Neuropsychology and Mythology of Motivation for Group Aggression, by Jordan B. Peterson

Metanexus Cogito. 2005.08.12. 9,124 Words.

Jordan B. Peterson, applying theories developed in his masterful Maps ofMeaning: The Archetecture of Belief, considers the problem of inter-groupviolence. Suspicious of the "unconscious presuppositions" of Westernpsychology, Peterson turns instead to the findings of neuroscience, and thewritings of thinkers as diverse as Mircea Eliade, Francis Fukuyama, J.W.Goethe, and Milton, to account for group aggression. In his words: "Theindividual inhabits a network of meaning, intrapsychic and social, whose intactfunctioning regulates emotion. Threats to the stability of this network -- toits axioms -- provoke aggressive responding. The probability of such aggressionis increased, when the network so inhabited is anachronistic and rigid.Individuals who self-admittedly flee from their moral responsibilities doomtheir networks of meaning to such anachronism and rigidity. In this manner theycome necessarily to serve a master whose nature they do not understand."Reprinted from Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict, Volume 1, (ISBN -
0-12-227010-X), Kurtz, L. (Ed.), pp 529-545, J. B. Peterson,"Neuropsychology and Mythology of Motivation for Group Aggression,"Copyright (1999), with permission from Elsevier.

Jordan Peterson is a a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at theUniversity of Toronto since 1998. Previously he was a professor at HarvardUniversity from 1993-1998. He completed his graduate and post-doctoral work atMcGill University under the supervision of Dr. Robert O. Pihl, studingalcoholism and agression. He is currently interested in the formal assessmentand theoretical nature of self-deception, construing it as voluntary failure ofexploration rather than as repression (although both mechanisms appear toobtain). He also does experimental work on creativity, achievement,personality, narrative and motivation. His book Maps of Meaning: TheArchitecture of Belief (1999), focuses on the psychology of myth and religion.A new website,, offers comprehensive extensions ofPeterson's work, including a 13-part TV series jointly produced by TVOntarioand the University of Toronto Department of Psychology, as well as manyadditional papers, multimedia presentations, reviews, summaries, and readingcourses concerning his research.


Neuropsychology and Mythology of Motivation for Group Aggression

By Jordan B. Peterson

"A. Bラララv has told howexecutions were carried out at Adak ラ a camp on the PechoraRiver. They would take the opposition members "with theirthings" out of the camp compound on a prisoner transport atnight. And outside the compound stood the small house of theThird Section. The condemned men were taken into a room one at atime, and there the camp guards sprang on them. Their mouths werestuffed with something soft and their arms were bound with cordsbehind their backs. Then they were led out into the courtyard,where harnessed carts were waiting. The bound prisoners werepiled on the carts, from five to seven at a time, and driven offto the "Gorka" ラ the camp cemetery. On arrivalthey were tipped into big pits that had already been prepared andburied alive. Not out of brutality, no. It had beenascertained that when dragging and lifting them, it was mucheasier to cope with living people than with corpses. The workwent on for many nights at Adak. And that is how the moral-politicalunity of our Party was achieved 1."

The individual is fundamentally territorialラ and, furthermore, a creature capable of endlessabstraction. Deep understanding of these two characteristicsimmensely furthers comprehension of the human capacity for thecommission of atrocity in the service of belief. Territorialityand higher order symbolic intelligence unite in the production of"abstract territories," of vast expanse. These abstractterritories ラ belief systems, or ideologies ラ promisedeliverance of behavioral stability in otherwise potentiallychaotic and dangerous social groupings of individuals, motivatedby their own particular and idiosyncratic concerns. Properanalysis of the nature of essential human affect helps make theattraction and overwhelming power of this ideological promiseunderstandable.

