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How do you know who's the alpha male?
March 7, 2007 6:23 PM   Subscribe

Men: are you aware of who the resident alpha male is around your office, on your bowling team, in your circle of friends? Is this a shifting position?

I'm a curious, moderately well-read girl, and a reasonably perceptive one, but the state of being male is of course a foreign landscape to me for the most part. I have read previous AskMe's (the what happens when men pass each other on the sidewalk? one is particularly interesting) but I still have questions.

The following includes sweeping statements that may well not apply to YOU PERSONALLY. I understand this in advance, so you don't have to point it out. I am also aware that men are not wolves, and that you have many interests and thoughts and feelings that do not involve social dominance and that many of you may well never think of it at all. STILL, I have questions.

One of the things I find interesting in men is that they seem to be aware of social hierarchy and dominance in a way that tends to pass women by entirely. I have the definite impression, from reading, interrogating men on this issue, and observing people in the wild, that men (youngish men, at least) are often engaged in a bout of King of the Hill: that there is a very real struggle for dominance going on a lot of the time. Or, if not a struggle, an awareness of the pecking order. In either case, I'm mostly only aware of these things if I really pay attention.

Can you help me understand how this hierarchy is determined? Essentially, I want to know what it's like, as a hierarchy-conscious male, to walk into a situation where you have to interact with other (strange) males. A ridiculous number of questions follows:

Is your spot in the rankings something innate - that is, you walk into a new office already knowing that you tend to be a highly-ranked beta male, for instance - or something that must be determined in every new situation?

How do you know who's one up, and who's one down? Are there behavioral or body-language markers? When you first meet another man, is the relative firmness of your handshakes indicative of dominance? Does it have to do with posture, eye contact, physical size, perceived strength? All of the above?

Is a new relationship slightly awkward until one of you takes a step back and acknowledges the higher status of the other? How do you indicate that you've rolled over and showed your belly? Is this then a permanent state between the two of you, or something that shifts

Do you recognize alpha-male types in social environments, even without interacting with them?

In your social groups, are you conscious of a constant shifting of the pecking order, or does it remain fairly constant?

What happens if you "out-alpha" your male boss?

If you're the sort of male who doesn't particularly want to get involved in someone's dominance display, what's it like to interact with a dominance-obsessed male?

Is this something that fades with age, or do men in their sixties still establish relative rank?

Are issues of dominance and hierarchy something you discuss with other men? What about with women? Are you consciously aware of what's going on in an interaction, or is it more instinctual? Does it feel good to come out "one up" and bad to come out "one down", or is it not an emotional experience?


Thanks, everyone. Sorry for the gazillion questions. :)
posted by thehmsbeagle to Science & Nature (54 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Interesting question. Unfortunately, from my experience, nothing to do with reality.

My relationships with my male friends may have something to do with point scoring and oneupmanship form time to time, but there is no suggestion whatsoever that there is any existence of any hierarchy. I mean, I know that some of them are better than me at Halo, but that's OK, I can drink more than them.

Maybe we're all just snags? Or too immersed in it and not honest enough with each other to really give you a straight answer? Nah I don't think so, I think the hypothesis is off.
posted by wilful at 6:33 PM on March 7, 2007


Umm as a guy I think it is all about attention. I am conscious of who is or isn't an alpha male type, but there is no real order. You put everyone in the group in a room and have them all throw out ideas of something to do, people will go with the "alpha male's" idea. A group of guys walk into a party, people will go up to the "Alpha male" first.

Really they are just the popular ones in the group.
posted by magikker at 6:35 PM on March 7, 2007


Maybe it holds true for teenagers? Probably so. That would be because their brains aren't as well developed and they have less social skills. Also, it's harder to choose their associates.

I had a rough idea where I stood in the coolness stakes at high school amongst my peers. Yeah, I think it still applies to teenagers and dickheads who haven't grown out of that.

But really, I don't think it applies to (m)any mature responsible adult mals.
posted by wilful at 6:37 PM on March 7, 2007


I agree with wilful; though I do know a few guys who are like this, they are widely recognized to be the weirdos of our social circle.
posted by josh at 6:37 PM on March 7, 2007


I doubt Metafilter men constitute a representative sample for answering this question.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 6:42 PM on March 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


I guess I forgot to answer some of the questions

In your social groups, are you conscious of a constant shifting of the pecking order, or does it remain fairly constant?
Constant, I think its all about charisma and popularity and some people are just cooler than others.

What happens if you "out-alpha" your male boss?

Oh, thats not a social group type of thing, thats making someone in a real position of power feel like you beat them.. Some aren't bad about it others flip out. Depends on how competitive they are.

If you're the sort of male who doesn't particularly want to get involved in someone's dominance display, what's it like to interact with a dominance-obsessed male?
This is odd. I think you are relating dominance obsessiveness with actual dominance, where as really the Alpha male in the group either doesn't care or is good at pretending he doesn't care. Dominance obsessed guys are the ones that throw temper tantrums when things don't go their way. Those tantrums make them no fun to be around. And since they aren't fun, they aren't popular, and therefore not dominant.
posted by magikker at 6:43 PM on March 7, 2007


Yeah, I agree with Aloysius Bear. You're going to get a bunch of "this isn't true for me!" resposes from Metafilter members. But I suspect a lot of these folks do, in fact, fit into a pecking order; they just aren't aware of it. Also, a lot of folks who claim there is no pecking order tend to be low on the pecking order and thus have an interest in there being no pecking order. I'll try to respond to your question in depth after I get a little sleep.
posted by Justinian at 6:47 PM on March 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


My relationships with my male friends may have something to do with point scoring and oneupmanship form time to time, but there is no suggestion whatsoever that there is any existence of any hierarchy.

