But What For? For a break from the urgent. Ideas that matter. Insights that don’t get old.
Jordan B. Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Toronto who became a controversial figure in late-2016 for his critiques of political correctness. Peterson’s most recent book, 12 Rules for Life, has sold over 3 million copies worldwide. Most recently, Peterson has suffered from health issues that necessitated a year-long reprieve from the public eye.
Lobsters are interesting animals, but most people don’t think about them too often. While they may not be immortal as many like to think, they never stop growing and can regenerate lost limbs. Unfortunately for them, they taste good with butter - but let’s circle back to lobsters here in a minute.
In the early 1900s, an Italian engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist, and philosopher (but he was probably no fun at parties, so you got him there) named Vilfredo Pareto became fascinated by the ideas of wealth and power - namely, how is wealth distributed across society? (Interestingly, he did not start this work until his forties, so it is never too late to make a difference.)
Ever diligent, he pulled data from the 1400s through his modern times and found the same pattern everywhere. Whereas people had previously assumed that wealth would be distributed in a flat, upward-sloping line from poor to rich, what Pareto found was in fact a hockey stick - a small percentage of the population holds a majority of the wealth.
This kind of distribution - the most successful / most productive / largest “winners” continuously having a greater chunk of the pie - can be seen across many different fields.
That same brutal principle of unequal distribution applies outside the financial domain—indeed, anywhere that creative production is required. The majority of scientific papers are published by a very small group of scientists. A tiny proportion of musicians produces almost all the recorded commercial music. Just a handful of authors sell all the books. A million and a half separately titled books (!) sell each year in the US. However, only five hundred of these sell more than a hundred thousand copies. Similarly, just four classical composers (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky) wrote almost all the music played by modern orchestras. Bach, for his part, composed so prolifically that it would take decades of work merely to hand-copy his scores, yet only a small fraction of this prodigious output is commonly performed...
It also applies to the population of cities (a very small number have almost all the people), the mass of heavenly bodies (a very small number hoard all the matter), and the frequency of words in a language (90 percent of communication occurs using just 500 words), among many other things. Sometimes it is known as the Matthew Principle (Matthew 25:29), derived from what might be the harshest statement ever attributed to Christ: “to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.”
This idea was further expanded in the mid-1900s when British physicist Derek Price noticed that certain of his colleague were prolific publishers and others - well, not so much. In fact, Price could fit most domains of publication to a “law” stating that half of all papers are written by the square root of the number of all writers - if you had 100 papers written by 25 people, 50 papers would have been written by only 5 individuals. If it was 1,000 papers and 250 people, 500 papers were written by only 16 people. Thus, there was always an active minority generating the majority of the work.
These results can be understood as it relates to the compounding effects of resources - those that have previously “won” generally have access to the greatest resources and can more easily utilize those resources to achieve additional success. Those without resources cannot.
Thus, resources beget additional resources while losing resources restricts your ability to gain resources in the future - winners are more likely to win again, and losers more likely to lose.
However, there is also something going on in the brain that makes those that win more likely to pursue meaningful, productive activities again in the future.
Back to the lobsters. Lobsters live in a cold, brutal world where things such as ideal lobster nests (think “safe hiding places”) and access to food are both paramount and scarce. This scarcity can result in conflict. So how do you determine which lobsters lay claim to the best nests?
As you might have guessed, they fight for them - and Peterson goes into detail on lobster confrontation rituals in his book. Important to this conversation is what happens in the brains of lobsters that win and lobsters that lose.
A lobster loser’s brain chemistry differs importantly from that of a lobster winner. This is reflected in their relative postures. Whether a lobster is confident or cringing depends on the ratio of two chemicals that modulate communication between lobster neurons: serotonin and octopamine. Winning increases the ratio of the former to the latter.
A lobster with high levels of serotonin and low levels of octopamine is a cocky, strutting sort of shellfish, much less likely to back down when challenged. This is because serotonin helps regulate postural flexion. A flexed lobster extends its appendages so that it can look tall and dangerous, like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti Western…
High serotonin/low octopamine characterizes the victor. The opposite neurochemical configuration, a high ratio of octopamine to serotonin, produces a defeated-looking, scrunched-up, inhibited, drooping, skulking sort of lobster, very likely to hang around street corners, and to vanish at the first hint of trouble.
The lobster’s brain knows whether it just lost or won a fight. The victor confidently holds himself up high and the loser shirks from potential conflict. And this makes sense - it is advantageous to your survival to avoid conflict if you tend to lose because 1) you tend to lose and 2) having lost, you now have access to less advantageous resources (food and shelter). The winner is confident in his access to resources and knows, based on experience, that he can win future fights.
These changes in how the lobster orients itself to the world start deep within its brain, with levels of serotonin driving physical changes in the external lobster. This brain infrastructure is very similar to what sits inside humans, who also take into account where they are in the “tend to win and have resources / tend to lose and don’t have resources” continuum.