Psychology is littered with unconsciouspresuppositions. Sometimes these exist as theoretical foundationblocks: behaviorists, for example, presume the existence of thereflex arc ラ a convenient fiction, whose adoption allows forthe "atheoretical stance" of behaviorism 2. Psychoanalytic thinkers,existentialists, and humanists alike all believe that emotionalstability depends on intrapsychic stability ラ that a happy,productive person is such because he or she is possessed of anintegrated, conflict-free psyche 3, or an ego adapted toreality 4, or an actualized self 5. Western psychology isembedded inextricably in the western philosophical tradition. Theidea of the autonomous and self-governing individual is so much apart of that tradition that it forms an "invisible"axiom of all theories of psychological health. But it is possiblythe case that our vaunted psychological stability depends as muchラ or more ラ on the continued predictability of the"external" environment as on the properly integratedstate of hypothetical intrapsychic systems. Consider Hebb'swords:

"One usually thinks of education, in thebroad sense, as producing a resourceful, emotionally stableadult, without respect to the environment in which these traitsare to appear. To some extent this may be true. But education canbe seen as being also the means of establishing a protectivesocial environment in which emotional stability is possible."

Hebb points out that education alters thecognitive and emotional structure of the individual ラ thus"stabilitizing" him or her ラ but also produces"a uniformity of appearance and behavior" in the socialcontext, which helps remove the impetus for dangerous andunpredictable affective outbursts. He continues:

"On this view, the susceptibility toemotional disturbance may not be decreased. It may in fact beincreased. The protective cocoon of uniformity, in personalappearance, manners, and social activity generally, will makesmall deviations from custom appear increasingly strange and thus(if the general thesis is sound) increasingly intolerable. Theinevitable small deviations from custom will bulk increasinglylarge, and the members of the society, finding themselvestolerating trivial deviations well, will continue to think ofthemselves as socially adaptable 6."

What does the healthy and socially adaptedindividual do when the custom he holds dear is challenged? Hedemonizes the enemy, as prime threat to his "identity,"and goes to war. And when he is in barbarian lands, outside therule of law and the harbor of tradition and restraint, he is aterrible, resentment-ridden predator, whose capacity forunconscionable behavior can hardly be overstated 7.

Carl Rogers, the eminent humanist, adopted whatis arguably the most extreme position, equating intrapsychicintegration with emotional regulation, following Rousseau'sdictum: "With what simplicity I should have demonstratedthat man is by nature good, and that only our institutions havemade him bad 8!" Rogers/Rousseaubelieved that the human being was innately good ラ woulddevelop, of his or her own accord, into a healthy and completeperson, in the absence of (detrimental) social pressure 9. There are at least twosubstantive problems with this hypothesis. It is clear, first,that the idea of what constitutes "good" variessubstantially from society to society. This fact does notnecessary preclude the possibility that some form of "goodness"is in fact innate ラ but it certainly puts the onus on thosewho posit that such is the case to account simultaneously for thevariance in ethical behavior that characterizes different timesand places. Second, the "arbitrary social pressure =
individual psychopathology" hypothesis suffers frominsufficient recognition of the benefits of tradition andcommunitarianism. Social order is a terrible force, clearlyラ crushing individuality, forcing conformity ラ but itis also the structure that makes communication and cooperationbetween individuals possible. It is unreasonable to presume thatthe individual could be social in the absence of socialization.

