Predictable Identities: 12 – Fear, Myths, and the Outgroup, Part II

This entry is part 12 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

In Neuropsychology of Group Aggression Jordan Peterson, before anyone knew or hated him, inadvertently describes why some people will passionately hate him when they find out.

The article talks about high-level models keeping anxiety and fear of the unknown at bay. When these models are challenged by new data, people whose frameworks are already straining will react to the challenge with hostility. They will engage in “confirmation extortion” and attack the messenger.

[…] the tendency to demonize evidence of conceptual insufficiency, or the bearers of that evidence, and to ‘morally’ attempt to eliminate it or them from existence.

Making a distinction between “reporters” and “journalists”, the latter’s job is not to describe facts but to interpret their meaning. Meaning-making involves applying stock narratives, the primary one often being “the outgroup is evil and all the same”. For journalists whose outgroup are conservatives, Peterson highlights the acute “conceptual insufficiency” of that narrative.

Conservatives are not supposed to be humanities professors at Harvard, but Peterson was. Conservatives are supposed to say that life begins at conception, but Peterson’s takes a full minute to think of what to say on abortion, and five more to say it.

In his most notorious interview, journalist Cathy Newman repeats “so you’re saying…” dozens of times as she tries to cram Peterson’s idiosyncratic worldview into a familiar narrative – quintessential confirmation extortion. When he’s not around to interview, journalists often engage in “moral elimination” by associating him with the worst of his fans.

Why not attack the worst of his arguments instead? I think it has less to do with the strength of Peterson’s arguments and more with the journalists’ own anxiety. The financial anxiety of a struggling industry, the status anxiety of alternative outlets stealing attention, and the ideological anxiety of their narratives failing in the face of a weirding world full of weird people like Jordan Peterson.

Series Navigation<< Predictable Identities: 11 – Fear, Myths and the Outgroup, Part IPredictable Identities: 13 – Totalizing Ideologies >>

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About Jacob Falkovich

Jacob is so proud of his blog,, that it's on his online dating profiles. He also tweets @yashkaf.


  1. Damn man your blogchain is racing ahead of all of mine… 12 parts already 😝

    • By my count, you’re writing 6.5 blogchains (unless you gave up on any), Ian Cheng is writing 0.5, and no one else has blogchained since April. What are your reflections on this writing format?

      Personally, I find that 300 words is the sweet spot for me in terms of length. If each post had to be longer, the task of writing them would be too daunting to bang out in a single session and I would’ve probably given up by now. If they were shorter I would feel that I can’t even express a single idea well. Even now it’s a struggle to edit each post down from a 350-400 word draft, and several of the comments ask why I didn’t think of some obvious thing to add.

      But as for the chain itself, I’m not sure how coherent it would be for someone who is going to read the posts in order. I’m constantly worried that I repeat myself too much or not enough, that the topics are either too narrow or too disconnected. Also, it’s strange to keep writing what is ultimately a single work on a topic on which I’ve changed my mind in several ways since the blogchain began. It’s almost like a collaboration between different Jacobs, and neither of us knows exactly what the other is trying to say.

      • I think one of the ways we’re going to find out is by compiling the posts into short stand-alone ebooks/pdfs and distributing them. I suspect they’ll read a little bit like impressionistic essay series. One of the things I’m personally testing is “long arc” dynamics… how big ideas accumulate when you let them breathe in a rhythm as opposed to waterfall-dumping them. I plan to do summary posts for mine every 10 parts or so, to get people caught up and reinforce long-arc themes. You might want to try something similar.

  2. phdinfunk says

    Your thoughts on this blogchain are extremely lucid, among the best on Ribbonfarm.

    I wonder how well people are able to put all this to use, though. A Tibetan guru once told me, “Most people in the West are afflicted with the wound that you get what you pay for, and if it ain’t expensive, it ain’t worth having.” I guess that’s normal guru talk, but it also makes me wonder — I’m 39, have a degree in Sociology and experience in multiple industries, having lived in two different cultures. This whole “Predictable Identities” series holds a lot of the wisdom I’ve picked up from observing people.

    This one for example, explains people’s need to resort to odd heroics when someone doesn’t wave the exact, unadulterated ideological flag that agrees with them. The whole blog chain more than touches the fact that it also bothers people when someone doesn’t do what’s expected, even if ostensibly, they are in the same camp. And many people’s social responses in these situations of ambiguity resemble the histrionic presentations of heroic action — basically, rising to face their own fear with a sword and a bow.

    All this also helps make a good argument for one of Venkat’s 42 rules of consulting: Stay Normcore in your presentation to your clients.

    You don’t want to scare off those little social squirrels, or tip them off that you might scare off someone near them.

  3. I had a massive comment attached to the last one, which I never got around to posting but I was fascinated to observe a very opposite reaction; Peterson’s core appeal/controversy is in his pattern recognition, his fear of a conglomerate of Marxists Postmodernists, Social Scientists and Feminists in which competing and disagreeing factions are asserted to belong to a unified threatening whole to be opppsed.

