Rule 1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back

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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In 12 Rules for Life, Rule #1 is “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.” What does this mean? Do you stand up straight physically? Or is this more of a metaphor for being confident?

It turns out Jordan Peterson’s Rule 1 means both. We’ll discuss what he meant by stand up straight, and how your physical posture affects your mental state.

This chapter of 12 Rules for Life 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

(This is the most science-heavy chapter of 12 Rules for Life, so if you don’t enjoy reading this, don’t worry – the rest of the book isn’t like this.)

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.

  • Even 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. 

According to Jordan Peterson’s Rule 1, the function of this signaling and recognition behavior is to distribute scarce resources between individuals, without the need for costly conflict. This is the important part of Rule 1: “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.”

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.

(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.)

(Shortform note: How is standing up straight helpful for survival, especially in the case of the subordinate lobster?

  • 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.
  • Likewise, a supreme alpha lobster would rather avoid conflict, since injury could allow an inferior third lobster to take advantage of the situation. The alpha also doesn’t necessarily want to kill submissive individuals, since they could be useful partners later.
  • From a group perspective, if ability is concentrated unequally, and if a group is best served by following the unequally good people, then hierarchies are useful.)

Serotonin and Social Status

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 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 that supports Jordan Peterson’s Rule 1:

  • 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.)

What Is the Point of All This Lobster Talk?

The important point 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. 

In other words, if you “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back,” others will treat you with respect. They believe you’re high on the social status, so they treat you accordingly. In contrast, if you violate Rule 1, you’ll be seen as low status, and others will treat you accordingly.

(Shortform note: 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.)

Standing Up Straight Can Affect Your Mood

In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson argues that this perception of your social affects mental illness.

  • Anxiety
    • Lower status people really live in greater threat, having fewer resources available to deal with problems and emergencies.
    • This restricts serotonin secretion, which raises stress levels, makes you more impulsive and reactive to situations – “you must be ready to survive.”
    • You jump at more short-term opportunities that appear, not able to put them off for long-term rewards.
  • Depression: 
    • (Shortform note: there’s a hypothesis that depression is so common today because mass media makes you compare yourself to the best of billions of other people. On this unprecedented world stage, you’re not particularly good at anything. Even worse, social media makes you compare to the highlight reel of people that you know personally.
    • In the past, being in a small tribe, you might compare to only 100 people, and you could be the best in the tribe at something. Nowadays, it’s hard to be demonstrably the best at anything, and you may not receive the subordinate signals from anyone else. Thus one might get locked in depression.)
  • Those in more vulnerable positions, chronically deprived of pleasure, may also be more susceptible to drugs and alcohol.

Finally, through feedback loops, you can become stuck in a low social position. You behave in a subordinate way, which makes others treat you as a subordinate, which makes you feel more subordinate, which makes you behave subordinate. Here’s a concrete example: 

  • One infers low social status from the environment, perhaps through bullying or controlling parents. 
  • This attracts negative attention from others who treat them as subordinates, which further reinforces self-perception of low status.
  • It also promotes stress, which is physiologically costly and can cause impulsive short-term decisions that lower status.
  • It also encourages behavior that entrenches the low status, like refusing to ask for promotions, which continues to reinforce low social status. 

How Body Language Affects Your Social Status

If all this is true, then to elevate your social status, first you need to signal your confidence through external body language. Peterson suggests, “stand up straight, with your shoulders back.”

According to Jordan Peterson’s Rule 1, people will perceive you as higher in social status, and they’ll treat you as competent and able. This will then kick off a virtuous cycle – because you’re receiving positive signals from others, you’ll increase your own self-worth, which will make you act even more confidently.

  • Some experiments suggests that alterations in body language can change mental perception – smiling makes you happier, adopting power poses can make you feel more confident.

This begins with your body language, but you also need to improve self-beliefs. Speak your mind, put your desires forward, and dare to be dangerous.

This is the beginning of developing self-respect, accepting the demands of life, marking your space, and standing up to tyranny.

This is a variant of “fake it ‘til you make it.” Even if you don’t feel confident, act confidently – others will treat you better, and you will develop real confidence.

You might worry that all this posturing will make you a target for attack by stronger people. Peterson argues that the ability to respond with aggression decreases the probability that actual aggression will become necessary. In other words, acting confidently is a deterrent to attack.

Exceptions to Rule 1?

But fake it ‘til you make it might only go so far. Doesn’t this ignore the problem that there is such a thing as real ability, and that a person’s low social status might be warranted?

Peterson acknowledges this, but suggests that there are people who specifically prey on those who behave submissively. This could cause an artificially low perception of status and make it hard to crawl out of your vicious cycle.

Instead, if you kick off the change by appearing confident, people will treat you as though you have value. You get positive responses, and this makes you less anxious, which makes you better at conversation and social interaction. As you enjoy things more, you will seek it out more, and so forth.

So follow Rule 1: “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.”

Rule 1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back

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  • Why standing up straight will make people treat you differently
  • How to find meaning in your life and work
  • Why you're lying to yourself without realizing it

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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