Pretty much sums it up. My friends and I tend to have sort of informal contests, like riffing on some sort of funny theme and seeing who can make the others laugh the hardest, who can come up with the worst pun or whatever, and some have more dominating personalities than others, but there is no cabal hierarchy.

In my experience, when we're just among friends, most men simply don't think that way. That sort of thinking — who fills what role here? — honestly strikes me as the sort of thing I'd expect to hear from quite a few women I know. None of my male relationships are nearly that complicated or nuanced, even subconsciously.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:47 PM on March 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


I work in an office, mostly with men in my department, no sense of hierarchy besides who is the boss, and who isn't, and even then any dominance is really based on respect of the superior's knowledge, experience etc. no alpha male sensations that I know of...
posted by Salvatorparadise at 6:47 PM on March 7, 2007


I mean, I know that some of them are better than me at Halo, but that's OK, I can drink more than them.

Oh yeah?

...anyway, to the question:

The alpha male at my workplace is the bigboss, but I think that's just kowtowing to the bigboss, rather than any sort of inherent pissing contest that comes from having more than one penis in the room.

I think that once one has escaped the insanity of teenagerhood, this really isn't quite as much an issue as some comedians/commentators/whatever make out. To the extent that there are ever dominance displays or contests in my life, it's always in jest.

(eg Once I've posted this, I'll be challenging Wilful to a contest of Halo and drinking - the outcome of which will really have no influence on anything).

I'd say that this (series of) question(s) is probably most pertinent to younger single males, and a lot of the status is going to be determined by the behaviours of the nearest female.
posted by pompomtom at 6:48 PM on March 7, 2007


Yes. It is generally strange to be overtly paying to attention to "the rules", but as a guy, i think there are some rules going on here. Some men adopt different postures and intonations during, for example, a conversation. This fades as they become friends, as they form a "tribe." This is the important part that your discussion leaves out. Within the tribe, men do not observe the rules. This tribe idea seems not to be present with high-school kids :)

But with strangers I am forced to interact with, I will quickly either fall into deference or assert control based on a quick assessment of the person and their intentions. I am not sure on the mechanism. Usually it is because of necessity. They have something I need, so i must defer. Trade is actually an inversion of the game; one must force someone to become dominant and overstate their needs and wants :)

When not necessity, I think it just comes down to eye contact, and who starts things off. Typical leadership.
posted by clord at 6:51 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm not a guy, but most of my friends at most times in my life have been. None of them do/did this "alpha male" thing you speak of. Seems like the sort of thing that would only be a concern of people without much confidence or self esteem.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:54 PM on March 7, 2007


Women do this as well. It's called 'queen bee' syndrome.
posted by winna at 6:55 PM on March 7, 2007


I think you are putting too much emphasis on the concept of "alpha male" which I regard as something of pop psychology. We are not dogs hunting in packs.

That said, there is definitely a social hierarchy but it is different given the group dynamics of the given situation. Sometimes the alpha male is the typical jock, and sometimes he is the Michael Corleone that everyone just "knows" is the alpha male. And sometimes there a bunch of loud mouths that someone outside the group will think is the leader, but really holds no sway within the group.

I will have to say, that it generally is the one who takes the initiative more often than not. This is the one that, say in casual social situations, is the one everyone calls -- the one who the question is "What is going on tonight?", not "Do you want to come out with us?" ... who usually is involved in many different social networks.

Of course I have been in situations where males have to have the attention, power and everything else on them. I would characterize them less as leaders but more as social bullies. How do guys know? Well a lot of times it is non-verbal or if it is, it is very subtle and made so that the women don't notice it. A lot of times it is very passive-aggressive undermining in bossing people around. I notice this is much more frequent, or at least apparent, the more conservative the social group is. Socially I usually hang out with a liberal set and it is fairly democratic (or anarchic) and women are on equal footing as men. The more conservative is the more segregated the women/men dynamic is and the more shunned women are to this behavior, that is in general.

Again, it really depends on what the given situation is. I would say more often than not, the male who is most amicable, good looking (but not so much), and shows initiative will be the leader, in so much as one can have a leader. Usually this corresponds to socio-economic rank if everyone clusters.

Groups seem to self-identify and the leader is usually the self-actualization of what is cool or what the group aspires to be.

Perhaps to address your question directly, as I feel I've wandered around the question in order to support my belief that men and women are not that different in this regard, look to the one that all the guys seem to talk to at least once. Unless it is a small-knit of friends (<5 ) men do not tend to interact with each other that much.br>
And yes, dominance obsessed males are quite aggravating and will tend to flout their own perceived best trait (womanizing ability, athletic ability, intellectual prowess, money) to anyone they think is a threat in this regard or is getting more attention than they would like. I think it has more to do with self-confidence issues than anything else, that is the so-called alpha male also happens to have self-confidence issues, not that the trait is inherent to being an alpha-male.

You can always spot these males because everyone that they hang around is a kiss ass, that is you won't see anyone disagree or cross paths with them. It is more noticeable in college due to the proximity of all the different cliques. It is a no-win game, as I am sure most men find out (say, in high school during all that drama). And it is best to be avoid such social encounters.

Movies to watch: The Departed, The Sopranos and other typical guy films when you already know who the social leader is. Notice the interplay between those at the top and everyone else. Life is much more subtle, but the same principles apply.
posted by geoff. at 6:56 PM on March 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


I am a guy, and I work almost exclusively among guys --- about 90-95% of my colleagues I see every day are male --- so I see a lot of varieties of male behavior. I have worked in other jobs and fields, too, that were heavily male.

