A few thoughts about Jordan Peterson


Jordan Peterson, a Canadian Psychology professor, has become famous recently for his YouTube videos and his opposition to what he called enforced speech in Canadian Bill C18. This post is a reaction to a few aspects of Peterson’s pubic lectures and YouTube videos. It doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive assessment of everything he’s said.

First, the negatives. I don’t like Peterson’s tendency to link ethics with religion, as tho one needs to be religious to have ethics (although he avoids saying this directly).  I also don’t like the overuse of mythology, ancient stories and psychoanalytic archetypes. If I were to edit his book “Twelve Rules” I think I could remove 1/2 of the text without losing any of the meaning.  Nor do I like his rule about “get your own life in order before you try to change the world.” None of us has our own lives totally “in order.” That would prevent any political activism.

Some of his rules are things people should follow: “Tell the truth, or at least stop lying.” “Be precise in your speech.” “Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient.”

However, some of the dislike directed at Peterson is directed at him because he correctly describes some findings from psychology that contradict the majority thinking of the last 40 years.

Men and women score differently, on average, for many personality traits:

  • Openness (openness to new ideas and experiences, curiosity, abstract reasoning, being imaginative, taking an interest in the arts),
  • Conscientiousness (being prepared, organized, efficient, diligent, sticking to plans, turning up to things on time),
  • Agreeableness (willingness to compromise, taking other people’s feelings into account, being diplomatic),
  • Extraversion (being energetic, outgoing, talkative, seeking company), and
  • Frequency of negative emotions (especially anxiety, anger, and depression).

Those are referred to as the “Big Five” personality traits.

Men and women also differ on average from each on scale of “interest in people vs interest in things.” Women score higher than men in all of these traits. Of course, most of these traits are distributed on a bell curve, so there’s a considerable overlap of two bell curves, one for men and one for women, but with a differing means (averages).

These personal characteristics are a bit like height. Height is a variable you can measure along a scale and put on a graph. Like many qualities it’s distributed like a bell shaped curve. The most common height is at the center, and as you move away from the average height, the number of people at that height starts to drop off, a little, then it drops off rapidly until you only have a small number of people who are very very tall or very very short.

Height males females

To understand some of the things Peterson says, people need to understand that if you have two bell curves, one to the right of the other, it only takes a small difference at the center to make a very large discrepancy at the extremes in the ratio of people from the two groups who are very very x or very very not x. In the case of height (to take a non-ideological issue), the average female adult in North America is 65 inches tall. The average male is 70 inches. That’s only a difference of 8 percent. There are lots of women taller than some men. The two graphs have a large overlap. But if you move a further 5 inches out from the male average and ask “who is it that taller than 75 inches,” men outnumber women by about 20 to 1. If you move 5 inches to the left of the female average, and ask, “Who is shorter than 60 inches,” it’s almost all women. There is a spectrum, but one spectrum is to the right of the other.

(Looking at the graphs, you find the number of men above 75 inches by looking at the area under the blue curve to the right of the yellow- orange line at 75 inches. The number of women above 75 inches is the area under the red line  to the right of the line. For those shorter than 60 inches, you look at the areas under the curve to the left of 60 – the purple line.)

This property applies whenever you have two bell curves, one to the right of the other. It doesn’t matter whether you are measuring height, weight, or how far two groups of kids (one older than the other) can throw a tennis ball. A small difference in the average produces very large discrepancies in the number of members of the two groups out at the extremes. In psychology tests where people are given chance to cheat in games, men cheat more than women. They also lie about it more than women. Men have, on average less concern for the effect of their actions on others (i.e. are less agreeable.) Who are the people who lie a very very lot, break lots and lots of rules, and really really don’t care about the effect of their action on others? Mostly men. They are the sociopaths (correctly referred to as having anti-social personality disorder). Male sociopaths outnumber women by about 4 to 1.

For most of these personality traits the difference at the centre is less than half a standard deviation. That means there is a lot of overlap between the curves.