    And yet this conglomerate set has another thing in common, which he biographically openly identifies in Maps of Meaning with key moments of his own anxiety, his career change from social science, his desire to find his own voice after reflecting on the left wing conformism of his teens, his fears over the cold war, the science wars of the early 90s, and now, though not mentioned in that old book, obviously added to the list, his struggles with student activists seeking to “educate” him in new linguistic forms.

    At every stage new enemies are stacked up into the same box as the old ones, in a way that his article you linked explicitly proposes (though without referring to himself) as a negative reaction to uncertain situations; “can this be interpreted under previous threat heuristics?” that can inhibit further learning.

    That this seems so biographical made me wonder if his system is actually asserting the centrality of his own particular biases, when he says that the dominant and most immediate reaction of human beings to extra-model structures is fear, is he deemphasising the curiosity that overwhelms caution because it is shown to be a peripheral reaction, or because of the classic philosopher’s problem of building a cosmos of your habits?

    This lead me into some very interesting investigations into the neurologically intertwined dopamine and noradrenaline systems, and their different ways they tend to bring us out of ourselves into experience of unexpected things in the world.

    I still haven’t got much to say about that, or I would have commented before, but there’s a lot of fascinating stuff there about our conspicuously and consistently higher dopamine levels than all other primates, and the implications that this would make us tend to be more driven by salience and self-attributed meaning than almost any equivalent animal, with the possible exception of some other curious entities like birds or cetaceans. (Makes me want to look into the brain chemistry of crows and dolphins.)

    Contrary to some popular science treatments I’ve seen of this result that hold to the slightly older model of the dopamine system as being about reward, drugs etc. there is the possibility that animal models could fail to be good representations of human decision making because of our particular capacity to give into curiosity, delusion, psychosis and meaning driven action at the expense of potentially immediately safer negative reinforcement and fight or flight reactions. That we tend to associate the former with humanity and the latter with “animality” is even more striking to me.

    Still, this’ll take a lot more reading for me to be satisfied with it. A simple reading though which may prove wrong is that Peterson operates with a dominant contribution from the noradrenaline system, models consciousness as having a similar dominance universally, and that his advice to seek meaning while building tolerance to the unknown is a compensatory emphasis on shifting the balance of particularly anxious people’s functioning from their adrenergic system towards their dopaminergic one.

    According to this, his advice should be particularly relevant to anxious people whose caution currently overwhelms their curiosity, but useless to those who operate in the opposite way, needing to learn how to systemise productive threat analysis and appropriate task interruption (both useful functions of the adrenergic system) into their baseline unknown-seeking behaviour.

    But it’s also striking to me, to a lesser extent but more to the point of this post, the way that Jordan Peterson’s own works seem to flag up flaws in his thinking, like his simultaneous arguments for revolutionary society-transforming heroes, with seeking to uphold unsustainable status quos being “identifying with the devil”, in the language of his previous books, with his modern fears that those advocating action on for example climate change are simply seeking to reorder society.

    The paradox here of course is that seeking to impose hegemonic order on the environment and immediate social context according to your own assessment of what is valuable and meaningful, reintegrating with and reforming society based on your own struggles is precisely what he advocates, except when it becomes a practical matter of other people’s “heroic journey” affecting him:

    In the model of his earlier work, an unqualified (as acting within the normal model, no one can be qualified to approach the extra-paradigmatic unknown) but passionate person reacting to flaws in the dominant social model of reality to bring alternative and creative visions of social order should be considered as a potential path to integrate more information into those structures, in a mixture of Kuhn’s “revolutionary science” and the idea of a mythic quest.

    In that model treating them as a threat rather than taking the core of their message should be a classical psychoanalytical defense mechanism. And yet opposing random teenagers or radical academics with arguments in favour of the inherent appropriateness of the status quo is his main source of publicity.

    It’s a perfectly normal conservative viewpoint, that leads him to swerve from pinker-esque assertions of the progress in terms of alleviation of suffering given by globalisation, to Malthusian assertions of the irriducible necessity of suffering, as the particular left wing argument he wants to oppose demands, but not particularly compatible with a cybernetic/mythic/constructionist “order through transitions of chaos” model advocated for in his writings.

  4. I should probably just have posted this link from the start, fascinating discussion of the connection between dopamine and environmental entropy, which basically ended up confirming all my assumptions, simulatiously basing itself of Peterson’s work and rejecting one of his core theses suggesting that avoidance behaviour isn’t a primary precondition that must be satisfied for exploration to begin, but is a result of an antagonistic mechanism, tied to the fear related system I mentioned earlier. Also by summarising the longer post I never made inside that still pretty long one, I think I overstated the difference between talking about the dopamine system and reward, but from what I’ve read, I do think it makes more sense to think about it in the terms proposed in that article, as that which directs our attention towards grappling with the unknown.

    In terms of the blogchain topic activation of the dopamine system was found to be correlated with activities like parties, attending public lectures, clubbing etc. content based interactions with strangers, where familiarity and model conformity is of low concern, if not a negative.