I think your question is premised on serious misunderstandings of how adult males operate. Almost all mature, functioning adult males realize how asinine these meat-head dominance games are, and therefore, such games are almost uniformly played by men of stunted social development whose way of expressing their fantasies of dominance is by spending way too much time in the gym and partying in clubs well into their forties.

There is no such thing as "a" hierarchy. This primal contest for dominance that you envision simply does not exist. There may be, on rare occasion, situations where a bunch of strange males are thrown together and issues of "ranking" may emerge, but I am having a hard time even envisioning when this would occur, save, perhaps, at the beginning of a new season of "Survivor" or "The Apprentice."

Is your spot in the rankings something innate

Again, you have a highly simplistic view of how men relate to each other. What do you mean by "the" rankings? It's almost as if you phrased your question in an attempt to infantilize men. There is no such thing as "the" rankings.

Your question is kind of like me asking, seriously, if women's life just like an episode of "Sex and the City."
posted by jayder at 7:14 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ok, so it dawned on me why you are getting so many "this isn't a real phenomena" answers. There are two version's of the alpha male. Version one is the kinda that mainly shows up in under educated groups and teenagers. They are the ones that will try to one up each other left and right. It's more of a pack animal thing.

The other version of alpha male is popular guy in the group. The unofficial leader. The people claiming the guys they know don't do the whole alpha male thing are talking about the pack animal style alpha male thing. Every group has leaders of sorts and civil groups aren't aren't about pissing contests. Civil groups can have alpha males and females and really it boils down to popularity, likablity, willingness to plan things and to make decisions.
posted by magikker at 7:18 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I second winna: Yea, women do this too. In fact, it's my experience that women are much worse about this than men. At least men can admit to having small contests with each other; I think women not only feel that they have to constantly compete with each other, they're also almost incapable of talking about it openly.

And they've made some movies about this too. For example, 'Mean Girls'.
posted by emmatwofour at 7:22 PM on March 7, 2007


I've had some friends who refuse to do #2 in a public restroom when anyone else is around, or report that they are very quiet about it. I've wondered whether these people or shy bladdered people aren't channeling or reaching way back to some kind of alpha-deference.
posted by ontic at 7:41 PM on March 7, 2007


This is what I've noticed-

If there's a true Alpha around, you'll know because everyone's listening/paying attention to him. It's a charisma thing, that weird subconscious combination of body language and confidence. True Alphas just are, and everybody orbits them. There's rarely any kind of jockeying when the real pack leader shows up. The Betas are the ones who fight for position.

Usually groups of friends pretty close to each other, hierarchically, and their friendly games of questioning each other's sexuality or play fighting or playing HALO are part of maintaining group cohesion, but they also have a (small) bit of one-upmanship associated. No-one really loses their position on the hierarchy unless they seriously lose their cool. This is kind of like the play fighting that adolescent animals engage in with each other - there's no risk of social position, so the males can practice against each other until it's time to go up against an adult.

Are there behavioral or body-language markers?
Oh yes. You'll never see an Alpha with closed up, clenched body language, unless he's about to hit something. The guy with his head down, shoulders slumped? He's not the Alpha, no matter what he tells you. The smiling guy with his head up, relaxed posture? He's much higher on the totem pole. This is situational, of course, as everybody slouches sometimes, but as a rule, the guy in control is going to be relaxed, his body language open.

is the relative firmness of your handshakes indicative of dominance? Does it have to do with posture, eye contact, physical size, perceived strength? All of the above?
All of these are a part of it. The handshake thing is interesting, and I've written on this before. If a guy shakes another guys hand and tries to crush the fingers or tries to force the other guys hand palm-up is making a dominance display. which leads us to...

If you're the sort of male who doesn't particularly want to get involved in someone's dominance display, what's it like to interact with a dominance-obsessed male?
Usually the guys who have to resort to this kind of stunt are pretty low on the hierarchy and this sort of behavior is why. They're usually the first ones to make sexually disparaging remarks, whether in a group of peers or strangers. I, personally, find this kind of person highly irritating and go out of my way to avoid them at all costs. I tend to think of them as Omega males, and they usually end up with a very small group friends or alone and bitter.

In your social groups, are you conscious of a constant shifting of the pecking order, or does it remain fairly constant?
Instability is usually a bad thing, from an anthropological standpoint, so there isn't that much shifting. If a major shift occurs, you'll usually see the person move to another, more appropriate, social group.
posted by lekvar at 7:43 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


great questions. i'm going to attempt some quick but serious answers.

>Is your spot in the rankings something innate - that is, you walk into a new office already knowing that you tend to be a highly-ranked beta male, for instance - or something that must be determined in every new situation?

a bit of both. if you're basically a winner, you'll tend to be higher up, whereas if you're basically a loser, you'll tend to be lower down. but it depends on the specifics of the group. for instance, in an academic setting i'm quite alpha, whereas in a sport setting (even maybe involving the same people) i'm quite decidedly beta. note how flexible the system is: even relationships among the same group shift according to the activity the group is engaged in.

>How do you know who's one up, and who's one down? Are there behavioral or body-language markers? When you first meet another man, is the relative firmness of your handshakes indicative of dominance? Does it have to do with posture, eye contact, physical size, perceived strength? All of the above?

most of this stuff is subconscious. body language plays a part, but if you can't back up your assertive body language with actual success in the environment you're in, you'll just come across as an idiot, and all the guys will hate you.

