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.
Dominant humans stand straighter and move more expansively. Even their handwriting often has a sweeping John hancock character.
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.