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So, You Want to Be the Boss?

Evolutionary psychologists say that no matter how often masters of our universe like Bill Gates beat their chests, the real secret to gaining power over others is--get this--being nice

By Matt Mahurin and Richard Conniff
May 1, 2000 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:28 AM


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Jim Clark was 38 when he set out to reinvent himself. He had just lost his job as a professor at the New York Institute of Technology, and his second wife had left him. Describing this low point to Michael Lewis, author of The New New Thing, Clark says he was suddenly possessed with "a maniacal passion . . . to achieve something." And he did: In the years since then, Clark, now 55, has created three multibillion-dollar computer companies, including Netscape. In the process he has made himself and the people around him unbelievably rich.

But how? What does it take to become a dominant individual in human society? How do we identify our alpha males and females and decide to give them our allegiance? Our would-be leaders don’t butt heads like rival elk. They don’t signal their ascent from beta to alpha status by turning bright blue, as do males from one species of African cichlid fish.

Dominance is almost invisible in human affairs and yet arguably present everywhere. Pay attention and you can see it in the stir that runs through a room when a pretty or powerful woman enters, or in the body language of a man running into his boss at the shopping mall. In such situations, humans invariably size one another up as quickly and ruthlessly as grade schoolers choosing sides in a pickup basketball game. Every time two people meet, some scientists say, the question of dominance or submission gets answered in the way one person holds eye contact and the other glances away, or in the way one unconsciously shifts vocal tone to match the other. Trying to figure out who’s in charge is almost as natural for us as breathing.

But does a term like alpha male, coined in 1935 to describe the leader of a wolf pack, make any sense in a human context? Does dominance itself, a concept first put forward early in the twentieth century by a Norwegian researcher studying chickens, have anything to do with human society? Do we really have pecking orders?

Unlike animals, we don’t generally spend the bulk of our lives in a single herd or pack. We move routinely from one hierarchy to another, from vice president of operations to anxious newcomer in the PTA, from assistant librarian to head of the local soup kitchen, from alpha to omega and back again, all in the course of a day, or even an hour.

And yet research suggests that there are rules by which we recognize our alphas. As in Jim Clark’s case, it is certainly about demonstrating the will to “accomplish something.” But our understanding of the means by which we achieve dominance is quickly changing. Researchers no longer assume that reaching the top of the social heap is necessarily about aggression—the candidate jabbing his hand in a rival’s face, the boss barking at his secretary. Instead, they’ve come to recognize that the genuine leader is just as likely to be the candidate who turns away with a smile and a casual joke, or the boss who cajoles her subordinates into beating their quarterly targets. Some biologists and social scientists now suggest that, quite unlike animals, humans can become dominant by making friends, building alliances, or deploying the gentle forces of compromise and persuasion.

Astonishingly, no one has ever attempted a systematic study of dominance in humans who are older than seven, which is partly explained by the fact that scientists can’t agree what dominance means in animals. Researchers use four different definitions to identify the dominant animal in a group: the one who can beat up everybody else but doesn’t necessarily need to (remind anyone of Jesse Ventura?); the one who displays the most aggression (a snarling Pat Buchanan?); the one to whom other members of the group pay the most attention (Donald Trump?); or the one who gets first pass at resources like food, sex, or a nice place to sleep (Bill Clinton?). The obvious problem with these four definitions is that the same animal could easily turn up as the alpha in one study and the beta in another.

Even if everyone agreed on the same definition, dominance among animals can vary according to the species, the individual, or even the day of the week. A dominant rhesus with a full belly may let a subordinate take away his meal, says Irwin Bernstein, a University of Georgia psychologist, and a female bored by her alpha male may slip away for a fling with a hot young beta.

Dominance may be ill-defined and unpredictable, but most researchers still believe that it dictates the terms of daily life—whether in a pack of wolves stretching and greeting one another at dawn, or in an office full of brokers heading for their trading desks at 7 a.m. Scientists view social hierarchy as a necessary evil allowing any group to function more effectively. It’s why committees have chairpersons. Sorting out rank in the first place can be perilous for everyone. So it pays to settle on a hierarchy and then avoid further bloodshed by acknowledging rank with gestures of dominance or submission: The boss preens and tells bad jokes. His subordinates gather around and laugh appreciatively.