>Is a new relationship slightly awkward until one of you takes a step back and acknowledges the higher status of the other? How do you indicate that you've rolled over and showed your belly? Is this then a permanent state between the two of you, or something that shifts

i think this gets figured out quite quickly between two guys. you show your belly by agreeing with the other guy more than he agrees with you. and numerous physical signs of course. but it can shift subtly, again context is key. in the longer term, in relationships lasting years, sometimes the power structure can flip. check out the cool french movie "un coeur in hiver" for an example. it's totally stylized (like all good french movies) but true in essence.

>Do you recognize alpha-male types in social environments, even without interacting with them?

yes... body language, voice quality, looks, others attention directed towards them in a positive manner.

>In your social groups, are you conscious of a constant shifting of the pecking order, or does it remain fairly constant?

see answers above-- it is roughly constant but shifts according to situation (e.g. office vs sports vs bar) and gradually over time due to changes in people's value and perceived value to the group.

>What happens if you "out-alpha" your male boss?

it puts him in a very difficult position. how he responds depends on his qualities as a person, there are many options.

>If you're the sort of male who doesn't particularly want to get involved in someone's dominance display, what's it like to interact with a dominance-obsessed male?

it's really annoying when guys try to act all alpha on you when you don't think their credentials are up to it. usually the best approach is just to ignore them cos if they can't walk the walk, their alpha game is going nowhere. of course if they really are the alpha, then you just have to live with it.

>Is this something that fades with age, or do men in their sixties still establish relative rank?

don't know, not there yet.

>Are issues of dominance and hierarchy something you discuss with other men? What about with women? Are you consciously aware of what's going on in an interaction, or is it more instinctual? Does it feel good to come out "one up" and bad to come out "one down", or is it not an emotional experience?

i discuss these things with all my friends, men and women, but then again most of us are scientists and we are interested in stuff like this. i am often consciously aware of what's going on, but when i was younger, i wasn't at all. as many of the answers above, many guys are not aware that all this is going on. but it is, whether they think so or not. and yes, of course it feels good to come out one up and bad to come out one down. more alpha = more chance of sex. sex = good. so social dominance = good. not that i'm simplifying or anything...

one final comment which was made in one of the earlier answers is that you shouldn't focus too much on "alpha" per se. many groups don't have a single alpha male. human social hierarchies are usually much more complex.
posted by tabulem at 7:47 PM on March 7, 2007


I think the more people are forced to socially interact with a fixed set of other men the more overt and common this kind of behavior will be. Institutional settings will probably have more consistently blatant examples than anywhere else. Thus, all the answers referencing high school. For sure the younger the group the more common this is but I think a lack of choice in your social environment is a bigger factor.

I do think your assumptions and characterization is a bit off. When two men meet it's frequently pretty stiff and awkward, not a lot of self-disclosure, which helps bond people but also involves showing some vulnerability. That's where I notice a little bit of competitiveness and desire for recognition as being one up. Other than that except with dickheads there is a fair bit of play and it can change fairly easily depending on the context. This is probably my experience because when I come across someone who is overtly trying to take a one up position on me all the time I will not willingly continue to spend time with him.

Most of the time in a work setting it is similar. Sometimes you have a boss who thinks that because he calls the shots on the job that he wiil also take a dominant role in any other interactions off the site. Sometimes he is successful, sometimes not, but it always looks foolish, forced and uptight.

Most of the time what people are referring to as an alpha of a group is the guy who forms the hub of the group. He doesn't typically take a one-up stance in every interaction. He has the role of the social hub because he is relaxed and comfortable to be around, not uptight. It's not just a matter of taking initiative. Taking initiative without a charismatic personality leads to invitations and suggestions being ignored. I suppose there is a link here to the pack leader who does sometime take a subordinate role in one on one play because they are relaxed in their leader role. That's fine as far as it goes but I think people who use this analogy imagine there is more one on one dominance than I have seen happen.

When you are forced to take a subordinate role simply out of coercion, that is the context does not entail it, e.g. asking a favor, it sucks. How much it sucks is dependant on how invested you are in your social image. Some guys feel really small and can't sleep. Others recognize that there are plenty of areas in their life that that encounter didn't affect and shrug it off fairly quick. Still, it's unpleasant and guys who do that routinely tend to be avoided when people can choose who they interact with.
posted by BigSky at 7:54 PM on March 7, 2007


My experience and explanation is similar to jaydar's. In my workplace, in my group, we have one guy that deals with most of the executives. Is he the alpha male? We have another guy who we all ask What did you do this weekend? because he usually has some funny stories. He parties more than most of us, so is he the alpha? And when we all have to decide some "big" fundamental direction to take when developing some large project, we almost always defer to yet another member of our group because he has the most experience and is a "long-term" thinker. So is he the alpha male?

In the real world, things are not nearly so cut-and-dry. Hell, even in the fictional world, even in Sex in the City, who's the alpha-female? Is it the one who's narrating? Is it the successful lawyer? Is it the chick who sleeps with all the guys? A lot of the decision relies on how you define alpha, and I think situationally things are simply too nuanced to make such sweeping generalizations.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:02 PM on March 7, 2007


I just read this book. I found it REALLY, REALLY interesting. FWIW, I'd recommend it very strongly for you.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:04 PM on March 7, 2007


I doubt Metafilter men constitute a representative sample for answering this question.

Just read a random Metatalk thread to see plenty of display behavior from Metafilter men.
posted by mlis at 8:16 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Its simple. I'm always the dominant male.

Actually, its not quite like that--the pop psychologists simplify the whole thing. The fact is that there is no single "alpha male" for all seasons. Instead, its constantly changing. If I win the game of Risk or 21, I am currently dominant. If someone else wins, the rest of the players are like "damn, nice move" etc.

