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Jordan Peterson’s Evidence-Based Endeavor

It is well known that clinical psychologist, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, has been portrayed in the media as a polarizing figure: bigoted alt-right charlatan on the one hand, superordinate fatherly free-speech protector on the other hand. The former portrayal reflects downright ignorance and the latter is optimistic. Commentary on his clinical psychological acumen is conspicuously absent. His detractors are keen to point out his politics, eccentricities, and volatility, as if political pigeon-holing and ad hominem attacks weaken the veracity of his claims. This is inaccurate.

I know because I am a former psychology student of Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto; he was my undergraduate thesis supervisor. I have a master’s of science degree and a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from the University of Calgary. I am a registered and practicing clinical psychologist in Calgary, AB, Canada. I provide evidence-based treatment to individuals with concurrent mental health and addictive disorders in a specialty outpatient hospital clinic. I have published many peer-reviewed scientific research papers on topics related to addiction and mental health. What Jordan Peterson is preaching is, in fact, based in solid scientific principles for behavior change. He has been accused of cherry-picking findings from multiple disciplines and offering conjecture in areas outside of his expertise. Instead, Peterson should rightfully be lauded for embodying the scientific spirit. He aims to draw his conclusions based on a scientific principle called consilience of findings, which was popularized by E. O. Wilson in his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. This means that Peterson aims to link facts and principles across disciplines of study to help ground his claims in evidence. It is not an easy feat for anybody to pursue, especially academics, who are highly, albeit narrowly, specialized in their respective fields.

The field of clinical psychology, however, is Peterson’s territory. While it is obvious to people familiar with his work that Peterson revivifies and makes accessible a multitude of esoteric insights derived from depth psychology and philosophy, it is perhaps less obvious that his messages parallel those to be found in the repertoire of your local evidence-based, practicing clinical psychologist. For example, Peterson’s detailing and promotion of hero mythology can be thought of as the original, romanticized, and richer version of the colder, clinical application of exposure-based treatments that are derived from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)—one of the most evidence-based psychological treatments that we have for a myriad of presenting problems, including depressive, anxiety, and addictive disorders.

Peterson’s thorough delineations and insistence on cleaning your room, speaking the truth, and exploring meaningful pursuits capture the essence of approaches that draw from motivational interviewing (MI) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)—evidence-based approaches designed to elicit self-change processes directed towards congruency between a person’s values and their behaviors. His online writing program, selfauthoring.com, harnesses the salutary effects of the expressive writing literature. In particular, the future authoring suite is an evidence-based intervention per se for improving academic performance; the suite facilitates goal setting and is consistent with behavioral activation approaches (i.e., a sub-therapy of CBT) that help people tackle procrastination and enhance their confidence. It is in this sense—that the principles he speaks to mirror those found in the evidence-based clinical psychological literature—that I contend Peterson is providing evidence-based self-help material for the masses. It is no wonder, then, that he has amassed such a substantial following despite his nay-sayers. The potential benefits from understanding and consuming his material can approximate what one can glean from successful psychotherapy. Whether a person wants to mitigate mental health concerns or improve their quality of life, self-help materials can be thought of as the lowest rung on the ladder in a stepped-care model of mental health treatment. Peterson provides these self-help materials in many forms, including his online lectures, selfauthoring.com online program, and his most recent book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. So, you might not like the man, but you can’t knock his clinical psychological expertise. END

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan N. Stea, Ph.D., R. Psych, is a registered and practicing clinical psychologist in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and is a former psychology student of Jordan Peterson.

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