’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’ Jordan B Peterson. Book Review

Rule 1: Stand up Straight With Your Shoulders Back

A lobster pumped on serotonin is a great way to make rule 1 memorable. Arguing that dominance hierarchy is older than the trees – as old as the lobster’s response to make itself appear larger when it wins a fight due to a serotonin rush – Peterson takes this as indication that the dominance hierarchy is not a social construct. Lobsters have a simple nervous system, which makes them easy to study, and they share some hormonal activity with humans. The drop in serotonin when a lobster loses a fight causes it to shrink, similar to the way a human slouches when depressed. The lobster is then more susceptible to losing again the next time. If given anti-depressants the lobster will expand, open up and fight to win next time. This is a good reason to ‘stand up straight with your shoulders back’ because you, like a lobster will be more highly regarded and potentially more successful if you bravely open yourself up to the world. Presenting yourself in a way that disgraces you, like slouching and mumbling causes negative responses, thereby creating pain and emotional dis-regulation.

This rule of course can be found in yoga: a straight spine allows for full breathing, open ribs and diaphragm. It keeps you ready and alert, vertebrae stacked with potential energy. It encourages you to speak clearly and the truth, which people respond well to. It also turns you into an antenna for direct download from universal wisdom. Peterson is a reader of Jung and often cites universal unconscious as a force to be reckoned with. He also studied great clinicians such as Adler, Freud, Maslow and behaviouralists such as BF Skinner. The lobster analogy came from his close reading of the science orientated animal behaviouralists and neuro scientists such as Jeffrey Gray, whose book The Neuropsychology of Anxiety Peterson cites, and Yak Panksepp from whose book Affective Neuroscience he takes the example of rats giggling when they are tickled. 

Peterson is fascinated by this, because it shows that there’s a psychobiological basis for play in mammals. They have a play circuit. Of course we always knew this, you only have to observe your dog or cat, or see how complex the play of dolphins is. Their play is so sophisticated that they trick each other with practical jokes and can laugh with each other. For Peterson the rats giggling example is huge because essentially Panksepp discovered a circuit in the brain we didn’t know existed (well, we did, but science hadn’t proved it yet). Rough and tumble play is absolutely essential for human and mammal psychological development. On many levels. It develops risk taking abilities, closeness, physical confidence, psychological balance and play response, alertness and sense of humour. Awareness of effect that your bodily stance has on the other person being the most relevant to this chapter.

Almost all social animals arrange themselves in hierarchies. Peterson said ‘almost’ so like anthropologists who find tribes working on completely different systems, we need to stay aware of other systems in play. Almost all, and this system is 350 million years old, so the idea that hierarchy is a socio-cultural construct, says Peterson, is incorrect. We have a neuro-chemical system that modulates our understanding of those hierarchies. The counter that you share with lobsters that rates you in terms of your hierarchical position determines the ratio of negative emotion to positive emotion that you feel. This is huge, says Peterson because it changes the way your entire system responds in the world. Also there is a tight relationship between your belief system and your dominance hierarchy position. Peterson agrees that it is more accurate now to call it a competence hierarchy because the human hierarchy now is scaled by competence. In other words what predicts success today is cognitive ability, prefrontal and cognitive function, conscientiousness and intelligence. A given hierarchy is influenced in its structure by socio-cultural conditioning, but the hierarchy itself really was on the planet before trees were.


Back to posture, so directly related to serotonin and emotional regulation. People will take you more seriously, you can confront the world in a courageous manner, confront things that frighten you forthrightly and with courage. it’s a good measure of success, so stand up straight!

This book is proving a joy to read, Peterson’s style is compelling and full of diverse examples. Chapter 2 tomorrow.