A Serious Critique of Jordan Peterson
The other day I went to a presentation by Jordan Peterson (JP). It is the second one I have been to (the other was a few years ago, pre-health breakdown).
- JP has lost a bit of edge since the last time I heard him speak
- The “nested subroutine” model of behavior he presented is a good starting point for analysis
- He gave some good advice about relationships (to solve problems at the most detailed level possible without implicating unresolvable issues)
- He downplayed the importance of developing a shared narrative by focusing too much on the behavioral details
- Without a model for when to go beyond the immediate details and address the narrative framework of the relationship, his advice is untenable
On the first point, it is hard to quantify, but I guess JP has aged quite a bit since the last time I heard him speak. I think the health issues he experience have had some impact. Still, I enjoyed the presentation and the ideas are worth engaging. So enough about that.
The presentation was focused around rule #3 from his book 12 More Rules for Life:
Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.
As I understand it, this means that we should seek to clearly articulate the uncomfortable things in ourselves and in our relationships. But most of the presentation was about the mechanics of how to discuss foggy, uncomfortable topics.
JP started with a model that our lives are structured according to sets of nested subroutines. We have some goal, and in order to achieve that goal we engage in a series of sub-goals, and to achieve the sub-goals we engage in fine-level physical actions.
One of the examples he used is that written works are divided into chapters, which are divided into paragraphs, then sentences, then words, then letters. When we write, we type individual letters one at a time. It is equally meaningful to say we are writing a letter, a word, a sentence…or a paper. And then the paper itself is part of some bigger goals…to get a good grade in class, to get a degree…and so on up.
This framework is kind of obvious, but it is useful because then he makes a claim. When we have disagreements or negotiations in our relationships, we should seek to resolve them at the most detailed level possible instead of at the highest level possible.
Here he gave an example of a woman who is mad at her husband because of his behavior at a dinner party. The claim is that it is better to discuss specific behaviors, like he interrupted her when she was telling a story to tell a story about himself, than at a higher level, like he doesn’t appreciate her.
The first issue can be resolved with some specific behaviors (like, stop interrupting). But the second problem is vague and difficult to resolve. JP advocates spending 90 minutes a week in a marriage talking about low level “sub-routines.”
I think this is good advice, and I will probably try to use this framework more often in my relationship (i.e., trying to push certain discussions down to a level of more specificity). I should note that my wife went with me to JPs presentation and also thinks its a useful model.
Although I think he gave some good advice, one thing I found missing was guidance on when to elevate a discussion to a higher level of generality. One obvious answer based on JPs model is that you should elevate whenever you can’t resolve something at a lower level.
But I think what we really need is another model of understanding conflict altogether. The way that JP talks about conflict, he makes it seem like each party has a sequence of events they want to occur, and you can resolve it by agreeing on some mutually-acceptable sequence of events.
I think this is a mischaracterization of how relationships (and our goals) work. In a relationship, almost every action carries with it both a physical meaning and a symbolic meaning in the context of the relationship. Compromising on a sub-routine won’t solve necessarily solve the underlying problem that the reason why our partner’s behavior bothers us so much is because it symbolizes conflicts in the narrative we are telling ourselves (and each other). If the other person agrees to change a specific behavior, the narrative conflict will probably just pop up somewhere else.
Basically, I don’t think that simply solving agreeing on a comprehensive set of sub-routines can make a good relationship. Now, I should mention that JP did state that we should spend time working on a “shared narrative”. But he said it in a way that made me feel like he thinks developing mutually agreeable sub-routines is the best way to hammer out a shared narrative.
In my view, emotional conflicts arise precisely because everything we do in a relationship is connected and symbolic. Forcing every conversation to happen at a functional, rational level ignores the fact that these emotions create opportunities to identify and address differences in narrative that give rise to unmet expectations.
In my experience, usually when a conflict arises between me and my wife, the fog is so great that we don’t even really know what we are arguing about at first. During the course of the argument, we say a bunch of stuff that misses the point…but every once in while something comes out that we were hesitant to say, but which advances our understanding of each other.
So, I think that addressing sub-routines should be a component of an argument, but I don’t think it should be the whole thing. We also need to make room for saying a bunch of wrong things. Some things will just never come out unless we are emotional. Emotions are kind of like getting drunk in that they loosen our executive control, which can lead to opening up about how we really feel. Sometimes expressing strong emotions, and saying the things we would never ordinarily say is the only way to get through the fog.
