This one is for TheZone: Who'll Be the Alpha Male? Ask the Hormones

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Kind of an interesting take on things.

by Jeff Wise

Any time two or more people come together, one of them automatically and subconsciously establishes dominance. That's the reality of being a mammal. We're social creatures; a place in the hierarchy is a matter of life and death. We need allies to protect us, to fight with us, to groom us and help us bear and raise children. So our brains contain circuitry that automatically find a place for us in the social structure. Some dominate, others submit.

But how do our brains decide who will come out on top?

The answer lies in phenomena that take place far below our conscious awareness. Indeed, the circuitry responsible for dominance operates so deep within our brains that much of its workings are accessible only in occasional glimpses. All the rituals of greeting and etiquette, for instance, are functions of our automatic social circuitry: waving hello, hugging, and shaking hands are all part of the stereotyped behavior that cements our social bond with others.

I've long been mystified, at a personal level, by the way that some people, and men especially, seem to have a natural knack for command. They enter a room, and everyone seems to automatically pivot their attention toward them. (An easy way to tell who has established social dominance: when they talk, no one talks over them.) Some might imagine that a typical "alpha male" is going to be brash, assertive, overbearing. But in my experience, that's rarely the case. The men who can quietly command a room tend to be, not loud, but quiet: often, listeners, connectors, mild-mannered, and physically unassuming. What is it about these men? What gives them their seemingly mystical aura?

A slew of fascinating new studies suggests that dominance process depends on on the complex interaction of just a handful of crucial hormones.

One of the most important, rather unsurprisingly, is testosterone, the hormone of aggression and dominance. Now, testosterone is not a mind altering drug. It's not like caffeine, where you can feel that you're hepped up. But it's important in moderating behavior, especially by boosting decisiveness. When a sport team is locked in a tough match with a longtime rival, the testosterone levels of all its members will go up if they win. If they lose, their testosterone levels will plummet. This gives rise to the so-called Winner Effect, where athletes who are victorious become more likely to win the next time.

The level of testosterone alone, however, is not a good measure of a man's dominance. Its effects are heavily influenced by the levels of another hormone, cortisol, which the body releases in response to stress. A study just published in the journal Hormones and Behavior pitted men against one another in a simple competition, then allowed the losers to choose whether or not they wanted to have another crack at the contest. All of the men with high testosterone and low cortisol wanted to compete again. All of the men with high testosterone and high cortisol -- indicating a state of stress -- declined the opportunity. They were experiencing the flip side of the Winner's Effect.

And there's a third brain chemical that comes into play. Another important hormone involved in regulating social beahavior is oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone." When lovers cuddle or a mother breastfeeds, their levels of oxytocin shoot up. Oxytocin is all about bonding. People with higher levels of the hormone are better at reading the facial expressions of others. Not only does oxytocin tie the members of a social group together, but it plays an important role in moderating stress and fear.

In my book, I discuss a study which found that people who have recently had penetrative sexual intercourse have less social phobia when asked to give a speech in front of strangers. A more recent study provided an even starker picture of the importance of oxytocin: it found that people with a mutant version of an oxytocin-receptor gene were both less empathic and more prone to stress.

A man's status in the hierarchy, then, depends on a complicated dance of hormones that goes on at an unconscious level within his own bloodstream. And it all starts, not with aggression and dominance, but with empathy and bonding. A strong sense of connection to others in the group increases levels of oxytocin, which moderate stress and allows high levels of testosterone to promote competitive behavior.

When it comes to being an Alpha Male, then, the hormones tell the true story: it's more important to be a lover than a fighter.

When I enter a room, I lock

When I enter a room, I lock eyes with the largest male in the room and I proceed to pin him down on the ground until he gives me his compliance. Primal? Yes, but it establishes order in any room.

Its an interesting study. I use to have a problem assuming the alpha male position, in fact I avoided it because of my social anxiety. I would always assume the submissive position. Now, I can freely and more appropriately take my position without really worrying about it. Sometimes I give the position because maybe I need to learn something, and its always a pleasure to give it to men that are confident in the right healthy way because they set a good tone. Sometimes I need to be the alpha because I need to teach something, thats fine too and Im becoming more comfortable in that role. What is not fine is being chronically beta and being manipulative, spiteful, and insecure about your position. I had a friend who did not have much confidence, but he HATED to take on the beta role. It tore him up inside, but he couldnt do anything but hate the alpha traits... that he wanted so bad. I told him that its fine to take on the submissive position every so often, its good too. Nobody on this planet is permanently and divinely ordained to be "alpha", we all switch, and who is alpha today may be beta tomorrow. That is the beauty of it. Now getting all hung up on having to be the beta or the alpha is unhealthy.