The part of our brain that keeps track of our position in the dominance hierarchy is therefore exceptionally ancient and fundamental. It is a master control system, modulating our perceptions, values, emotions, thoughts and actions…
The ancient part of your brain specialized for assessing dominance watches how you are treated by other people. On that evidence, it renders a determination of your value and assigns you a status. If you are judged by your peers as of little worth, the counter restricts serotonin availability. That makes you much more physically and psychologically reactive to any circumstance or event that might produce emotion, particularly if it is negative. You need that reactivity. Emergencies are common at the bottom, and you must be ready to survive.
If you are lower on the totem pole, being constantly prepared for emergencies eventually takes its toll on you given your orientation towards short-term survival at the expense of long-term success. It impacts everything, from the way your body allocates resources to its immune system (long-term investment) to your fight-or-flight response sensitivity (expensive short-term preparedness).
But this all makes sense for the competitive world our ancestors grew up in.
Unfortunately, that physical hyper-response, that constant alertness, burns up a lot of precious energy and physical resources. This response is really what everyone calls stress, and it is by no means only or even primarily psychological. It’s a reflection of the genuine constraints of unfortunate circumstances. When operating at the bottom, the ancient brain counter assumes that even the smallest unexpected impediment might produce an uncontrollable chain of negative events, which will have to be handled alone, as useful friends are rare indeed, on society’s fringes. You will therefore continually sacrifice what you could otherwise physically store for the future, using it up on heightened readiness and the possibility of immediate panicked action in the present… The physical demands of emergency preparedness will wear you down in every way.
If you have a high status, on the other hand, the counter’s cold, pre-reptilian mechanics assume that your niche is secure, productive and safe, and that you are well buttressed with social support. It thinks the chance that something will damage you is low and can be safely discounted. Change might be opportunity, instead of disaster. The serotonin flows plentifully. This renders you confident and calm, standing tall and straight, and much less on constant alert. Because your position is secure, the future is likely to be good for you. It’s worthwhile to think in the long term and plan for a better tomorrow.
This whole process is an example of an autocatalytic reaction - a chemical reaction where one of the reaction products (in this case “losing”) acts as a catalyst for the reaction to start again (resets the brain chemistry with lower serotonin levels), which results in more reaction products (“more losing”) until the feed for the reaction is completely exhausted (in this case “you”).
This process can send you spiraling downward in an ever self-reinforcing loop of short-term focus and lack of belief in yourself. It is also the source of many mental illnesses and addiction behaviors. People that are spiraling downward are also less likely to have a strong social support group, and not having access to friends who can aid you in times of need results in your brain using resources to be prepared to face the world alone.
Most people have been subject to the deafening howling of feedback at a concert, when the sound system squeals painfully. The microphone sends a signal to the speakers. The speakers emit the signal. The signal can be picked up by the microphone and sent through the system again, if it’s too loud or too close to the speakers. The sound rapidly amplifies to unbearable levels, sufficient to destroy the speakers, if it continues.
The same destructive loop happens within people’s lives. Much of the time, when it happens, we label it mental illness, even though it’s not only or even at all occurring inside people’s psyches…
The drinker wakes up, badly hungover. So far, this is just unfortunate. The real trouble starts when he discovers that his hangover can be “cured” with a few more drinks the morning after. Such a cure is, of course, temporary. It merely pushes the withdrawal symptoms a bit further into the future. But that might be what is required, in the short term, if the misery is sufficiently acute. So now he has learned to drink to cure his hangover. When the medication causes the disease, a positive feedback loop has been established. Alcoholism can quickly emerge under such conditions.
But this kind of autocatalytic reaction is also what propels an individual to greater and greater success over time - a feedback loop can be positive. For the winners, winning (the reaction product) grants them a brain with additional serotonin and additional resources in the world, and both of these things increase the likelihood that they will win again in the future.
And this ties back into Price’s law as discussed above - those that start to move ahead slightly have a higher likelihood of moving ahead even further given the way they are oriented towards the world and the way that the world (resources) is oriented towards them.
Knowing all of this, it is important to make sure you are never acting like someone who has lost everything or is a victim. This reinforces the negative feedback loop that will ensure you can be nothing but a loser or victim without access to resources or social connections.
However, if you act in a way that suggests to yourself and others that you are someone who can win, others will notice the confidence and start to treat you differently. Your brain will notice the changes in how others are orientated towards you, increasing the serotonin levels flowing through it. This starts off a reaction, where you are now ever-so-slightly more likely to make progress and receive access to resources. You are moving up the slope of Price’s law.
So, keep your head high and don’t do the things that you know lead to meaningless outcomes or belittle you (especially in your own eyes). Eventually, your brain will kick itself into overdrive - it will get easier to hold your head up high as these positive habits will start to happen naturally.
But first, you must make a little bit of effort yourself to start moving in a positive direction.
So, attend carefully to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a right to them—at least the same right as others. Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead. Dare to be dangerous. Encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.
People, including yourself, will start to assume that you are competent and able (or at least they will not immediately conclude the reverse). Emboldened by the positive responses you are now receiving, you will begin to be less anxious. You will then find it easier to pay attention to the subtle social clues that people exchange when they are communicating. Your conversations will flow better, with fewer awkward pauses. This will make you more likely to meet people, interact with them, and impress them. Doing so will not only genuinely increase the probability that good things will happen to you—it will also make those good things feel better when they do happen.
Also published here.
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