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Jordan Peterson, Zebras, & The Tall Poppy Syndrome - Part 2

Doug Garland
Doug Garland
3 min read
Jordan Peterson, Zebras, & The Tall Poppy Syndrome - Part 2
Matilija Poppy. Notice six petals, not four which is characteristic of the California Poppy. Photo by author.

Table of Contents

Lodging. Lodging (agriculture) is the permanent bending of the stems of grain crops such as wheat and barley from wind which makes harvesting difficult and reduces yield. The taller the head of grain, the more likely the lodging. For TPS purposes, the taller poppy (TP) is more conspicuous which increases the chances of being cut down.

In Jordan Peterson, Professional Licensing Agencies, & The Tall Poppy Syndrome -Part 1 the Matilija Poppy (MP) was selected because of its height (6-10 feet) and sturdiness. Peterson is a recognized TP as well as somewhat refractory to being cut down. Today's isolated MP flower signifies that tribal friends often abandon TPs because of fear of being cut down. This isolation happened to Peterson in Part 1.

Zebras. Most zebras have dark skin beneath their fur which grows from follicles that contain pigment-generating melanocyte cells. The melanocytes are deactivated in the white fur. Consequently, many authorities describe zebras as black with white stripes. The stripe pattern is unique to each animal.

The function of the stripes has been debated for centuries. Favored hypotheses include:

    confusion: confuse predators by making it difficult to distinguish individuals in a group as well as their outlines and numbers; or by making it difficult to determine their size, speed, and direction.

    aposematic: signal that they are not worth eating or attacking.

    social function: enable individual recognition, social bonding, and mutual grooming.      

    thermoregulatory: facilitate control of body temperature.

    fly protection: deter blood-sucking flies.

    crypsis: the ability to avoid observation or detection by other animals.

In 2017, Peterson used the zebra (stripe function - confusion) instead of the poppy as a metaphor regarding TPS in a YouTube interview: Jordan Peterson talks about the Zebra story (Tall Poppy Syndrome). The interview is imaginative and a delightful twist on TPS. The summary follows.

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist, cultural critic, and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He uses zebras to illustrate how humans behave in groups. Zebras have black and white stripes that camouflage them against the herd, not against their surroundings. This prevents predators like lions from singling them out. If a zebra stands out from the pack with a distinguishing mark, it will get targeted by lions.

Peterson relates this to human behavior. In a group, it's safest not to stand out. Those who stand out get "cut down." He cites TPS, in which people discourage individual achievement out of envy or dislike of showiness. Canadians in particular avoid standing out from the crowd.

The key insights from his zebra story are:

  • In a group, it's safest to blend in. Standing out makes you vulnerable.
  • Stripes camouflage a zebra against the herd, not the environment. Herd camouflage protects zebras.
  • Marking a zebra to track it causes lions to kill it. Singling oneself out is dangerous.
  • Humans show "herd behavior" and discourage standing out through TPS.
  • From Jordan's perspective, Canadians especially avoid standing out and fitting Peterson's "zebra mentality" of staying safely camouflaged.
  • Proverbs across cultures warn about the risks of standing out through metaphors like "the tall poppy" and "the head that rises above the others."

Overall, Peterson uses the zebra story as a metaphor for human conformity and discouragement of individuality. Blending into the crowd is a defensive tactic to avoid risk. He sees this tendency, especially in Canadian culture, as analogous to a zebra herd where stripes provide protective camouflage.

Peterson's zebra rendition of TPS is fresh and modern as well as fascinating.  His critical insights are nearly indistinguishable from the Nordic Laws of Jante (The Tall Poppy Syndrome: The Joy of Cutting Others Down) which are 10 codified directives on how not to grow tall or stand out.

Was TPS one of Peterson's standard talking points about the culture of Canada or was he clairvoyant about his own future and his collision course with the TPS metaphor? Listen to the short interview and decide.

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Douglas Garland, M.D. practiced orthopedic surgery for 37 years in Southern California. Doug was also a Clinical Professor of Orthopedics at the University of Southern California.