Jordan Peterson & Lobsters: What’s This About?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "12 Rules for Life" by Jordan Peterson. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Jordan Peterson is often associated with lobsters. What is the deal? What do lobsters have to do with 12 Rules for Life?

In summary, it has to do with science experiments with lobsters and social status. Lobsters jockey for social hierarchy, and they signal that to other lobsters. And this is relevant to you, because humans behave the same way. Learn more here.

Overview of Lobsters and Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson first mentions lobsters (specifically, crawfish) in Rule 1 of 12 Rules for Life: “Stand up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.”

This chapter discusses social status from a biological point of view, and how your body language affects how others perceive you and how you feel about yourself. 

The Biology of Social Status

Inequality of ability occurs through natural biological variation – within a species, some animals are more capable than others. Those higher in ability command greater resources:

  • Higher position in social hierarchy
  • More advantageous home locations
  • More reproductive interest from higher-quality mates
  • More cooperation with peers and subordinates

Because social status is so important in life outcomes, you try to figure out where on the social hierarchy you are, you signal that position to other people, and you jockey for a higher position. Sound familiar? These are deeply evolved, biological behaviors.

Enter the Lobster

According to experiments cited by Jordan Peterson, lobsters and crawfish do this. Two stranger lobsters, placed in the same tank, will within 30 minutes determine the dominant and the subordinate lobster. Their subsequent behaviors match their position – one strutting, claws in the air; the other sulking, dejected, prone to flight.

When a behavior is common among divergent species, the behavior was strongly selected for in natural selection and promoted survival in some way. 

The function of this signaling and recognition behavior is to distribute scarce resources between individuals, without the need for costly conflict.

Why Fighting Is Risky

Consider the confrontation between two lobsters sizing each other up. At each stage in conflict, one lobster may yield and opt for subordinance. 

Failing this, the conflict escalates.

First the lobsters examine each other’s claw and body size, and secrete chemicals indicating their health, size, and mood.

Failing this, the lobsters face off, making threatening advances to one another.

Failing this, the lobsters wrestle, trying to flip the other.

Failing this, the lobsters engage in physical combat, using claws to damage body parts.

Because actual fighting is risky for both parties, being able to non-violently determine the stronger through signaling is beneficial.

Similar animal behaviors:

  • Elk will wrestle with horns to prove the stronger one.
  • Defeated wolves will roll over and expose their throats.
  • Among animals, females let the males sort themselves out into a hierarchy, then choose the best individual to mate with.

(Jordan Peterson connects this to the romance trope where a large, powerful, aggressive male is subdued and charmed by the female, as in Beauty and the Beast.)

Consider an average lobster that refused to defer to every lobster as a rule. In some cases it would actually be superior, and the other lobster would back off. But sometimes it would have its bluff called by a stronger lobster, and it would be injured or killed. So “knowing your place” prevents injury from conflict, thus promoting survival.

The Science Behind Lobster Posture

The neurotransmitter serotonin is thought to be the internal mediator of social status. If you feel (or are) dominant in status, more serotonin circulates in your bloodstream. Experimental results that support this:

  • Submissive lobsters have physiologically different serotonin circuits that potentiate differently.
  • Administering SSRIs (antidepressants that increase serotonin levels ) to lobsters makes them adopt the dominant body posture and fight longer before retreating.
  • Low serotonin is associated with less happiness, more illness, and shorter lifespan (Shortform note: though it’s unclear what the causation is – those who are less fit and more prone to illness may naturally have lower status and thus lower serotonin.)

(Shortform note: more research results not cited in the book:

If an alpha male is removed from a group and a new male given Prozac inserted, the Prozac male becomes the new alpha consistently.

Serotonin also seems to improve pro-social behavior and reduces aggression. Makes sense since high-status people have much to lose with violence, while low-status ones do not.

In humans, frat leaders have higher serotonin levels than mere members.)

Why Are Jordan Peterson’s Lobsters Relevant to You?

The important point of Jordan Peterson’s lobsters is that there is a primordial calculator in your brain (the medial prefrontal cortex) that monitors signals to figure out your position in society. It recognizes how others behave around you, and it infers your social standing. Then, based on where you think you are in the hierarchy, you change your perceptions, values, emotions, and actions.

If others kowtow to you, you believe you’re higher on the social hierarchy.

If others belittle and reject you, you believe you’re lower on the social hierarchy. 

There’s an interesting experiment where an alpha male monkey is with a pack of other males, and the submissive behavior of the other males reinforces the alpha’s perception of himself. But if you put the alpha male in front of a one-way mirror, where he can’t see the submissive behavior of other males, he lowers his serotonin. The point is, seeing how others behave toward you is important for figuring out your hierarchy.

Jordan Peterson & Lobsters: What’s This About?

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Allen Cheng

Allen Cheng is the founder of Shortform. He has a passion for non-fiction books (having read 200+ and counting) and is on a mission to make the world's best ideas more accessible to everyone. He reads broadly, covering a wide range of subjects including finance, management, health, and society. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and attended medical training at the MD/PhD program at Harvard and MIT. Before Shortform, he co-founded PrepScholar, an online education company.

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