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Jordan Peterson

Linking Mythology to Psychology

By Anne C. Krendl

Harvard students may know Assistant Professor of Psychology Jordan B. Peterson as the entertaining lecturer with the Canadian accent who taught Psychology 17, "Introduction to personality."

But few may know that Peterson studies aggression arising from drug and alcohol abuse and first got interested in psychology by reflecting on the Cold War.

Peterson--who now teaches Psychology 2435, "Social identity, Social Conflict, and Information Processing Theory"--has developed a reputation for being an engaging and enthusiastic teacher.

"Anyone who's taking his class can immediately recognize that he's teaching beyond the level of anyone else," psychology concentrator Hassan H. Lopez '95 says.

Naom: L. Reid '97, a psychology concentrator, says that the most notable thing she noticed about Peterson was "the way he synthesized information. he didn't just talk about the theories, but he talked about some of his own ideas and different sources of information."

Aside from calling Peterson "the perfect thesis advisor," Lopez says the professor is always throwing out interesting ideas for students to work on.

Students, including Alisa N. Kendrick '97 say Peterson's wide breadth of knowledge allows him to create "beautiful" theories linking together ideas from mythology, religion, philosophy and psychology.

"Philosophy students even go to him for advice on these," Lopez says.

The multi-disciplinary approach Peterson takes in the classroom apparently extends to the undergraduate theses he oversees, which have included studies on body piercing and the borderline pathology associated with Kurt Cobain, the late lead singer of the rock band Nirvana.

Lopez notes that Peterson is willing to take on any research project, no matter how unconventional. His lab examines everything from pain sensitivity to loneliness to aggression among adolescents.

"If you have a strange project, [the department] will immediately send you to [Peterson] because they know he'll take them," Lopez says.

Peterson seems to pride himself on being able to integrate psychology with the humanities.

"The connection between psychology, mythology and literature is as important as the connection between psychology and biology and the hard sciences," Peterson says.

An Early Interest in Politics

Much of Peterson's current research stems from his early interest in politics and international affairs.

Peterson says he grew up in a small farming community in northern Canada with a population of 3,000. The nearest town was over 60 miles away, but Peterson says he never felt isolated.

"I knew all about the world outside of the town I grew up in," he says. "I think Canadians are more interested in international events than Americans because it is such a small country, so politics affect it more."

Peterson says he joined a political party when he was 13 and was "actively involved" in Canadian politics from the ages of 13 to 18 because he "was always interested in politics."

This interest in politics may have led him, at age 17, to enter college in Grand Prairie, Canada, to study political science. Throughout his college years, he worked odd jobs, ranging from bee keeping to working on a railroad with Cree Indians.

"I guess what I probably learned [from that] was how to get along with all types of people--rough people," he says.

After receiving his undergraduate degree in three years, Peterson took a year off to work as a driver for social services. He then traveled around Europe, where he noticed the significant aftereffects of World War II.

In Europe, he says, the war was a lot more prevalent and not just something that happened and ended. Peterson says he was in Europe when the Cold War was still in full swing. This led him to ponder some psychological questions.

"At that time, 1982, the Cold War was still raging madly away and I was curious about how it could be that a group of people could have set up such a strange situation," Peterson says.

Peterson soon discovered that political science did not answer his questions.

"I was interested in how individuals could lead a group to commit those atrocities," Peterson says. "I was interested in typing to find out why people were so interested in their ideological positions that they would kill to maintain them."

So Peterson says he turned from political science to psychology, spending another year in school "doing straight psychology" before going on to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

After earning his degree, Peterson conducted research and then came to the United States two years ago as an assistant professor at Harvard, where he settled with his wife and two children.

Drugs and Alcohol

Peterson-began his research career studying drug and alcohol abusers with other psychologists. The researchers discovered that when non-alcoholics with a family history of alcoholism consume liquor, their heart rate goes up nearly twice as much as that of "normal people."

Peterson says the excessive rise is due to the subjects' predisposition to alcohol and drugs which stimulate their positive systems.

According to Peterson, people have four types of psychological systems which either attract them toward pleasurable sensations or repel them from harmful ones.

"Drugs that people like to abuse either activate the positive systems or deactivate the negative ones," he says. "Most drugs that people really like are tied to the pleasant system."

Peterson says this propensity to take mind-altering drugs is based on a natural tendency to explore it," Peterson says. "It's the price we pay for intense curiosity."

Peterson cites the example of a child who spins around and around in circles until passing out. The spinning is motivated by the child's desire to explore the unknown, he says.

Book on the 'Net

Peterson's latest project, however, harkens back to his earlier interest in the psychology of the Cold War. Peterson has just finished a book he has worked on for 10 years about the motivation for social conflict.

"It describes what I think myth means and what I think about how our brains work," Peterson says.

He compares belief systems to religions and says the Cold War can basically be interpreted as a fight between two different religious views.

"I'm interested in what motivates individuals to participate in atrocious acts to support their ideological identification," Peterson says.

He cites one such atrocity as the use of mass rape as an instrument of social policy in the former Yugoslavia.

Peterson has released the book on the Internet to get some feedback from outside readers prior to publication. A program on his computer allows check who has looked at the manuscript. The book may be reached on the World Wide Web at the following site:

Showcasing the book electronically may reflect what students call his "young" style. "He just seems to be much more knowledgeable and on the cutting edge of where psychology is going," Kendrick says.

In his spare time, Peterson says he enjoys surfing on the Internate and playing the piano, but he says his two small children, ages one and three, keep him active enough.

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