Ok, so JP missed an opportunity to provide a better model for the role that conflict plays in a relationship. So what? Can’t I just take what is good and leave it there?
I think there is something deeper afoot that is pretty troubling. Basically, I think that JP favors a certain kind of personality, and is therefore incapable or truly respecting and understanding other important psychological strategies, and I think it influences and ultimately undermines his approach to relationships.
Specifically, I think JP has a model of personality where 1) extroversion, 2) intellectual openness, 3) conscientiousness, and 4) emotional stability (especially!) are simply better ways of being than the alternatives.
I don’t want to address all of these, so let’s take two examples where I have been troubled by things JP has said: extroversion and emotional stability.
The first time I felt something off about JPs view of personality was in a podcast I listened to in which he was comparing his personality to that of his wife. During the discussion a number of things came up that made it pretty clear that his wife is fairly introverted. But when it came time to discuss their scores on the extroversion scale, they both claimed to both be extremely extroverted.
To his credit, JP did notice the inconsistency, but he just passed it off by saying that his wife is only extroverted compared to him and his daughter! To me this explanation didn’t really pass muster. I think people have a strong tendency to take personality tests in a way that biases their personality toward what they think is the right answer. In my view it is likely that JP and his wife both scored high in extroversion because they think that extroversion is better.
Another small piece of evidence came the other night, when he took a question related to self-improvement during the Q&A session. The example he chose to illustrate self-improvement had to do with counseling an introvert about how to become more extroverted. Of course, it may very well be that this person was way too introverted. But the fact that it was the first example to come to mind, and that he didn’t even qualify his answer with ways in which introversion might be a useful trait stood out to me.
Of course, neither of these anecdotal tidbits proves conclusively that JP thinks extroversion is better. And I think it is likely that he is actually somewhat conflicted about it because I suspect he is a natural introvert himself and his own extroversion draws from other traits (like intellectual confidence and stubbornness). But after listening and reading quite a bit of his work, I am left with the feeling that he has a bit of a blind spot there.
The other trait I want to talk about (and the more relevant one for this essay) is emotional stability. One of the key indicators that someone is biased toward emotional stability is that they use the phrase “emotional stability” to describe the 5th personality axis. Take a look at this (pretty typical) personality diagram illustrating the “Big 5" personality traits:
Do you see emotional stability anywhere on there? No, instead it is represented by the trait called “neuroticism”. But people who have deep personality biases don’t like to put neuroticism on the list. Why? Because they see each of these personality traits as essentially positive attributes, but neuroticism seems like a negative attribute. So they replace it with the opposite trait — hence, emotional stability.
What they don’t get is that neuroticism (which I actually prefer to call “threat sensitivity”) is actually a fundamentally useful thing for human survival (and thriving). It is especially useful for mothers who have to carefully maintain security for themselves and their children during times when their productivity is hampered (by pregnancy and child rearing).
Anyway, neuroticism is great and it doesn’t need to be replaced by its opposite to create this personality-bias symmetry in the model. But JP doesn’t get that so he uses emotional stability instead. And his deep mistrust of emotionality was on full display in his discussion about how to negotiate with your partner.
Basically, the advice to restrict negotiations to the most detailed sub-routine possible can become oppressive to someone who has a deeply instinctive and emotional approach to relationships. Often neurotic people are very good at recognizing something is wrong, but they aren’t always great at articulating what exactly is wrong. Often what they sense is some kind of deep relationship problem that is only hinted at by a particular set of events.
A little over a year ago I listened to a podcast about the FLDS community in Southern Utah/Northern Arizona called Short Creek. The men in that community had this saying, “keep sweet,” that they used to suppress all forms of negative emotionality from the women in the community (and, to a lesser extent, each other). I think the “keep sweet” mentality was a big contributor to the eventual takeover of the community by a predatory leader, Warren Jeffs. I bet if they hadn’t silenced the more neurotic members of their community, their community would never have collapsed.
So the most ugly thing about JPs advice is that, without a better model of how to incorporate emotionality, it amounts to “keep sweet”…or perhaps more specifically, “keep rational.” Either way, it is a dangerous way to approach a relationship that can ultimately feel oppressive and undermine a couple’s ability to build a truly balanced shared reality.