A sage for the age?

31 July 2018

It is rare for a psychologist to be featured in the Sunday Times bestseller list, and to have been on that list for 26 consecutive weeks. Professor Jordan Peterson’s new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos has sold over 100,000 copies in hardback, in the UK alone. Yet this Canadian psychologist’s has work has received only a couple of passing mentions in the pages of The Psychologist.

We both attended one of Peterson’s sell-out public lectures at the Hammersmith Odeon in London in May this year. During this visit to England he also appeared on a number of television and radio shows, as well as delivering a keynote lecture at the Oxford Union. He has a huge online following. Why, what is it that Jordan Peterson offers? In our opinion, he comes across as authoritative and knowledgeable, which may be why so many are drawn to him. He seems to put forward a form of certainty to many in an age of instability, or what he would call chaos. Yet his own discipline seems unable or unwilling to truly embrace him. While he is surrounded by controversy, largely concerning his views on male-female relations, this could make him a fascinating candidate for an interview in The Psychologist or a keynote address at the Society’s Annual Conference.

While some psychologists may disagree with Peterson’s approach, very few psychologists have a really significant media presence, or are capable of reaching such numbers. Maybe it’s time Psychology had a ‘superstar’ to boost its profile. Physics has Brian Cox, medicine has had people like Robert Winston. Is Jordan Peterson to be the spokesperson for a Psychology profession that wishes to engage with the world outside the laboratory? Or will someone else step forward to take up this mantle?

Professor Jerome Carson
University of Bolton 
Mark Durkin
PhD candidate University of Bolton

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Editor's note: Find us on Twitter for some interesting discussion on this letter (you can enter @psychmag Jordan Peterson in the Twitter search to find the tweet and much ensuing debate). 

In summary, the reponse – particularly from professional psychologists – was a fairly resounding 'no he's not a sage for our age', and 'no psychology doesn't need superstars' (or in fact it already has many). Although some respondents supported Peterson or at least said they found his ideas and huge popularity intriguing, many more raised their concern that Peterson's career has veered into cherry-picking pseudoscience, that 'This kind of dialogue normalises vicious, hateful ideologies', or that this letter was somehow suggesting a British Psychological Society platform or endorsement, or serving as 'clickbait' (all accusations which I vigorously countered on Twitter). 

We remain a forum for discussion and debate, and I would encourage any BPS member to sign in and leave their comments below.