If there was one alpha male all of the time, there would be no conflict at all.

course I really am always the dominant male. Don't listen to what those other losers say.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:21 PM on March 7, 2007


One of the things I find interesting in men is that they seem to be aware of social hierarchy and dominance in a way that tends to pass women by entirely.

That's funny. From my perspective as a dude, *women* seem to be aware of social hierarchy and dominance in a way that tends to pass men by entirely.
posted by IvyMike at 8:26 PM on March 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


I experience something like this situationally, mostly at my college's gym. I don't perceive certain men as being alpha males, but it is entirely obvious which guys are posturing for dominance. Cues include somewhat subtle body language and much more obvious clothing choices. Although a lot of guys have no part in this, those who do make working out a slightly tense activity - I can't help but pick up on it and it pisses me off. I've been wanting to join the local athletic club for some time after using the promotional free week and discovering that no one there postures, but I can't really justify the expense and the driving.

I play college rugby, a situation where two groups of emotionally charged men (or women) get into an 80 minute long physical contest. I know the capabilities of all my teammates and by the end of a game have some understanding of the capabilities of the other side, so I do create a physical hierarchy for predicting the outcome of play and guiding my own decisions. However, I've never felt any kind of alpha male awe towards another player. I often use the fact that the women's sides are as naturally warlike and competitive as the men's as an argument that the aggresive tendencies attributed to men are mostly paralleled in women (thirding winna).

In everyday social life, I sometimes encounter the same posturing as at the gym, but I've never encountered someone who effuses alphaness. I have a hierarchy of people I am more likely to help, defer to, or spend time around. However, a woman is at the top of that list.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 8:28 PM on March 7, 2007


in general I think there are different hierarchys for different contexts... at work for example, alphaness comes (to a large degree) from technical knowhow and is granted more than claimed... socially there are one-upmanship games but they're played for fun rather than dominance... if someone started trying to do the power handshake dominance thing I can't see them lasting long before being dropped from social occasions...

and wilful - I certainly am better at Halo than you, but I'd dispute your claim that you can drink more than me...
posted by russm at 8:31 PM on March 7, 2007


I probably have several of the 'alpha male' characteristics. In the Myers-Briggs test, I consistently come up as a ENTJ.

Male culture does have a lot of dominance factors in play, but more between strangers rather than between friends or co-workers.

It's more of roles that people are comfortable with in a group setting. Due to my personality, I am quite comfortable speaking in front of a large group, make decisions quickly, offering suggestions, and other highly extroverted behavior. In fact, this kind of thing is energizing to me and very much a 'thrill' type feeling.

Many others are very UNcomfortable with those kind of actions and behaviors.

So in social or work situations, I often default into the role of leader of the discussion. Everyone accepts this easily as long I maintain respect of other opinions and stick to leading a discussion and not forcing a decision. My hardest task is often to get the knowledgeable introverted people to speak their mind.

IMHO, it's more about the various roles in a group than a true hierarchy. Many introverted types abhor the idea of being the one to take public responsibility for a decision. As the leader type, I welcome it and the social dynamic works well. But as the leader, I need the information that other know and gather to fill my role effectively. Very symbiotic IMHO.

You can see it in the Star Trek with Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Kirk is the warrior (leader) , Spock is the priest (logic), and bones is the healer (empathy). Together, they are effective, separate, they are not.

You cannot be an effective leader type (alpha) without others that you can count on for advice and support. To gather the support of non-leaders, it's all about showing respect for their skills and knowledge. IMHO, this is where you see the difference between good leaders garner their power from the support of others due to their relationships, and bad leaders who garner their power soley from their rank.

The conflict that occurs when two leader types struggle over who gets to play the role. The other types don't want the role, so it becomes a struggle between the 'alphas' that want to be in their comfort zone. Being a leader-type pushed into a follower role can be frustrating.

Much of society is structured to give the leader-types guidelines on how to behave and what to expect. Rank in the military, and title in business, are used to show the leader-types the expectation of of who is offered the leadership role. For example, a higher ranking male can 'allow' a lower ranking male to take the lead role, as long as it's clear that the higher ranking male has the right to reassume leadership at any time.

You might see this in a meeting where the boss doesn't say much and lets someone else run much of the meeting but at the very end, the boss speaks to wrap things up. This is him reasserting control and reminding everyone that he still holds the higher rank.

'Alpha male' dominance games tend to occur when there is no clear societal guidelines for which of two equal rank males, who have little personal relationship, should lead.

If the two have a friendly personal relationship, it's often not an issue with one leading and often showing respect to the peer not leading by involving them in the leadership role.

Breaking the establishing rank or title system might be considered 'out alphaing' someone but IMHO rarely works since most male groups respect the established hierarchy and won't be supportive of the 'out alphaing' male.

Women don't seem to get into this kind of role behavior as much from what I've seen. They seem to be less leader oriented and more concerned with not showing disrespect for the ideas of others in the group. Women seem quite comfortable with letting a man take the leadership role and long as everyone is shown respect.

Well, I've blathered on for quite a bit, but that's what happens when you ask an ENTJ to talk about leadership in a public forum. ;)
posted by Argyle at 8:33 PM on March 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


One of the things I find interesting in men is that they seem to be aware of social hierarchy and dominance in a way that tends to pass women by entirely.

That's funny. From my perspective as a dude, *women* seem to be aware of social hierarchy and dominance in a way that tends to pass men by entirely.
posted by IvyMike at 8:26 PM PST on March 7
I think this is at essence of the question. I think men are often oblivious to this kind of hierarchy... and those who are paying attention to it are buffoons. Women are projecting a "hierarchy" onto qualities that are subconsciously attractive.
posted by maniactown at 8:48 PM on March 7, 2007


Just one more in a long list of people who wants to say "it's not like that" and even finds the question rather insulting.

