I’ve just finished the Canadian academic and controversialist, Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules of Life: An antidote to chaos and my over-riding impression is that it’s an important, erudite and thoughtful addition to the library of anyone interested in philosophy, ethics, religion, literature, psychology and the history of thought.

But it’s an often challenging and occasionally irritating at times. I guarantee that Peterson will say things which will annoy you. Don’t let tis put you off. His wisdom and compassion underlie even his most provocative and incendiary ideas.

His 12 rules are as follows:

Rule 1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back (see below)

Rule 2 Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

Rule 3 Make friends with people who want the best for you

Rule 4 Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

Rule 5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

Rule 6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world

Rule 7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

Rule 8 Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie

Rule 9 Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t

Rule 10 Be precise in your speech

Rule 11 Do not bother children when they are skateboarding

Rule 12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Some of these are self-explanatory, others might seem bafflingly obscure. Nevertheless, each has – to a greater or lesser extent – meaning and relevance for those who work in schools. This series of posts will attempt to explain what teachers and students might take from Peterson’s work and how his ideas could be applied to education.

Here are my thoughts on Rule 1.

Essentially, Peterson’s injunction to stand up straight is rooted in neurobiology. He suggests that our posture affects our brain chemistry and that standing up straight is more likely to result in increased levels of serotonin being released in the brain. He argues that billions of years of evolution have resulted in the dominance hierarchy have been around for millions of years longer than human beings, and, like all other animals, our nervous systems are intensely sensitive to establishing our place within the hierarchy.

For those at the bottom of the pile, life is particularly nasty, brutish and short. In order to survive you have to be vigilant. You have to be alert to threats and, because you’re at the bottom, there’s likely to be a lot more threats in your immediate environment. Peterson suggests this has both a physical and neurological effect. Our posture becomes submissive in order to signal that we don’t want to fight and (I’m not sure which comes first here) our brain transforms to cope with our new reality. The hippocampus shrinks and the amygdala enlarges. The hippocampus appears to inhibit emotional sensitivity whereas the amygdala increases emotional sensitivity. Anti-depressants can cause the hippocampus to recover but, as yet, apparently no one’s found a way to shrink the amygdala back to its original size.

Life is very different for those members of the species at the top. They get the best food, the best location to shelter and the most opportunity to reproduce. The Matthew effect is a biological fact: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” As such, life is a whole lot safer and less stressful. Food is less scare and future is more assured. We can relax. And because we can, our brain actually helps by giving us serotonin and, quite literally, making us feel happier. And, the more content we are, the more likely we are to stop hunching our shoulders and stooping.

So, the idea is that if we adopt the posture of someone at the top of a dominance hierarchy – standing up straight with our shoulders back – we can fool our brain into adjusting its neurochemistry so that we feel better about ourselves. Just as physically shrinking might result in a feedback loop that ensures we become ever more adapted for surviving at the bottom, standing tall might result in a virtuous cycle whereby we become calmer, more emotionally secure. We’ll sleep better, think better and live longer. 

This is all so simple it sounds too good to be true. It puts me in mind of Amy Cuddy’s now debunked research on the ‘power pose’. Certainly our students are unlikely to get far in life if we tell that just standing up straight will make everything better. Disaster will still happen and posture is no defence against life’s vicissitudes. Obviously, our physical posture is not some kind of magic shield. And, equally obviously, this is as much about mental attitude as it is about physical posture.

But what if it might make everything a tiny bit better? What if we actively taught children to inhabit their space more fully; to stop shrinking from the world? Might that not – all else being equal – provide them the slightest of buffers? I think it’s likely that, if nothing else, signalling our confidence (not our aggression!) physically might make others treat us a little bit better. That’s seems like pretty good advice.

To be clear, I’m not for a moment advocating posture lessons – quelle horreur! – but it costs us little to role model how a confident and assertive adult interacts with the world. And it would be pretty cheap, not to mention compassionate, to refuse to allow our students to slouch though our lessons and their lives.

And this is just the first and the simplest of Peterson’s rules. If we can’t take a risk on standing a bit straighter, we’re going to struggle far more with all the others.