The alternative is to squabble endlessly about who ought to be in charge. In one study, researchers left the pecking order in some chicken flocks undisturbed. But they deliberately unsettled other flocks week after week by removing whichever bird had struggled to the top. The flocks with undisturbed hierarchies not only did less bickering, but also ate more food, gained weight faster, and produced more eggs.

Rank also helps coordinate action, enabling members of the group to do better together than on their own. For instance, traveling in a pack helps African wild dogs bring down large game and defend the meal from thieving lions and hyenas, so everybody gets more to eat. But they don’t necessarily all get the same amount. The dominant male and female typically take first pass at any meal. Thus subordinates often end up hungry enough to risk leading the hunt for the pack’s next kill. (In human terms, the broker who’s only making $80,000 may jump at a potential client faster than the one who’s making $300,000.) From a Darwinian perspective, the unfairness of the pack hierarchy functions to improve fitness. Of course, from the alpha’s perspective, unfairness, not evolutionary fitness, is really the point. Individuals struggle to become alpha males or females because rank brings privileges.


Do we declare dominance or submission every time we open our own mouths? Researchers from Kent State University taped 25 interviews on the Larry King Live show, paying particular attention to frequencies below 500 herz. In the past, most researchers had disregarded these low-frequency tones as meaningless noise, a low, nonverbal humming on which the spoken word rides.

But as they toted up their results, sociologists Stanford Gregory and Stephen Webster noticed that in every conversation the low frequency tones of the two speakers quickly converged. This convergence seemed to be essential for a productive conversation. The speakers literally needed to be on the same wavelength. It wasn’t simply a matter of two people finding some happy middle ground. In talking, as in walking, one person set the pace: King’s low-frequency tones shifted to the level of his guest when he was interviewing someone with high-status like the President. On the other hand, lower-status guests tended to defer to him, “but with less gusto,” the authors noted. The most deferential guest was Dan Quayle.

Gregory and Webster have since repeated their results in a study of British politicians and they are analyzing past debates of U. S. Presidents. They theorize that our vocal undertones provide a means by which we routinely and unconsciously manage “dominance-deference relations.” Gregory recalls talking to one of his graduate students at a party when the dean briefly joined them. Gregory unconsciously shifted to match the vocal frequency of the dean, who, on some subliminal level, presumably expected the nod to his place in the hierarchy. When the dean left, the graduate student said, “You just did it.” This nonverbal form of communicating status, says Gregory, may be why one person overhearing another on the phone can tell by tonal qualities alone whether the speaker is talking to a boss or a friend. The low humming beneath our words seems to be, as an anthropologist once put it, “an elaborate code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all.”

Social rank is so important in the animal world that it leaves a mark not just on behavior, but on flesh-and-blood physiology. Mice, for example, can literally smell dominance. They can identify the scent-markings of a male who has previously defeated them, and it makes them creep around on flattened bellies, wondering: “Is the alpha mouse that whomped me near enough to do it again?” Subordinate males often display stress-heightened levels of the hormone cortisol, resulting at times in “psychological castration.” Subordinate male mice, for instance, have depressed sperm levels.

But does any of this translate to humans? One major difference is that social dominance in the animal world is largely about brute force. A wolf, for instance, typically gets to be the alpha male in his pack by demonstrating an ability to chew off the ears of subordinates, and he reminds them of this talent by frequent snarling. This is probably not what Al Gore’s campaign adviser had in mind when she advised him last fall to act more like an alpha male. Humans who routinely use physical aggression get our attention only for as long as it takes to put them in jail. A certain lingering regard for physical prowess may have figured in Jesse Ventura’s strange climb from the wrestling ring to the Minnesota governor’s residence. But even Ventura has had to learn that man does not become president by body slams alone. Moreover, dominance in the animal world seems to be mainly about males fighting to win females. For instance, in one study of northern elephant seals, four percent of all males—the winners of bloody dominance battles—did 85 percent of the mating. But the evidence connecting dominance with mating success is more ambiguous in humans. When University of Michigan researcher Laura Betzig reviewed the first six great civilizations—Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Aztec, Incan, Indian, and Chinese—she found in each case that powerful men used their status to mate with as many women as possible. Even in the more restrained circumstances of Christian Europe, Charlemagne had five successive wives and four concubines. Half of modern Europe can thus claim him as an ancestor.