Men score higher than women on interest in things vs interest in people. Women score the opposite. But who are the people who are very very interested in things not people, or very very interested in people not things? That’s like asking who is very very tall (the right hand end of the axis) or very very short (the left hand end). Who gets the PhDs in psychology in the US? Three quarters women. Who gets  the PhDs in engineering? Three quarters men.

Women score higher then men, on average, for agreeableness. Yes, there’s an overlap Yes, there are some men who are ore agreeable then some women.  But this time the women’s bell curve is to right of the men’s So who are the very very agreeable people? Mostly women. Who are the very very disagreeable –  those who like to rock the boat, and will debate with others? Mostly the men. What effect does it have on wage negotiations when professional women are  changing jobs? Or at annual salary reviews? You guessed it. But some people hate  that Peterson says this in public. (Peterson has run classes for professional women on assertiveness training and how to negotiate. )

But most people have never done a unit of stats. Peterson talks about this, but most people won’t get it because they can’t visualize the graphs. All they hear is “he’s reinforcing stereotypes! He’s talking in binaries!” But some people don’t want to believe that differences between the sexes exist and occur in every society where tests have been done. I think Peterson does a terrible job of explaining  this, especially in TV interviews where you can’t bring in a bunch of graphs and props, and the interviewer often has no statistical training.

Most of have believed that many differences between men and women were socially produced and would be reduced as societies became more gender equal. The interesting findings recently in psychology, (first discovered in 2001 and confirmed in several other studies since) is that the difference in average values between men and women for numerous personality variables become bigger, not smaller, in more gender equal societies. This is the reverse of what we (including me) have all expected for the last 40 years. In fact several studies using data banks of  hundreds of thousands of people in at least 46 countries have shown that what we expected  is not true. The average difference between men and women on various psychological test gets bigger, not smaller in more gender-equal societies. This is not Jordan Peterson’s research, but I’ve read some of the papers, and he describes them correctly. (Links below.)

The only two personality characteristics where women and men get closer to each other in more gender equal societies are interest in casual sex, and belief that material assets in a prospective mate are unimportant. Women move towards the men’s average position only in these two characteristics out of 26 that have been studied (see the links).

Some feminists (perhaps equality feminists  as opposed to difference feminists[1]), aren’t going to like being told that a core belief about social conditioning that we’ve all held (including me) for the last 40 years is wrong. However I’ve not found any papers in psychology that contradict these findings.

Many people don’t like Peterson pointing out that in more gender equal societies, there are a smaller percentage of women doing STEM degrees than in less gender equal societies. (See below: the graph with a measurement of gender equality for different societies on the vertical axis and the proportion of women in stem degree on the x axis. Source in footnotes).

scatterplot 2

To the best of my knowledge, there is no dispute about the data. In less gender equal societies doing a STEM degree may be a leg up the income ladder for girls, but in more gender equal societies you don’t need to study something not in accordance with your real interests to be economically secure. (Some people reading this won’t like what I’ve just said, but take a look at the data. Link to an article which explains it more is below.) Essentially Peterson says that if you remove barriers to girls studying what they want (and he says you should) you shouldn’t then be surprised if more women still do psychology or biology and more men study engineering and the non-biological sciences. He says that this is not a problem that needs fixing, people are simply choosing what they are actually interested in. Some viewers don’t want to believe that there are any actually differences between the sexes.

A lot of the literature on gender difference from medical science and psychology needs some understanding of stats to read correctly. However, at my local university one can do sociology and gender studies without taking a single unit of stats. This shocked me when I was told this by a fourth year honors student in sociology, who told me that “bell curves are highly problematic, you know.” When I asked her who said this, she replied “Lots of people.” It is shocking that anyone could get to fourth year in a social science and make that statement. If this is typical of gender studies students in other universities (and look at Melbourne and Monash Uni’s website re gender studies shows no compulsory stats) then we have a problem. (I think, by the way this is also a problem with the Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree at my local university. Two units of stats would be good, because if you work as an economist, you’ll be using a lot of stats generated by other people.)