Oh, and since Ive come to terms with myself and these things, I can now easily turn a drunk aggressive alpha jock into a beta boy just by having a little maturity and presence (if he is not too insane from the drinking) :)

A lot of young guys cannot stand the fact that someone else is alpha. That is a poor attitude, they just dont realize that these things are not permanent, but they can be with enough self-abuse and shame.

Courage is knowing what not to fear.

cause or effect?

Great post. To me this brings up the point of "cause vs effect". I would certainly agree and expect that the man who JUST had sexual intercourse would be calmer and more confident in front of an audience. But is that because he had intercourse, or was it that he was the type of guy who--due to his alpha male status--is sought out for intercourse?

Remember, Mother Nature causes women to seek out men who are hormonally and otherwise physically well suited for intercourse......maybe that is what made them a better public speaker in the first place.

Hummm....I'd love to hear more on this interesting post by Marnia of Jeff Wise.


I had an interesting

little incident at an office the other day. I got off on the wrong floor on the way down by mistake. This younger guy who I believe works security/janitorial asked "have you been walking around here?". I said "no, I got off on the wrong floor- why?" I made direct eye contact with him as if to imply "why are you talking to me like a child?". He lost eye contact and mumbled something like protocol for the office or something. I stepped in the elavator and wished him a good day matter-of-factly and he said "you too bro." Seems we were both a bit alpha but I do not look for trouble but no one is going to address me like I am some kind of delinquent. I responded as a grown man letting him know I take objection to his rude demeanor. Oh well, just wanted to share.

Marnia wrote: A more recent

[quote=Marnia] A more recent study provided an even starker picture of the importance of oxytocin: it found that people with a mutant version of an oxytocin-receptor gene were both less empathic and more prone to stress. [/quote]

This is interesting.

Stoicism vs. Dominance

The more I read the more stoical I become. And of course stoicism is what gave rise to the English gentleman of the 19th century to the present day. Gentlemanly behaviour does not just apply to the treatment of women but applies to how we might treat all of humanity. The "tamed" instincts of the gentleman are in agreement of nature. The instincts are always there but they have been transformed into something that does men good.

"Virtue consists in a will which is in agreement with Nature."[6] This principle also applies to the realm of interpersonal relationships; "to be free from anger, envy, and jealousy,"[7] and to accept even slaves as "equals of other men, because all alike are sons of God."[8]

Personally, as a humanist the "all alike are sons of God" bit I take to mean that we have all arrived here and now by the same process of natural selection and share ancestral links with all other living things (sentient beings).

We all have primal instincts, I know this only too well, but through the power of sublimation that we all have within our minds, we can tame these, make them gentle and useful. Channeling our aggressiveness into sports, exercise, games, artistic pursuits is a necessity if we are to prevent a regression into our dark and violent evolutionary past. The substitution might not be quite what we want, but it is the only way that we can get part of our satisfaction and feel secure, too. (Harry Sullivan)

"The plastic brain solves the riddle of sublimation.... there is no reason why neurons from the instinctual parts of our brains cannot be linked to our more cognitive-cerebral ones and to our pleasure centers, so that they literally get wired together to form new wholes." Says Norman Doidge commenting on the work of Merzenich and Pascual-Leone in his book 'The Brain that Changes Itself'.

He continues with a warning: "Civilization is a series of techniques in which the hunter-gatherer brain teaches itself to rewire itself. Ant the sad proof that civilization is a composite of the higher nad lower brain functions is seen when civilization breaks down in civil wars, and brutal instincts emerge full-force, and theft, rape, destruction, and murder become commonplace. Because the plastic brain can always allow brain functions that it has brought together to separate, a regression to barbarism is always possible, and civilization will always be a tenuous affair that must be taught in each generation and is always, at most, one generation deep." This, of course, is why we must teach it to our children.

thanks for reading,


Thanks for the additional perspective

My thought is that we'd do a lot better at relearning this each generation if we had a clearer explanation of how sex can affect the brain. After all it has much of its impact on the reward circuitry...which is also our moral compass. So when it's out of kilter, even knowing sensible from destructive can be tough. On the other hand, as we come into balance, we seldom even need external philosophical/moral rules to get it right. I've been working on an article about this.

Nice thoughts. Ive never

Nice thoughts. Ive never thought that civilization and modern man was something unnatural, but thought of it as a byproduct of man's natural capacity to reason. It makes sense that in the realm that most people function in today, the biggest fears are things like public speaking. Because we dont (most of us) act to destroy another person physically, but the modern person has a heyday on breaking down person's sense of pride or identity. Shame seems to be a major fallout and a result of our society's teetering between these primal urges to dominate and to act in rage from feeling dominated (to shame from feeling shamed) and achieving something grand.

Courage is knowing what not to fear.