With exceptions, however, powerful men in the modern world do not keep harems. Bill Gates may control more wealth than any emperor of China, but he espouses monogamy. Bill Clinton may be the most powerful person in the world, but infidelity brought him mortifying public disgrace. Evolution may predispose us to translate power into sexual opportunity, but we pass sexual harassment laws to thwart this sort of dominance behavior in the workplace. The evolutionary heritage of being physically aggressive and stockpiling sexual partners may also seem remote to the women who increasingly head nations and Fortune 500 companies.

A few researchers like Bernstein believe these differences are so significant we should not be talking about dominance in humans at all. But when scientists set out in the 1970s and ‘80s to ask whether social dominance matters in our species, they discovered to their surprise that some sort of hierarchy appears almost automatically in groups of children in countries around the world, usually before age three. It isn’t simply a matter of males competing for females. It’s part of the underlying fabric of our minds, a product of 10 million years in which the primates have been evolving as social species, and none more social than ourselves. Disputes among young children in these studies were generally of the “my toy” variety, and, unlike adults, the dominant individuals routinely used aggression to take control. As in the animal world, the aggression became less overt once dominance was established.

Dominant adults typically stand straighter and move more expansively, much as the alpha male in a wolf pack walks with head and tail erect. Even their handwriting often has a sweeping John Hancock character, according to Glenn Weisfeld, a psychologist at Wayne State University. Eye contact also counts. One way to assess who’s dominant in a conversation, says Weisfeld, is to consider the ratio of “look-speak over look-listen.” Dominant individuals generally make eye contact when they’re speaking, but look away when subordinates are speaking to them.

Body language is at times almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. In one study of small children, dominant individuals typically entered a confrontation with eyebrows raised and chin up, making full eye contact with their opponents. This so-called “plus face” helped produce a win 66 percent of the time; the “minus face,” with eyes down and chin lowered, produced a win less than ten percent of the time. The “plus face” actually seemed to stop subordinate children in their tracks. And something similar seems to happen in adults too. By displaying his “maniacal passion,” Netscape founder Jim Clark became “the guy who always won the game of chicken because his opponents suspected he might actually enjoy a head-on collision.”

So is dominance simply a matter of putting on the right face? Aren’t primates too adept at weeding out fakers for that? To be convincing, dominance may need to be rooted deep in our hormones. Testosterone, for example, has become notorious as the supposed cause of male aggression, a sort of “raging bull” hormone. But studies have repeatedly demonstrated that testosterone levels in a group of men actually predict nothing about who will display aggression. In one recent study of grade-schoolers, elevated testosterone levels weren’t associated with aggression at all, but with social success—dominance.

According to Allan Mazur of Syracuse University, testosterone levels in men rise in anticipation of almost anything that can be interpreted as a dominance contest, whether it’s a rugby game or a chess match. Losing these contests tends to depress testosterone levels. After the 1994 World Cup soccer tournament, for example, testosterone decreased in fans of the losing Italian team. But it rose significantly in fans of the winning Brazilian side. Mazur theorizes that a heightened testosterone level may encourage an individual to put on the signs of dominance—erect posture, sauntering gait, direct eye contact: “Success begets higher testosterone levels which beget more dominant behavior which begets more success.” It’s a feedback loop in which behavior and physiology continually reinforce one another. Thus Al Gore’s alpha-male campaign strategy may not have been as absurd as it seemed to his critics: Walking the alpha walk and putting on the face may instill a deeper sense of real dominance, much as smiling has been shown to make people genuinely happier. In one study comparing officers in college fraternities with their less powerful frat brothers, the officers had more serotonin, a neurotransmitter which seems to make the individual more relaxed and socially assertive. It wasn’t because they were born that way: Nature apparently gave them the wherewithal for leadership once they got the job.

What’s interesting, in the case of both testosterone and serotonin, is that nature seems to equip alpha humans not with saber-rattling aggressiveness but with confidence and coolness. And this suggests that the old aggression-based idea of dominance from the animal world may be all wrong for humans. In one recent study, for instance, researchers found that “socially dominant” men were much more likely to die prematurely. And good riddance: The study defined dominance as Type A behavior—monopolizing conversation, interrupting others, and competing too hard for attention. But we seem to recognize in our daily lives that these domineering traits are just as likely to indicate lack of dominance. For instance, when Nikita Kruschev beat the podium with his shoe and threatened to “bury” America, he frightened people—and ultimately undermined his own credibility. John F. Kennedy, by contrast, smiled a lot, displayed grace under pressure—and prevailed.

