The Weird Myth of the “Alpha” Male

Jan 13, 2015 • Culture, Research, Science

what we mean when we talk about being an alpha male

The animal kingdom holds us in a permanent state of fascination. So certain are we that by observing it we will learn the secrets of ourselves that entire industries have risen around science as intermediaries, translators who make animal behaviors applicable to the human experience. The most popular of these intermediaries, of course, are those who promise that their translations of animal behavior will provide the key to sexual bounty and social standing to any human with time, inclination, and a credit card.

The most well-known concept put forth by such intermediaries is that of the “alpha.” The term is borrowed from biology, where it denotes the highest rank in a hierarchy of social animals. Though in some species females can be the highest ranking member, when used among humans the term usually refers to males, and has in recent years become closely linked to notions of masculinity. The site Traits of an Alpha Male, for instance, describes “becoming an alpha male” as “one of the highest achievements a man can ever have.”

To read some of the related sites is not altogether unlike falling into an Edith Wharton novel, with all its concerns about social standing and reputation — if one could imagine such a thing without also conjuring a code of conduct, operas and balls, fashionable addresses, and — of course — the requisite pedigree. In our modern rendering of the “alpha,” the promise of access to abundant territories, resources and protection for mating females is largely nonexistent — as is any notion of parental care investment. In this sense, the social aspects of “alpha” become conflated with those of dominance among species where females require only one thing from the male: his DNA.

Alpha status, as it is being sold, is a charade in which one participates in the hopes of achieving respect within one’s social sphere, including, of course, that of its female members, which — at least according to the intermediaries — either find alpha males irresistible, or at the very least are wired to make themselves sexually available to them at a moment’s notice.

This philosophy must, by necessity, ignore the variation in mating practices among social animals. A study showing that the alpha male silverback gorilla doesn’t get significantly more sexual opportunities than, say, beta and gamma males, for instance, would not be a frequently cited example. Neither would this delightful piece at io9 by Esther Inglis-Arkell about “sneaker” males — non-alphas who craftily devise ways to use the strengths of their species’ dominant males to benefit their own mating strategies.

As Inglis-Arkell writes, the male octopus fiercely guards his female, fighting off all incoming males who would monopolize her attention, but because he allows other females easy entry (in order to mate with them as well), some males change their color and hide their mating arms to slip past. Thus, these crafty males are able to mate with her, while the male octopus fights off possible interlopers.

Because the word “alpha” so often conjures images of dominance and aggression, the door is open to these and other examples, like that of the Japanese quail. Dominant males of this species are incredibly aggressive with females they’re courting, female Japanese quails show a strong preference for subordinate males. In her book The Nature of Human Nature, Carin Bondar describes an experiment designed to understand Japanese quail mate selection: “researchers had a female witness a fight between two males. Once the fight was over and a clearly defined winner and loser had been determined, the female was allowed into the fight arena to select her partner.” The females overwhelmingly chose the loser of the fight.

“The loser males may not have access to the resources that the winners do, but they are not as aggressive toward their female partners,” Bondar writes. “The females prefer to mate with less aggressive males in order to protect themselves from courtship abuse by dominant males.”

Choosing the dominant male doesn’t necessarily mean better odds for one’s offspring, either. Among the Pacific blue-eye, a type of fish, subdominant males spend more time on courtship rituals than their dominant counterparts, and females have greater egg-hatching success when they choose the former over the latter.

“What’s important to remember is males aren’t the only ones who benefit, genetically speaking, by mating with as many different partners as possible,” concludes Inglis-Arkell, noting “females have as much reason to hedge their bets as males do.”

And so they do, though as with the silverback, such aspects of animal behavior are not popularized by the intermediaries promising the holy grail of sexual success. The animal world and the reproductive habits within it are worthy of our fascination, but we must question these overly simplified interpretations so often crafted to appeal to established gender roles and status signifiers in order to see them, truly and fully, as they are.

Header image by James Gaither (Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

  • Grant Stone

    I’ve notice “Beta Male” often being used online as an easy ad hominem attack. It’s just seems like another way of calling a guy effeminate, a pansy or a pussy. It’s a new version of an old schoolyard taunt. Once you LABEL anyone a “Beta,” then all the bullying you heap on them becomes self-justified. Because, somehow Betas choose their status, and thus all the bullying of Betas is fine. If they didn’t want to be Beta, they would just CHOOSE to have the characteristics of an Alpha. Right?