Peterson also says that to say you are a Marxist should be as shameful as saying you are a Nazi, as Marxists governments have killed more people that Nazism last century. (The average estimates seem to be about 100 million for Marxists governments, taking into account all the revolutions, purges, pogroms, gulags and artificially created famines. The average estimate for the Nazis is a total of 70 million for WW2.) Some people on the left find this offensive.

Peterson often refers to “Radical feminists,” without specifying whether he means this term in the sense that it is used in feminist literature: radical feminists as opposed to liberal feminists or socialist feminists etc or whether he means very lefty shouty feminists that he might encounter on campus. In a TV interview this might be natural, since the time (and the interest of the viewers) may not allow for spelling out these differences. However in his recorded lectures he could (and I think should) specify this so we could better understand who he is criticizing. For a man who says, “be precise in your speech,” this is a serious failure.

Peterson also claims that there’s no such thing as a real atheist. He seems to hold that people who say they are atheists really secretly have some concept of a god, or they couldn’t be moral.  “Without God everything is permitted.” I think this is nonsense. people follow moral rules for two reasons: one is that societies need a certain set of rules in order for the society to function. Don’t steal, don’t murder, pay  your debts, keep promises. Without rules like this you don’t have a society. The second source of ethics is empathy. I don’t want to live in a society where murder, rape or torture are common because I can imagine that these things cause great suffering, and  they repulse me. Parents teach their children ethics by saying, “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”

I observe that most denunciations of Peterson are not very sophisticated. The critic merely says, “He’s a crock,” without tackling any particular statement of his. This tendency to “papal pronouncements” is unfortunate. One female friend has criticized Peterson because he criticizes feminism, but fails to offer any suggestions about how to make it better (given that most of us – including Peterson-  agree feminism has legitimate goals.) This seems a valid criticism.

Peterson spent about 20 years studying authoritarian personalities and political systems, especially Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. He dislikes identity politics, because it leads to tribalism, and in his words, “tribalism never has a good outcome.”

I also think that we should treat people’s opinions as special only when they speak about things they have some specialist knowledge of. Actors and actresses are not experts on politics, and psychologist are not experts on climate change or economics. People can express any opinion they like, but we have no obligation to treat their opinions as having any special status.

Some of the dislike of Peterson is a  (in my view) a legitimate reaction to the use of old mythology and symbolism that most people don’t appreciate. Some of the reaction against him is a reaction to the fact that he criticizes the radical left more than the radical right. This may be because his job as an academic has been made more difficult by the campus left where he teaches: we tend to attack those who attack us. Some is a reaction to the fact that he’s saying some things people just don’t want to hear, but which are based on research that has now been replicated several times. And some is based on the fact that a lot of people just don’t understand the stats.


Richard Snow

24 Feb 2019.


A video of Jordan Peterson at the Oxford Union. This video is a good place to start if you don’t know much about Peterson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bRDbFU_lto

A link on women in STEM degrees, and one source of the graph above: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/does-gender-equality-result-in-fewer-female-stem-grads

A psychology journal article on the differences in psychology tests between men and women: Giolla Erik Mac and Kajonius Petri J. 2018 ‘Sex differences in personality are larger in gender equal countries: Replicating and extending a surprising finding’, International Journal of Psychology, 11 September 2018 https://doi.org/10.1002/ijop.12529

A link to a summary of mine of some articles from psychology on gender differences.


Wikipedia’s article on Difference feminism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Difference_feminism

Wikipedia’s article on Equality Feminism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equality_feminism

[1] I can’t give an overview of different strands of feminism in this short post. However, Wikipedia’s article on Equality Feminism claims that “Equality feminist theory is the extension of the equality of the male and female into theoretical and philosophical fields of thought. At its core, equality feminist theory advocates for the equal standing of both men and women in terms of desires, wants, goals, and achievement. Thus, from this viewpoint, the basis of human nature outside of culture is androgynous, neutral, and equal.” [Emphasis added. This implies that all gender differences are culturally produced] In its article on Difference Feminism, Wikipedia states that difference feminism “holds that there are differences between men and women but that no value judgment can be placed upon them and both genders have equal moral status as persons.”

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