Unless you're an unusual situation, grown-up men don't behave this way or even think about it very much. Where's your evidence that they do?

We all have varying levels of status in various contexts. I know more about programming than my friend, but he can beat me at pool. I'm taller than another guy but he's better looking. I earn more money than the third guy, but on the other hand, he plays in a band and I lead a very boring life.

I don't lie away at night wondering who's the Alpha. People are different.

There's the odd guy who thinks he ought to be the Alpha male and can't quite figure out why he isn't, but he's a bit of a misfit.

I think the question's ill-conceived and a little sexist, and phrases like:

"One of the things I find interesting in men is that they seem to be aware of social hierarchy and dominance in a way that tends to pass women by entirely."

are begging the question, let alone "How do you indicate that you've rolled over and showed your belly?".
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:52 PM on March 7, 2007


I'm not particularly aware of the alpha male thing. However, I have noticed that some of the ways men bond with each other look like 'jockeying for position' or whatever. My father and I, my brother and I, my roommate and I, some (though not all) of my male friends and I - we'll have an argument or one-ups-man-ship contest (nothing formal, it just happens) that is what you would expect if we were trying to establish a hierarchy. At the end of it, though, regardless of who comes out on top, we're both happier (and who comes out on top in a specific argument has little to do with long-term status).

I'd be willing to accept that these struggles are there and I'm just not noticing them, however. And I'm surprised to read that you think men are aware of social dominance in a way that "passes women by entirely" - I would have said the opposite.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:15 PM on March 7, 2007


I'm a female and I've worked in both all-female environments and mostly-male environments. The all-female environments had a much more pronounced hierarchical structure. I find it true in both in social and business situations that most people of both genders tend to let someone else take charge. My boyfriend was in an all-male section of the military, for cryin' out loud, and he's still never described anything like what you've written.

I'm thinking you've read one too many cultural anthropology books. Go hang out with some real, flesh-and-blood men, and try not to write an ethnology in your head while socializing.
posted by desjardins at 9:48 PM on March 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


"If you're the sort of male who doesn't particularly want to get involved in someone's dominance display, what's it like to interact with a dominance-obsessed male?"

Annoying.
posted by benign at 9:49 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think hierarchy exists in workplaces dominated by both men (that is, where the boss is a man) or by women (that is, a workplace where the boss is a woman).

I think both men and women naturally conform to whatever hierarchy exists in the workplace. The boss is the boss. What's interesting to me is the management style of a male boss versus the management style of a female boss.

Being a man, I like male bosses. There's no bullshit. However, with women there's always the need for hugs and kisses. When a female boss hugs a female subordinate, it is not a display of affection. It is a display of dominance.

I also notice that female bosses choose favorites, or pets.

I realize that what I'm saying is misogynistic, but I can't help it. Male or female, a boss is a boss.

I've also noticed that in male-dominated offices, there's usually two types of (successful) scenarios:

1) the queen bee (you all exist to serve me)
2) the tag team (top dog and right hand man)

But with men, one man has to be recognized as being "in charge", if only for symbolic effect.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:00 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


The other version of alpha male is popular guy in the group. The unofficial leader. The people claiming the guys they know don't do the whole alpha male thing are talking about the pack animal style alpha male thing. Every group has leaders of sorts and civil groups aren't aren't about pissing contests. Civil groups can have alpha males and females and really it boils down to popularity, likablity, willingness to plan things and to make decisions.

I think even by these definitions, there's not always an alpha male in any group of guys. Every group of people need not have a leader.
posted by 23skidoo at 10:24 PM on March 7, 2007


If you observe a pack of drill monkeys, you will understand where you are mistaken. Human (and drill) males do to constantly fight to establish a position within the hierachy, all they do is gun for the top spot (if they are so inclined). There is a single alpha, and the others don't compete so long the alpha is there. When the alpha goes, there MAY be a tug of war, but it quickly goes away as soon as a new leader establishes himself.

There is only jockeying for positions in times of serious group internal conflict.

So unlike the smaller monkeys, we have a much more co-operative group structure.

One more thing - anything that applies for males also applies for females in animals of monogamous structure.
posted by markesh at 12:44 AM on March 8, 2007


It's all about confidence, baby; confidence.

1. It's *always* dynamic, dependent upon circumstance

2. It's directly related to emotional intelligence

3. It just *is* - if it is 'acted' or played then it is 'The Game'

4. 'The Game' is the fall back position depending on quanity and quality of 2. juxtaposed with age and situation

5. Situation is relative to confidence and vice versa leading us to 1.
posted by DrtyBlvd at 1:58 AM on March 8, 2007



One of the things I find interesting in men is that they seem to be aware of social hierarchy and dominance in a way that tends to pass women by entirely.


You are so wrong about this. Really. Women can be and often are, just as conscience of the social hierarchy as men are. Maybe YOU aren't aware of it, but there are boatloads of women that are and there are plenty of alpha dog women, who rule over both men and women.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:55 AM on March 8, 2007


I'd agree that those claiming that this doesn't exist just aren't noticing it. Status is both built into, and hidden by, all the rituals and polite behaviors that make social interactions smooth; if you are fully embedded and you have internalized all these rules, it will just feel normal and comfortable.

To see this most clearly, walk into a social situation very different from your own. Depending on who you are and where you are from, walking into a dive bar, or the yacht club reception, or a meeting of the black student caucus, or a programmers' convention, or wherever else you visibly don't fit in, will produce some pretty clear status displays and responses, sometimes verbal, sometimes non-verbal.