Intrapsychic integration ラ a primaryconsequence of individual development ラ accounts primarilyfor psychological stability: questionable axiom number one.Social harmony is by contrast an unquestionable precondition forindividual health and well-being. It is impossible for anindividual to be free of severe emotional and motivationalconflict in the conditions prevailing, for example, in theSomalian state prior to the recent UN occupation, or in theRwandan civil war, or in Stalinist Russia. When the actions ofothers have become entirely unpredictable, when every person is apotential enemy or traitor, when theft and homicide are dailyoccurrences ラ individual psychological health, practicallyspeaking, becomes impossible: it is "not healthy" to beemotionally stable under such circumstances. Unbridled fear,hostility, suspicion and aggression will manifest themselvesinevitably, when social order has vanished. As the poet LeonardCohen has it ラ "there is no decent place to stand, in amassacre 10." It is for thisreason ラ to take an example from mythology ラ thatGautama Buddha gave up the Nirvana he was capable of achievingpersonally (as an archetypally "intrapsychically integrated"individual) to work for the salvation of the rest of the world.The Buddha realized that his complete redemption was impossible,in the midst of the constant suffering of less-enlightened others.This central Eastern myth stresses the necessity of socialharmony, as a precondition for complete individuation (and theresponsibility of each individual to work for that state, as wellas to further personal development) 11.

Questionable axiom number two: anxiety orfear is a learned state. In its most elementary formalincarnation, this idea is predicated on the notion of "primary"and "secondary" reinforcers 12. Painful stimuli areprimary. Previously neutral stimuli, paired with primary stimulithat produce pain, become "secondary" reinforcers,whose presence signals imminent punishment, and then produceanxiety. This basic notion is based on an even more fundamentaland "unconscious" presupposition, however ラ thatof the "normative" somnolence and emotional stabilityof organisms. Lab animals ラ such as rats ラ can clearlybe taught fear, in the classical manner. A rat in a cage willlearn to associate a light with a shock if the two are pairedtogether consistently, within a relatively short intervening time.Two considerations are of particular interest, however, withrespect to this apparently self-evident phenomenon.

First: fear-conditioning experiments are almostinevitably conducted on animals who have already "habituated"to the environment in which the experiment takes place. The factof this pre-experimental "habituation" in factconstitutes one of the implicit theories of the experimentalmanipulation (that implicit theory being ラ habituatedrats comprise appropriate subjects for the derivation ofconclusions about fear-acquisition). In actuality, it is thebehavior of the rat placed in a novel cage or open field that isof primary interest and relevance for the comprehension of fearor anxiety. When a rat is removed from his familiar ground, andplaced in new circumstances, he first freezes (he is, to speakanthropomorphically, shocked into immobility: imagine beingdropped naked into a jungle at night). The rat is paralyzed inconsequence of the infinite number of potential horrors thatawait him in this unexplored environment (not that the ratconsciously apprehends these horrors. He is, rather, biologicallyprepared to respond behaviorally, a priori, with "caution,"when he does not know where he is). Anxiety ラ
manifested in behavioral inhibition ラ is the prepotentresponse to novel territory 13. While the rat is frozen,he engages in preliminary exploratory behavior, motivated by theincentive-reward properties of the novel circumstance (as a newthing or situation also beckons with promise, as potentiallyfruitful or useful territory). If his initial tentativeexploratory maneuvers (sniffing, visual mapping) do not produceactual negative consequences, the rat gradually becomes lessbehaviorally inhibited, and starts to explore motorically ラ
starts to move around, and to "map" the new domain.Once this mapping is complete ラ that is, once the rat hasmoved through the new locale, and interacted in its rat mannerwith all the objects in that locale ラ "habituation"occurs. The rat is now calm. It is this "calm" ratラ who went to a lot of trouble to attain his theoretically-baseline"calm" state ラ who can now be "taught"fear. In truth, he was initially terrified, when he was not onhome ground. Then he regulated his own emotional upheaval inconsequence of active exploration. Then, because of a radical andunpredictable environmental transformation ラ in this case,the introduction of the light-shock procedure into previously-familiarterritory ラ the rat becomes afraid, once again.