    For me, Alpha-Dog posturing reeks of machismo, homophobia, misogyny and sexism. Heaven forbid any male be in any way feminine, sensitive, or un-rugged. Worse, how dare any man somehow elevate any Female to a Leadership position above them!

    Don’t even let me get started on MRA and PUAs.

    • Jennifer Keller

      You are 100% correct it is just another bullying technique in fact every one of those guys who think they are alphas end up alone and losers, or MRA’s and PUA’s oh wait I repeat myself.

      • Chris. K Cook

        Yes they are ‘Lone Wolves’ not ‘Alphas’, One does not just declare themselves to be an Alpha,it is bestowed upon you by your ‘pack’ so to speak, your social clique.

    • Chris. K Cook

      MRAs and PUA, are not Alpha’s if we are using the metaphor of the Wolf Pack that they abuse. They are Lone Wolves because a true ‘Alpha’ looks after his ‘Pack’ he protects them and leads them and looks out for the weak and vulnerable among their number. He does not bully them,nor does he throw them under the proverbial bus to get what you want. Basically the opposite of what the PUA creeps and MRA weirdos are.

      • AV Flox

        I see a wolf pack article in my future.

      • array528

        Wolf packs don’t even conform to the “alpha” myth. It’s debunked and the scientist who initially coined the term even admits it.

  • Kirk Michael Maxey

    It is easy to observe that in modern human society, mating and reproductive success hardly correlate at all with supposed “alpha” status. About half my workforce is composed of PhD or other advanced degree persons, and almost all Vice Presidents come from this pool. However, partners mate and bear children more readily with the less highly educated but steadily employed members of the non-PhD ranks. One could argue that a “beta” male is more available for child rearing, less preoccupied with high-intensity work demands, and less likely to be using his status to trade up for new and different mates. The complexities of human mate selection are never as simple as behavioral psychologists wish it could be.

    • Noumenon72

      I think PUAs are arguing that the sexual revolution made the kind of status that society can reward you with (money, rank) less important to women. Now it’s the kind of personal characteristics that would make you higher status in a forager band that are more important, so why become a VP?

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  • TheBrett

    The whole “alpha male” thing has become just another way to try and defend “traditional” (read: reactionary and more new than you think) norms of masculinity, in the wake of religious justifications for these becoming less and less meaningful to people. As you point out, it’s nonsense.

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  • Noumenon72

    I’ll confess I only read the abstract of your silverback link, but “Rank was a significant predictor of copulations with both multiparous
    and nulliparous females, although copulations were more evenly
    distributed between the three top ranking males than previously
    reported” does not sound at all like “the alpha male silverback gorilla doesn’t get significantly more sexual opportunities than, say, beta and gamma males.” Would I agree with your take if I read the whole paper?

    • AV Flox

      I strongly encourage you to read the paper — not because you hope to agree or disagree, but because science is worth reading.

      • Noumenon72

        This particular science appears to cost $30 to read? I would have checked it myself instead of asking if it weren’t behind a paywall. Also, if I’m going to read science uncritically, just for enjoyment, I’ll read Not Exactly Rocket Science blog and its infinite links. Reading to agree or disagree is reading carefully, for the truth — that’s the only time I will actually read an original study, at all.

        Anyway, I was seeking some assurance that I should trust your take over my reading of the abstract, so I’m not very satisfied with this.

        • Grant Stone

          People are not Silverback Gorillas. There may be some sociological comparisons we can make. But it’s an allegory, not a definition.

          Who gets to define who the Alpha and Beta Humans are? Is that defined by Social Status? Physical Size? Wealth? Number of Sexual Partners? What are the rules of this game? Because that’s what it becomes, a game.

          The way I’ve seen the terms used is as machismo puffery, with men declaring themselves Alpha, or as ad hominem name-calling. Label the “others” (whoever you oppose) as the Betas, and then heap all the horrible characteristics you despise onto how “Beta” gets defined. It’s generally nonsense, and non-science.