Having said that, I don't think that there is anything uniquely male about this; status is a human concern, not a male concern. Women do it to each other, and men and women do so in mixed groups, as well. But the question was about homosocial status displays, and those are most easily seen when entering a new homosocial space where you don't have an immediate slot to fit into.
posted by Forktine at 3:06 AM on March 8, 2007


I recommend reading Primate's Memoir, and anything else by Robert Sapolsky. He discusses hierarchy in primates extensively, and is a wonderful writer on lots of subjects.
posted by theora55 at 6:09 AM on March 8, 2007


I second miss lynnster's book recommendation above. The premise sounds gimmicky, but I found the observations pretty perceptive. (I'm a man.)

Generally I work among well-educated males, and I see absolutely zero of this alpha stuff. Occasionally you meet a highly competitive guy who turns everything into a contest, but as benign says, that's just annoying. We don't play along, and we roll our eyes behind his back.

A counter-question: Are women attracted to alpha males?
posted by futility closet at 6:18 AM on March 8, 2007


Depending on who you are and where you are from, walking into a dive bar, or the yacht club reception, or a meeting of the black student caucus, or a programmers' convention, or wherever else you visibly don't fit in, will produce some pretty clear status displays and responses, sometimes verbal, sometimes non-verbal.

Every time I've been to somewhere I don't fit in, I'm just ignored. It's not like some scene out of "Hook" where I have to battle an emo Filipino Peter Pan. And when I sit back and try and take in the scenery, there doesn't seem to be one person who all others defer to, or one person that all people think is popular.
posted by 23skidoo at 6:37 AM on March 8, 2007


Just read a random Metatalk thread to see plenty of display behavior from Metafilter men.

Indeed: Wait for the next Metatalk pile-on, which basically boils down to a bunch of guys asserting a dominance hierarchy on some unfortunate soul.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:13 AM on March 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Tom Wolfe writes about hierarchies and alpha males in The Right Stuff, explicitly referring to the hierarchy among fighter pilots as a ziggurat or "the pyramid of the right stuff." Position on the pyramid is set by masculine accomplishment, not rank, so Chuck Yeager is at the top of the pyramid despite having a lower rank than other pilots. The ascent up the pyramid is a never-ending series of tests, and you can be left behind at any stage.

The hierarchy carries over to the pilots' wives:
The classic and oft-told story of service wives concerned the wives of a group of Navy pilots* who had just been transferred to a new base. A commander designated to give the wives an orientation lecture says: "First, would you ladies please rearrange yourself by rank, with the highest-ranking wives sitting in the front row and so on back to the rear." It takes about fifteen minutes for the women to sort themselves out and change their seats, since very few of them know one another. Once the process has been completed, the commander fixes a stern glare upon them and says: "Ladies, I want you to know that I have just witnessed the most ridiculous performance I have seen in my entire military career. Allow me to inform you that no matter who your husbands are, you have no rank whatsoever. You are equals, and you should kindly remember to conduct yourselves as such in all dealings with one another." That was not the end of the story, however. The wives stared back at their instructor with looks of utter bemusement and, as if with a single mind, said to themselves: "Who is this idiot and what planet has he been stationed on?" For the inexpressible provisions of the Military Wife's Compact were well known to all. A military officer's wife rose in rank with her husband and immediately took on all the honors and perquisites pertaining thereto, and only a fool or the sort of simple-minded jerk who was assigned to give orientation lectures to wives could fail to comprehend this.
*The hierarchy even applies to how you refer to people who fly airplanes. "A good Navy pilot was a real aviator; in the Air Force they merely had pilots and not precisely the proper stuff." Wolfe cites a story that during the Korean War a Navy pilot was about to get shot down and shouting over the radio, and the reply was "shut up and die like an aviator."

I've had some friends who refuse to do #2 in a public restroom when anyone else is around, or report that they are very quiet about it.

Contrast with Lyndon Johnson's super-alpha behavior of making his assistants meet with him while he was doing a #2.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:17 AM on March 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Personally, I think this whole "alpha-male in the workplace" thing depends entirely on where you work.

If you are unfortunate enough to have to work among sales-people, for instance, you actually will see a lot of blatant pack-of-dogs posturing and fighting for alpha-male dominance. I've seen it firsthand and it is not pretty. And it all tends to revolve around the equation "money=power".
posted by Thorzdad at 7:26 AM on March 8, 2007


The power of the alpha-male, at its core, rises from their ability to physically control others. Consistent physical intimidation by a specific person is largely absent in modern affluent society (although spouse-abuse is an interesting outlier).

Anyone who attempts true alpha-male like behavior in modern society is really just demonstrating their impotence. It is far too easy for people to resist such attempts by a simple call to the police or HR.

Absent this physical component, modern society reduces alpha-male behavior to meaningless conflict or competition. Alpha-males can only control you if they make you desire that which they control or excel at. You can only be dominated by someone if you agree to play their game.

This is also the reason that people in this thread are pointing out the difficulty in determining who the alpha-male is in their social groups. Without physical intimidation and control, the alpha-male is simply a concept that only truly exists in the minds of those who choose to be controlled.
posted by jsonic at 8:57 AM on March 8, 2007


Is your spot in the rankings something innate - or something that must be determined in every new situation?

Depends on the situation and the people and the context. If you work in an office that full of office politics, then this is an ongoing battle. If you work in a more relaxed office, you're position is determined from the beginning and it's up to the person to maintain it or lose, either directly or indireclty.

Note that this applies to both men and women.


How do you know who's one up, and who's one down?

What's the situation, the office, an office party, social setting, a formal social setting, the bar, what?

Are there behavioral or body-language markers?