Second: even self-evidently "neutral"stimuli ラ that is, stimuli to which no "association"has been made ラ are clearly not neutral, at least uponinitial contact. Recent investigations into the phenomena of latentinhibition make this absolutely clear. Take two groups ofrats ラ or two groups of human beings, for that matter 14, 15. Show one group a light,repeatedly. Do not pair the light (theoretically neutral) withany reinforcer. Then take both subject groups, and present themwith the light, paired with a shock. The "pre-exposed"group ラ that is, the group that saw the light repeatedly, inthe absence of "reinforcement" ラ will be muchdelayed in learning the light-shock relationship. This is becausethe members of that group learned the "irrelevancy" ofthe light, by exploring its manifestation numerous times, andattaching to that (potentially and a priori meaningful)manifestation a valence of zero. The importance of the latentinhibition experiments cannot be overstated: the irrelevancyof "meaningless" stimuli is learned, not given. Thenovel phenomenon, whatever it might be (that is, whatever itsintrinsic properties) is not neutral, in the absence of learning.The novel phenomenon has a priori meaning, which must beeliminated, prior to its classification as "something safelyignored" (something like the chair you are sitting on, forexample, or the ceiling above your head).

The question then becomes: what is the apriori significance of the unclassified, or unexplored (ornovel) thing or situation? The answer to this question can bederived from two completely separate domains of inquiry. First,let us turn to Mircea Eliade, the historian of religion, for twoobservations. Eliade states:

"One of the outstanding characteristics oftraditional societies is the opposition that they assume betweentheir inhabited world and the unknown and indeterminate spacethat surrounds it. The former is the world (more precisely, ourworld), the cosmos; everything outside it is no longer a cosmosbut a sort of "other world," a foreign, chaotic space,peop ed by ghosts, demons, "foreigners" (who areassimilated to [undistinguished from, more accurately] the demonsand the souls of the dead) 16.

More specifically, "everything outside"occupies the same categorical space as chaos and disorder itselfラ often given the theriomorphized form of a terrible reptile17 (perhaps because snakes/reptilesare easily feared, and may therefore be productively used as"root metaphors" 18 for the "place offear itself"). The ancient Egyptians regarded the Hyksos,"barbarians," as equivalent to Apophis, the serpent whonightly devoured the sun, according to Egyptian mythology 19; the early Indo-Europeansequated the destruction of enemies in battle to the slaying ofVrtra (the precosmogonic "dragon of chaos") by Indra (theworld-creating hero) 20; and the archaic Iranians(Zoroastrians) equated the mythic struggle of King Faridun (aculture-creating hero, analogous to Romulus or Remus, the mythicfounders of Rome) against a foreign usurper ラ the dragonAzdahak ラ with the cosmogonic fight of the hero Thraetonaagainst Azi Dahaka, the primordial serpent of chaos 21. The enemies of the OldTestament Hebrews suffer the same fate: they are regarded asequivalent to Rahab, or Leviathan, the serpent Yahweh overcame inhis battle to establish the world 22["Speak, and say, Thussaith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against thee, Pharaoh king ofEgypt, the great dragon that lieth in the midst of his rivers,which hath said, My river is mine own, and I have made it formyself." (Ezekiel 29:3); also, "Nebuchadrezzar the kingof Babylon hath devoured me, he hath crushed me, he hath made mean empty vessel, he hath swallowed me up like a dragon, he hathfilled his belly with my delicates, he hath cast me out." (Jeremiah51:34)]. It is of great interest, in this regard to consider thebehavior of rats in their natural habitat towards a stranger.Rats are highly social animals, perfectly capable of living withtheir familiar compatriots in peace. They do not like members ofother kin groups, however; will hunt them down and kill them.Accidental or purposeful intruders are dealt with in the samemanner. Rats identify one another by smell. If an experimenterremoves a well-loved rat from its familial surroundings, scrubsit down, provides it with a new odor, and returns it to its peersラ it will be promptly dispatched, by those who once loved it23. The "new" ratconstitutes "unexplored territory;" his presence isregarded as a threat (not unreasonably) to everything currentlysecure. Chimpanzees ラ perfectly capable of killing "foreigndevils" (even those who were once familiar) ラ act inmuch the same manner 24.