Some social scientists now suggest that humans practice dominance most effectively not by bullying people, but by doing favors, sharing attention, building alliances, and using tactics of compromise and persuasion. Alhough his “maniacal passion” gets our attention, even Jim Clark may owe his success at least as much to his early decision to make the smartest engineers in Silicon Valley substantial partners in his companies.

Evolutionary psychologists, who are not known for their sunny view of human nature, suggest that we sometimes gain power by being nice. This brand of dominance represents a radical transformation from the snarling dominance of an alpha male in a pack of wolves, or the mouse tyrant lording it over his trembling colony. But it’s a transformation that’s increasingly evident as we move up the evolutionary ladder from simpler species to more complex and intellectual ones, particularly primates. It’s also a transformation some scientists see being recapitulated every day in nursery schools around the world.

Patricia Hawley, a psychologist at both Yale University and Southern Connecticut State University, writes that dominance evolves as children mature. In one study, she paired dominant and subordinate children and gave each pair a game to play. Hawley chose the games, a little diabolically, to allow one player to do the fun stuff, and the other the scutwork. Not surprisingly, the dominant children hogged the fun stuff. In the early years, toddlers lack the verbal and social skills to get their way by subtler means, so they use force.

But it’s different in older children. In one of Hawley’s videotapes, a dominant five-year-old girl and a subordinate boy are playing with a toy fishing rod. The girl takes the first turn and then, as the boy tries his luck, she leans in and offers advice. “Should I help you?” she asks after a moment, gently taking back the fishing gear. Then after she catches the next fish she says, “O.K., we’ve caught your fish. Now it’s my turn again.” The two smile and remain friendly. But the girl controls the fishing 80 percent of the time.

For Hawley, this is what dominance is all about as we grow older. The bully who grabs the fishing rod and the child who gets it by grace and good manners aren’t that different. Both aim to control a resource. They’ve just figured out different ways to do it. They may even be the same child, a few years apart. Sometime between first and third grades, says Hawley, children who continue to be bullies lose status. The ones who remain dominant figure out that they need to acknowledge the thoughts and feelings of their playmates.

This isn’t, of course, the same as giving in to a playmate. Hawley describes the girl’s strategy at the fishing pond as “a sophisticated way to dupe your partner under the guise of helping.” Dominant individuals learn to use what Hawley calls pro-social techniques—bargaining, compromise, appeals to friendship, cooperation—as ways to maintain good will while still monopolizing resources. They are manipulatively nice.

Traditional animal behaviorists would say this isn’t dominance at all, but cooperation. Hawley replies that cooperation as practiced by our fellow primates is often a form of competition: Chimpanzees, for instance, form alliances and use them to gain status; bonobo monkeys trade sexual favors as a way to win friends and influence fellow primates. So maybe it isn’t surprising that humans practice dominance by means other than overt aggression. We are the most intelligent life form on earth, and also the only species to have evolved the extraordinary power of language. It would be surprising if we hadn’t come to practice dominance through kind words and other forms of verbal manipulation. It would be odd if we didn’t use all the accomplishments in our power—wealth, strength, audacity, education, even humor—to produce deference in others.

 If all else fails, we can, of course, still snarl and thump our adversaries on the skull. But among humans, aggression is the riskiest instrument of dominance. For example, Bill Gates of Microsoft has become notorious as a bully who wages the corporate equivalent of war on his competitors. That has made him the richest man in the world, but also provoked the U .S. government to sue Microsoft for antitrust violations. By contrast, Gates employed a far more pro-social strategy back when he and Paul Allen were just starting Microsoft. Allen, the technological wizard, had already dropped out of college and gone to work developing the company’s software on salary from their first big client. It was another six months before Gates also took the plunge. Both men contributed equally to the founding of the new company. But when they formalized their partnership, Gates insisted on a 60-40 split in his favor, according to the recent book, The Plot to Get Bill Gates by Gary Rivlin, on the grounds that Allen had been getting a salary for six months, and he hadn’t. Also, Allen had dropped out of Washington State University. Gates would be dropping out of Harvard.

Gates’ strategy was devoid of overt aggression, relying entirely on persuasion and the illusion that he was being, if not nice, at least fair. And Allen certainly prospered from the deal. In the most recent Forbes list of “America’s 400 Richest People,” he ranked number two, right behind Gates himself. But by the beginning of 1999, the unequal partnership had cost Allen $15 billion.

You could call this cooperation. Or you could call it the single most effective act of dominance behavior in the history of animal life on this planet—and not a tooth bared in anger.

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