Growing up with three brothers, I have had first hand experience in dealing with a man’s misconception of needing to identify himself as an alpha male. I myself have tried to fill the role of the “alpha” by certain behaviors that I felt were a direct reflection of the leader of the pack. You know, the kind of aggressive, dominant, seemingly-fearless, and prideful behavior we’re taught is what the animal kingdom tells us is necessary for survival.
When discussing “alpha male” behavior in the animal kingdom, we automatically attach specific characteristics to the definition without taking other factors into consideration. Coincidentally, those characteristics tend to embody what a “winner” is supposed to look like. Ultimately, the competitive qualities one has, automatically benefits a capitalist society. We have to ask ourselves, are we misidentifying the alpha male term all together?
“Chimpanzee Politics” author and biologist and ethologist, Frans de Waal is widely credited for making the “alpha male” term popular. In his book, Frans discusses the the animal behavior in chimpanzee society. Most of his observations are based on studies he did on chimpanzees at the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands—many of which reflect behaviors of chimps in the wild. However, the incredible insight found in these studies was not only used for understanding, but for manipulative advantages often used by business men and politicians.
In his recent Ted Talk, Frans discusses the forgotten traits of an alpha male and the misinterpretations many have made to favor their motives. Frans touches on compassion, sensitivity and vulnerability and how “alpha” means an individual who can understand and care for another.
He explains that while an alpha male is described as “male or female that is just the highest ranking individual of their gender. In each group there can be only one alpha male and one alpha female. It is not about their personality or character, but whether they receive the respect of most others, who make way for them, and allow them priority in feeding situations, or in the case of males, allow them sexual privileges. That’s all there is to it.”
The confusion, Frans says, comes when “political commentators elevated “alpha” to a personality type.” Often times, we think an alpha male is strong, tough and demanding. Unknowingly, we describe bully qualities. Frans explains that while a bully can be alpha, it will only be temporary because an uprising against his dominating behavior will eventually happen. He explains that “the alpha male is the consoler-in-chief.” This means the true alpha displays empathy and keeps the peace by supporting the underdog and stopping fights. A good alpha is adored and respected because he keeps harmony in the group.
Furthermore, misinformation on the identity of the alpha male is misguiding many women and men. When I asked a group of 10 men, ages 25-35 years old, to describe what an alpha male is, they all said “dominant.” When I asked them what kind of traits a woman looks for in a man, they all said “the leader of the pack.” In fact, not one of them described a woman’s idea of a desirable man as gentle and compassionate.
In conversation with Frans, he tells me that females in the animal kingdom, and our society prefer to support a good alpha male—someone who promotes unity and harmony. This is because females tend to understand how this benefits everyone and not just a selected few. Frans tells us that “if there is disharmony, such as tensions among males, females are often the first to suffer, because males redirect their tensions to them. They find it easier to beat up a female than turn against their rival. Group instability is the last thing females need, hence their preference for males who keep order and have leadership capacities.”
In many aspects of the animal kingdom, the females have the right idea—lead by example. Females on the top, in many structures of society are a stabilizing force that brings balance and cooperation to an environment. Usually, an alpha female aligns herself with the top male, provided he does a good job keeping order, and acts as as the emotional anchor of the group.
Without her, there is no him.
In fact, the bonobo, Frans tells me, the alpha individual is often a female, meaning that the alpha female dominates everyone, including all males.
They seem to have the right idea.