A sage for the age?

Is Jordan Peterson the superstar psychology needs? Two letter writers – Jerome Carson and Mark Durkin, from the University of Bolton – think that he might be. (Although also see below for an Editor's note on the response.)

It is rare for a psychologist to be featured in the Sunday Times bestseller list, and to have been on that list for 26 consecutive weeks. Professor Jordan Peterson’s new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos has sold over 100,000 copies in hardback, in the UK alone. Yet this Canadian psychologist’s has work has received only a couple of passing mentions in the pages of The Psychologist.

We both attended one of Peterson’s sell-out public lectures at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in May this year. During this visit to England he also appeared on a number of television and radio shows, as well as delivering a keynote lecture at the Oxford Union. He has a huge online following. Why, what is it that Jordan Peterson offers? In our opinion, he comes across as authoritative and knowledgeable, which may be why so many are drawn to him. He seems to put forward a form of certainty to many in an age of instability, or what he would call chaos. Yet his own discipline seems unable or unwilling to truly embrace him. While he is surrounded by controversy, largely concerning his views on male-female relations, this could make him a fascinating candidate for an interview in The Psychologist or a keynote address at the Society’s Annual Conference.

While some psychologists may disagree with Peterson’s approach, very few psychologists have a really significant media presence, or are capable of reaching such numbers. Maybe it’s time Psychology had a ‘superstar’ to boost its profile. Physics has Brian Cox, medicine has had people like Robert Winston. Is Jordan Peterson to be the spokesperson for a Psychology profession that wishes to engage with the world outside the laboratory? Or will someone else step forward to take up this mantle?

Professor Jerome Carson
University of Bolton 
Mark Durkin
PhD candidate University of Bolton

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Editor's note: Find us on Twitter for some interesting discussion on this letter (you can enter @psychmag Jordan Peterson in the Twitter search to find the tweet and much ensuing debate). 

In summary, the reponse – particularly from professional psychologists – was a fairly resounding 'no he's not a sage for our age', and 'no psychology doesn't need superstars' (or in fact it already has many). Although some respondents supported Peterson or at least said they found his ideas and huge popularity intriguing, many more raised their concern that Peterson's career has veered into cherry-picking pseudoscience, that 'This kind of dialogue normalises vicious, hateful ideologies', or that this letter was somehow suggesting a British Psychological Society platform or endorsement, or serving as 'clickbait' (all accusations which I vigorously countered on Twitter). 

We remain a forum for discussion and debate, and I would encourage any BPS member to sign in and leave their comments below.

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I first became aware of Peterson following his interview with Cathy Newman some months ago where he controversially argued that there are fundamental psychological reasons as to why women and men do not receive the same pay for the same job, primarily based on the idea of ‘clear personality differences’. Although I didn’t agree with the interviewer’s combative approach, I find Petersons spin on psychological theory to be a repackaged, easier to swallow version of misogyny. This is evident in his opinions on sexual harassment, where he suggests that women shouldn’t wear makeup to work if they don’t want to be the subject of unwanted advances by men, as lipstick and blush mimic sexual arousal. In the post-Weinstein era, I am shocked and disgusted that a prominent psychologist would take such an archaic, victim blaming stance.

The continuous rise of the alt-right with figureheads such as Peterson championing an anti-feminist approach is worrying for not only women, but for men too. Petersons rhetoric promotes toxic masculinity, suggesting ‘men need to grow the hell up’ and become alpha males who can go on to procreate as successfully as possible, thus suggesting effeminate traits in men are to be regarded as weak. This is particularly worrying in a time where male suicide is so prevalent, and I doubt suggesting that they need to ‘man up’ is going to help the situation. Instead, we should be encouraging men to talk about suicidality and mental health at large as it is widely agreed across the literature that seeking social support is of great benefit.

Even if you buy into his beliefs about gender, as psychologists you should at least acknowledge Peterson’s inability to be empirical in his reporting of research. Peterson’s interpretation of studies are often muddied by his own personal beliefs, for example his Christianity. In an interview with Matt Dillahunty, he discusses the idea of psilocybin use increasing spirituality and attributes this to the existence of a God. What he fails to mention is that the most well known study with this drug uses participants who already engaged in religious or spiritual activity prior to the administration of the drug (Griffiths, Richards, McCann & Jesse, 2006). When challenged, Peterson fails to respond adequately and becomes visibly uncomfortable. I, therefore, believe that Peterson struggles to be objective and cherry picks the evidence to suit his hidden agenda, whether this be to reconcile with his religious beliefs or to sell as many books as possible.

            Overall, I believe Peterson to care more about himself as a celebrity rather than as a psychologist. I would be interested in hearing who else could stand as a so-called celebrity of psychology, or if we simply don’t need one.  

I only came across Peterson after a recent period of random Youtube searches, and found his videos on the Canadian C-16 Bill and the Cathy Newman interview. Having since then watched further videos of Peterson presenting at conferences, interviews and Q'n'A sessions, I find that there are some important points that he is trying to raise on gender, equality, political correctness and the freedom of speech. That, when discussed with friends, professional colleagues and family members, I find are actually 'secretly' shared with men and women alike. For example, I'm coming across (when discussing this topic) more women starting to object to the idea of transgender male-to-female referring to themselves as 'female'; but, would not express this opinion openly due to generally feeling disenfranchised with society. As one friend said, "society doesn't represent my views, and it's not safe to view them". 

Now, I'm not suggesting Peterson is specifically speaking on behalf of these individuals, but I have tried to listen impartially to his points and have also taken the time to search his references he uses and can find no contradiction with the points Peterson makes and the available published literature. As such, I would suggest Peterson is no more cherry picking the data than many acadamics do to support their particular perspective. As such, I see no further contradiction in affording him the respect I would afford any of my other professional psychology colleagues.