Yes, but it's more an air of command. For instance, I once read a description of Steven Spielberg, which said he speaks/acts in a manner use to have his orders followed. Powerful people (not just men) expect to you to follow them. By projecting that aura, they can usually make it happen, if they aren't dicks about it.


Is a new relationship slightly awkward until one of you takes a step back and acknowledges the higher status of the other?

::sighs:: Most people try to find some sort of commond ground in new relationships.

Do you recognize alpha-male types in social environments, even without interacting with them?

What's an alpha male? Seriously. You brought it up, but didn't define it, so you working from an assumption that everyone knows what you're talking about.

If you mean the "I am the dominate one and you are my peon" type person, then it all depends if they have actual money or power, whether you have money and power and whether you actually want something from them or it's idle chit chat at a party.


In your social groups, are you conscious of a constant shifting of the pecking order, or does it remain fairly constant?

Everyone goes to Ed for computer problems, Janet knows all movies, while Beth is the stylish one etc, etc.

What happens if you "out-alpha" your male boss?

Depends on if you're being a dick while doing it, if your boss is dick and how many other people know he's be "out-alphaed". Anyone with brains knows that you only do this respectfully, in private, with your boss, be they male or female.

If you're the sort of male who doesn't particularly want to get involved in someone's dominance display, what's it like to interact with a dominance-obsessed male?

Depending on what you're doing and what you need to do, it can be either annoying (if you need the asshole for something), entertaining (you've had a good day and enjoying the comedy of the situation) or educational (you learn what buttons to push or not push on him/her)

Is this something that fades with age, or do men in their sixties still establish relative rank?

Many old people attempt to establish rank because they've been around longer. The smarter ones don't, and they're wonderful.

Are issues of dominance and hierarchy something you discuss with other men? What about with women?

Any office banter involves some of this and will be talked about regardless of sex.

Are you consciously aware of what's going on in an interaction, or is it more instinctual?

depends if you're experienced or savvy enough.

Does it feel good to come out "one up" and bad to come out "one down",

usually, yes.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:04 AM on March 8, 2007


Okay. This whole thread is itself an example of the kind of thing we're talking about. I will assert my own will-to-alpha mentality by attempting to write the best answer.

I) Of course there is a hierarchy of men in a great many situations.
II) This hierarchy is more likely to occur in situations in which it actually matters who is in charge, like a workplace or a team sport.
III) Women are generally more interested in overtly discussing the male hierarchy, and their own position relative to it, than the men are.
III)a) Women who overtly discuss the male hierarchy tend to assume that it's a lot simpler than it is.
III)a)i) This in turn is a personal challenge to the men who are not invested in the hierarchy in question.
III)a)ii) For example, there are some men heavily invested in the workplace hierarchy.
III)a)ii)A)They give a lot of thought to their position within it.
III)a)ii)B)They honestly believe that their position at work is an indication of their own worth.
III)a)ii)B)I)These men tend to assume that the men under them in the hierarchy are as focused on, and respectful of, this dynamic as they are.
III)a)ii)B)II)There are plenty of men who rank themselves highly in other hierarchies within their own lives, and who consider the workplace hierarchy to be a bad joke.
III)a)ii)B)III)There are also some men who have long ago accepted that they are no good at, or not interested in, being at the top of any hierarchy at all.
IV) Those guys are pussies.
posted by bingo at 9:50 AM on March 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


I've always kind of assumed that the alpha position always reverts to the eldest male of the tribe. By that I mean the male who is significantly older, like a grandfather sort of figure. There has to be some sort of generational gap between him and the next youngest. He is the one who is consulted first on all major decisions.
I also feel like most of the rules for what makes an alpha male are set by the eligible females of the group, and are most obeyed by eligible males. Outside of that, alphaism seems to be mostly a formality, adhered to only for ceremony.

You see, males don't want to compete. When we compete, there is always the chance that we will lose and be embarrassed. It's a pretty sad thing to watch a man have his masculinity taken from him, and in truth, nobody really even wants to have to endure witnessing it. The stakes are too high. You can bet that a man who has been publicly castrated will not soon forget his tormentor, and might even be so embarassed as to be driven to do something rash.

So mostly, when we're in groups with each other, we try not to offend any of the other men by asserting false dominance. Life is too short to go around competing and if that's how you carry yourself, you'll end up losing most of the time anyway. Guys in the group who are like this end up having to be handled delicately because the slightest thing can offset their tender egos.
posted by Demogorgon at 11:21 AM on March 8, 2007


Are women attracted to alpha males?

Are men attracted to beautiful women?

Note that there's a huge, HUGE difference between a dominance-obsessed, status-seeking, try-hard alpha wanna-be and a true, confident alpha male who has the respect and support of his peers.

To be clear: Genuine alpha-ness is the primary attractive quality in a man.
posted by LordSludge at 12:04 PM on March 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


In a group of male friends it isn't unusual for some "alpha dogging" to go on but, in my experience, it's typically closer to play than it is to some sort of battle and it isn't static. There are also times when there is an expectation that a particular member of the group with a certain ability step up and take the alpha position and the group would be unhappy with him if he didn't. Once men reach a moderate level of maturity (16?) I think we are actually pretty kind or even (I can't believe I'm saying this) nurturing toward our friends rather than being at all concerned about having some sort of dominance.
posted by Carbolic at 12:28 PM on March 8, 2007


Or what if your female boss out-alphas you?
posted by queenofthegeeks at 8:18 PM on March 8, 2007


In my workplace - the US military - the question of "alpha-ness" is extremely visible and obvious, and for good reasons.
posted by davidmsc at 8:45 PM on March 8, 2007


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