Eliade continues, commenting on on the natureof rituals for "consecrating" or "takingpossession" of unfamiliar territory (that is, the territorycharacterized by demons, ghosts, dragons and barbarians ラ
and, to speak psychologically, the place of a prioriuncertainty, terror and aggression):

"At first sight this cleavage in spaceappears to be due to the opposition between an inhabited andorganized ラ hence cosmicized ラ territory and theunknown space that extends beyond its frontiers; on one sidethere is a cosmos, on the other a chaos. But we shall see that ifevery inhabited territory is a cosmos, this is precisely becauseit was first consecrated, because, in one way or another, it isthe work of the gods or is in communication with the world of thegods.... An unknown, foreign and unoccupied territory (whichoften means "unoccupied by our people" still shares inthe fluid and larval modality of chaos."

He points out that the occupation and settlingof "unknown land" transforms it, by repeating the"cosmogony" ラ that is, by "acting out"or embodying the creative processes, undertaken by the gods, thatoriginally separated the "domain of order" from theoriginal chaos, at the beginning of time:

"For in the view of archaic societieseverything that is not "our world" is not yet a world.A territory can only be made ours by creating it anew, that is,by consecrating it. This religious behavior in respect to unknownlands continued, even in the West, down to the dawn of moderntimes [and was reflected recently in the "planting of theflag" on the moon, by the American astronauts.] The Spanishand Portuguese conquistadors, discovering and conqueringterritories, took possession of them in the name of Jesus Christ[the world-creating logos] 25."

This is a great and interesting notion. The"unexplored" world is equivalent to chaos (somethingthat might be considered akin to "latent information,"in more modern parlance). The establishment of order, in thatchaos ラ that is, the subjection of the unknown toexploration, law and tradition ラ is equivalent,mythologically speaking, to the heroic "creation of theworld." That makes every inhabitant of extra-cultural spacean emissary of chaos (easily assimilated to the devil, the "strangeson of chaos," in Goethe's terminology 26) ラ and everyconqueror an incarnation of the world-engendering God.

To understand the meaning of "chaos,"mythically conceived, we turn from religious phenomenology toexperimental psychology. Jeffrey Gray 13, 27 has been at pains toestablish the a priori affective valence of the novelphenomenon. He notes that something novel can be regarded, fromthe perspective of functional neuropsychopharmacology, as athreat and as an incentive reward ラ simultaneously. Whatprecisely does this signify? Well, the classic view is thatstimuli unpaired with primary reinforcers have no motivationalvalence. This is clearly incorrect, as we have seen. But whatvalence could something unexplored possibly possess, given thatthe unexplored thing or situation is by definition unknown, andnot yet subject to the sort of categorization that would allowfor intelligent attribution of value? The answer to this lies inconsideration of possibility. The unknown can reasonably beconsidered a domain of punishment, in potential, as well asreward (as the Lord giveth, so to speak, and taketh away). Cuesof punishment are threats, technically speaking, and produceanxiety (which is behavioral and emotional response to threat).Cues of (consummatory) reward, by contrast, are "promises,"ラ have incentive properties, technically speaking, andproduce positive affect, of various forms (curiosity, hope andexcitement). The unknown therefore produces two conflictingstates of affect/motivation, "simultaneously" ラ
anxiety/behavioral inhibition and excitement-hope-curiosity/behavioralactivation. This state of affairs is much reminiscent of Dollardand Miller's approach-avoidance conflict 28 ラ so, it might besaid that the unfamiliar or unknown produces approach-avoidanceconflict like nothing else (see Figure 1). And is this so hard tobelieve? We are powerfully attracted ラ and powerfullyrepelled ラ by things we do not understand (this is why wemust "boldly go where no one has gone before"). Whetherattraction to or repulsion by the unknown dominates might dependon context (and, perhaps, on character).

