Notes Psychology

Rule 1: Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back (12 Rules for Life)


As human beings, we have a lot in common with other species. Peterson turns our attention to the lobster, which can be interpreted as either humorous or deadly serious, depending on where you stand. 

You see, Lobsters are like us in many ways, since they too share and compete for territory with other lobsters. They search for an appropriate place to hunt and they desire security.

Many other creatures compete for dominance and status – including birds and chickens. And it is as if there was a natural law that stated that those who find themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy in any species are the last to eat and first to die when disaster strikes.

Peterson’s point isn’t that we should emulate this behavior, because other animals exhibit it. Animals exhibit many kinds of behavior that we should not emulate at all. His point is that the organization of species according to dominance hierarchies is an ancient biological tendency, so much so, that even lobsters – that have very little in common with us, share this feature. The same chemicals that trigger dominant behavior in humans does so in lobsters.

This is a confirmation of the reality of dominance hierarchies. That is, they are not merely socially constructed, as some would claim, they are deeply rooted in our biology. Lobsters have existed for over 300 million years. These patterns of behavior are very old.

Lobsters engage one another in dominance contests. They size each other up and release liquids to indicate how healthy they are. The weaker lobster will eventually retreat if it gets too nervous while engaged in an intimidation match with a stronger lobster. If none of the lobsters back down, they will fight. If a dominant  lobster loses, it will grow a new subservient brain to replace its old one. It cannot reconcile its old identity of ‘victor’ with its new one as ‘loser’. It will refuse to fight with other lobsters for a while.

High levels of serotonin and low levels of octopamine in a lobster will cause it to stand tall and seem intimidating. If a defeated lobster is injected with serotonin, it will put up a longer fight. A lobster with low levels or serotonin and high levels of octopamine will droop and disengage from any conflict. And these lobsters will be less likely to mate since female lobsters choose to mate with the winning lobsters.

The crustacean world is unequal, just like the human world. Defeated lobsters are more likely to lose their next fight. Victorious lobsters are more likely to win. This is represented by the Pareto rule that states that most of the output results from a small amount of input. Most accomplishments are made by only a few people, whether in art, business, science, or sports.

The Dominance Hierarchy

Feedback from society informs us of our position in the dominance hierarchy. Our evaluation will influence our serotonin levels – which will in turn affect our health and desirability.

If you are on the lower end of the hierarchy, you will settle for any opportunity to experience pleasure – no matter how harmful in the long term. If you are on the high end of the hierarchy, you perceive change as opportunity, not threat. You feel secure and confident. You will stand tall and engage in long term planning.

Naive people who vow to do no harm are easily exploited in the company of truly malevolent people. Naïve people are shocked to discover their own propensity for evil – they are unaware of their shadow. But being aware of their own evil increases their self-respect and strength.

Slumping like a defeated lobster will signal low status to other people. You will get pushed around, and that will make you feel more defeated. Avoid this vicious cycle. Don’t slump.

When you stand up straight, people will treat you differently. Your nervous system interprets your dominance stance as voluntarily accepting a challenge. You are not hiding in fear from threat but are actively chasing a goal. You will feel less anxious, you will increase the amount of serotonin in your body, and you will be more respected by yourself and by others.

Read 12 Rules for Life 

One reply on “Rule 1: Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back (12 Rules for Life)”

[…] When two wolves fight – both puff up and try to look intimidating (sizing each other up) and try to get the other to back off. But a fight and a subsequent victory can leave you weak and vulnerable. Fighting isn’t always the default – it’s too costly. What happens is one of the wolves gives up and exposes their throat. The other wolf doesn’t kill the subordinate wolf because a dead wolf is useless to the pack. Low ranking members aren’t in a perfect position but at least protected (threatened is better than killed). This is similar to what lobsters do. See my summary of Rule 1 from Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life.  […]

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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