Science & Technology

You've Been Using the Term "Alpha Male" Wrong

If you've spent any time at all in the worlds of business, sports, the military, or dating, you've no doubt met a few self-described "alpha males." Usually, men who adopt this title are trying to say they're tough, domineering, and in charge. But according to one of the primatologists who popularized the term, real alpha males (in chimp society or our own) are nothing like the brawny bullies for which the term is usually used.

Alpha Male Doesn't Mean "Bully"

To get a sense of how the term alpha male is generally used, consider this fact, shared regretfully by primatologist Frans de Waal in his TedMed talk (hat tip to Business Insider). When Newt Gingrich led a new crop of congressmen to Washington as part of the so-called "Republican Revolution" in 1994, he recommended they prepare by reading de Waal's book, "Chimpanzee Politics."

The lesson, apparently, was for these newbie legislators to behave like alpha males, which to Gingrich meant behaving like, well, Gingrich — big, mean, and intimidating, with a take-no-prisoners, show-no-kindness attitude.

The only problem, according to de Waal, is that Gingrich completely missed the point of the book. Yes, alpha males are leaders. Yes, they swagger. But Gingrich and a great many people since then have misunderstood how alpha males win their positions at the top on the savanna or in the boardroom.

Being top dog (or chimp) isn't about physical size. Yes, strength and vigor help, but "the smallest male, if he has the right friends and keeps them happy or he has female support, can be the alpha male," explains de Waal. Power doesn't come from bashing others over the head; it comes from forming coalitions, and this is best accomplished not by being a jerk, but by being kind.

"You need to be generous," says de Waal, who notes that would-be alpha males on a campaign to climb to the top slot start giving away food and tickling babies they previously totally ignored. In short, they spend a whole lot of time currying favor by being nice to others. And once they're in power, they buttress their power by doling out favors and kindness.

"The alpha male has two sorts of obligations. One is to keep the peace in the group," says de Waal, noting that alphas act as impartial referees who refuse to favor relatives or buddies and, in fact, usually back underdogs in disputes. "The second is to be the most empathetic. The consoler-in-chief of the nation so to speak." The result of this fairness and empathy is popularity and security at the top.

Send a Memo to Washington

Someone send a memo to Gingrich and his many political descendants: If you're looking to become a true alpha male, pushing people around is the smallest part of the process. Instead, ensuring fair and equitable resolution of conflicts and making people feel loved and cared for will get you much further. Emotional intelligence beats intimidation; empathy beats brawn.

"You should not insult chimpanzees by calling a bully an alpha male," de Waal concludes.

It's funny until you watch the evening news (or enter the dating pool). It's time for popular culture to catch up to science on this one. Climbing to the top isn't about imposing yourself brutishly on others. It's about building alliances. Wouldn't the world be a better place if people understood this as well as chimps?

To dig into the book that spawned the concept, check out "Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes" by Frans de Waal. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Frans de Waal: the Surprising Science of Alpha Males

Written by Jessica Stillman August 10, 2018

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