Slat, who is trying to clean up the world’s oceans, God knows what we could manage. The problems in our society are going to be fixed by people who actually know how things work, not by ideologues.
AB: Do you think the world is headed toward more technical solutions rather than broad humanities thinking?
JP: Both. It’s the same thing we talked about before: you’ve got to get the high-level abstractions right, but you also have to get the details right. Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else is a great book. De Soto describes in painful detail the necessity of putting in the micro-infrastructure along with the high-level abstractions. One of the things he documents is that you can’t get capitalism working in a country where no one has clear title to their property. It actually turns out that that’s what the Indians are doing in India right now – they’re trying to get all their citizens documented. These basic-level technological accomplishments that we in the West take for granted, like clear title to what you own, are prerequisites for a sophisticated economic system, and they aren’t in place in most countries. Exporting a capitalist democracy to a country that can’t keep track of its citizens and doesn’t have clear titles to property just isn’t going to work. The machine has to work at the highest level of abstraction and the smallest level of detail simultaneously, and that takes real expertise.
AB: That seems to be the essence of your project, that the microcosm of the individual and the macrocosm of the world are so intimately linked…
JP: If you’re going to fix things, you might as well fix things that are right in front of you, that you can control. As I say in my book, start with cleaning up your room; that represents the accumulated wisdom of clinical psychology aggregated across the 20th century.
AB: Your lectures and books are runaway successes, but in publications and on social media, people think a new reactionary current is brewing. There are two different worlds.
JP: All the journalists are sociologists, and I’m a psychologist. I think the right level of analysis is the individual, that’s why I’m an individual differences psychologist. I study personality. My colleagues and I designed and implemented a future authoring program with thousands of university students in Holland. Students answered a series of questions that prompted them to think about their goals. The coolest finding was that the people it had the biggest effect on were non-Western ethnic minority men. They were educationally underperforming the Dutch women by about 80 percent. Within two years, they surpassed them. A pure psychological intervention that only took four hours completely obliterated the effects of what was supposed to be a sociological problem. We ran the experiment again at Mohawk College in Canada and even though people did the writing in a much more compressed amount of time it had a walloping effect on retention rates. But the university wasn’t able to organize itself to continue using the program, it doesn’t fit the narrative.
AB: You’ve said that we’re now in a kind of spoken word, premodern oral culture that is rapidly expanding wider than print, via online podcasting and YouTube. What do you make of this historical shift back into an oral spoken tradition?
JP: It’s faster in many ways; the risk is that it’s less profound. You’re much more careful and deeper in a book than you are spontaneously. The problem with books is that they’re a minority preoccupation, and you can’t do anything else while you’re reading. Plus, they take forever to write and to publish. With oral culture you can make complex ideas accessible to a lot more people. The conversation happens a lot more rapidly. There’s a lot less upfront cost on the part of the people who are successful in the medium. Who knows what the long-term consequences will be. I think reading will increasingly become an elite preoccupation because listening is just easier.
YouTube and the Internet have many advantages over television and print. You can think of TV as a subset of YouTube, and you can think of print as a subset of written communication. But YouTube allows for a depth that TV just can’t match, and a breadth, with an infinite number of channels with programs of indefinite length. TV just can’t compete with that. I think TV is done. Print is having a hard time with monetization, so it’s starting to die. They are losing their audience, and also losing their best people. Good people are no longer going into those domains, because they don’t have a future. They’re also getting more and more desperate for attention. They’re running more and more ideology-predicated stories that are essentially clickbait. As they death spiral downward they are increasing the polarization in the community.
Alexander Blum is a Psychology Today editorial intern.