Figure 1:The Ambivalent Nature of Novelty

30.The initial activedefensive behavior, flight to the tunnel/chamber system, isfollowed by a period of immobility during which the rats make 22kHz ultrasonic vocalizations, which apparently serve as alarmcries, at a high rate 31. As freezing breaks up,proxemic avoidance of the open area gradually gives way to apattern of "risk assessment" of the area where the catwas encountered. Subjects poke their heads out of the tunnelopenings to scan the open area where the cat was presented, forminutes or hours before emerging, and when they do emerge, theirlocomotory patterns are characterized by [behaviors thattheoretically reduce their visibility and vulnerability topredators] and [by] very short "corner runs" into andout of the open area."

These "risk assessment activities"help the (unsettled and terrified) rats gather new informationabout the possible danger source 32.Themarshalling of such information appears to provide the basis fora gradual return to "nondefensive" behaviors 33.This isclearly not mere habituation. The rats are reconstructing theirworld ラ integrating the anomalous occurrence with what they"understood" previously ラ while engaged in fear-regulatedincentive-reward mediated exploratory behavior. Such behavior is

"... not seen during early post-catexposure, when freezing and avoidance of the open area are thedominant behaviors, but rises to a peak about 7-10 hours later,and then gradually declines. Nondefensive behaviors such aseating, drinking and sexual and aggressive activity tend to bereduced over the same period 30, 34."

The unexpected appearance of a predator, wherenothing but defined territory previously existed, terrifiesthe rats ラ badly enough so that they "scream"about it, persistently, for a long period of time. Once thisinitial terror abates ラ which only occurs if nothing elsehorrible or punishing happens ラ curiosity is disinhibited,and the rats return to the scene of the crime. The space "renovelized"by the fact of the cat has to be transformed once again intoexplored territory ラ as a consequence of activemodification of behavior (and representational schema), not bypassive desensitization to the unexpected. The rats runacross the territory "contaminated" by the presence ofthe cat, to find out if anything dangerous (to running rats)still lurks there. If the answer is "no," then thespace is defined, once again, as home territory (which is thatplace where commonplace behaviors produce desired ends). The ratstransform the dangerous unknown into familiar territory, as aconsequence of voluntary exploration. In the absence of suchexploration, terror reigns unchecked.

Gray drew on the work of the pioneering Russianneuropsychologist Sokolov, who began work on the "reflexbasis" of attention in the 1950's. By the early 60's,this work had advanced to the point where he could formulate thefollowing key propositions ラ first:

"One possible approach to analyzing theprocess of reflection is to consider the nervous system as amechanism which models the external world by specific changesthat occur in its internal structure. In this sense a distinctset of changes in the nervous system is isomorphic with theexternal agent that it reflects and resembles. As an internalmodel that develops in the nervous system in response to theeffect of agents in the environment, the image performs the vitalfunction of modifying the nature of behavior, allowing theorganism to predict events and actively adjust to its environment35."

and second:

"My first encounter with phenomena whichindicated that the higher divisions of the central nervous systemform models of external agents involved the study of reactions to"novel" [stimulus features. I characterized thesereactions as] orienting reflexes. The peculiar feature ofthe orienting reflex is that after several applications of thesame stimulus (generally five to fifteen) the response disappears(or, as the general expression goes, "is extinguished").However, the slightest possible change in the stimulus issufficient to awaken the response.... Research on the orientingreflex indicates that it does not occur as a direct result ofincoming excitation; rather, it is produced by signals ofdiscrepancy which develop when afferent [incoming] signals arecompared with the trace formed in the nervous system by anearlier signal 36"

Sokolov was concerned primarily with themodelling of the events in the objective external world ラ
assuming, essentially, that when we model, we model facts. Mostof the scholars who have followed his lead have adopted thiscentral assumption, at least implicitly (including Gray). Thisposition requires some modification. We do model facts, but weconcern ourselves with valence, or value. It is therefore thecase that our maps of the world con ain what might be reg

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