Facing your inner alpha

There’s been some discussion in response to my post on A natural contemplates game on the meaning of the term “alpha male” as it applies to humans. In comments, I had this to say as a definition:

As I use “alpha”, it simply means someone who is equipped for leadership roles by psychology and temperament. You can tell you are one if your experience of life frequently includes being sucked into leadership vacuums. It’s not about having some sort of dark desire to dominate people, though of course there’s a subset of alphas that has that.

In the PUA context, “alpha” has the additional overlapping meaning of someone who has high hypergamic value to women. These two traits tend to be correlated and to reinforce each other.

I also noted this:

I don’t really know what makes alphas; I wasn’t always one myself, formerly having been what another commenter describes as a sigma [strong loner type, resistant to being in hierarchies]. In fact, for personal values reasons I denied to myself that I was an alpha until long after a third-party observer would have said so, facing the reality only when my pattern of constantly being sucked into leadership vacuums became undeniable.

I will further note that alphaness is not altogether a happy trait to have. The getting more sex part is nice, but the constant “somebody has to do it” presented by the leadership vacuums around you can be a serious pain in the ass. Especially if, like me, you have values conflicts about being an authority figure.

and:

..there was never a lot of “reaching out” involved on my part. The damn leadership roles reached out and grabbed me. Once I realized I was stuck with them, I just tried to handle the job as competently as I could.

I’m not sure what else to tell you, except that I still think people who crave leadership roles are not to be trusted. The reason I denied I was an alpha for a long time is that I had some confusion in my head between the sort of person who wants to run things and the kind of person who can’t help doing it.

Now I will tell a story about one of the incidents that forced me to face my inner alpha.

It was 2005, and I had just arrived at my first Sword Camp. This was to be a week-long intensive training in Western sword and various associated fighting and survival skills.

The teaching doctrine of the school included a tradition that each class trained to fight as a tactical unit. The unit was expected to choose a name, design a banner, and (eventually) choose its command team. As you may imagine, this is a process often fraught with personal complications and conflicts.

Normal class intakes were clocked by the six-month span of basic sword training; thus, they had some time to shake down. The first Sword Camp was a (rather successful, as it later turned out) attempt to cram all that six months of training into a week of dawn-to-dusk intensity. The extreme acceleration meant our class didn’t have a lot of time to sort itself out.

There were three others in the first-ever Sword Camp class – two women (one of them an exceptionally beefy Valkyrie type who would be combat-equivalent to a fit man) and a younger man. We eyed each other and began exchanging stories.

Before this, I’d been reading about wargaming military history, tactics, and related fields for a very long time. One of those related fields was the command psychology of small units (note, if you want a painless but effective introduction to this you can do a lot worse than reading Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers). I knew a lot of theory about how good small-unit officers are supposed to behave towards their men, and the mind-set that generates that behavior.

And then it got real. Because within five minutes it became clear that, from my previous experience with hand-to-hand, Asian sword, and SCA heavy weapons, I had more relevant experience than all three of the others put together. My reaction to this wasn’t “I’m the expert, I should be in charge”, it was: “Damn, I need to take care of these people.” Or, equivalently, “They need me.”

That’s how a good small-unit officer thinks. In the field, your men eat before you do; you don’t sleep until they’re properly bedded down. You take care of them. It’s your job to ensure they’re the most effective fighters they can be. You may have to expend them for the mission, but you have to value each and every one, or the unit won’t work. I knew these things, but they were never emotionally real to me until that moment.

So I took charge. I report as a matter of checkable fact that we had a class name, a banner design, and a command structure chosen within fifteen minutes of time zero (Valkyrie-girl had “natural line sergeant” written on her forehead in letters of fire). This is still a record not to my knowledge even approached by any class since. And there was never an iota of doubt about who the class captain was, not in the class nor among the instructors and observers either.

We actually cohered as a tactical unit, which is not a minor achievement for a bunch of raw newbs without prior military training (the instructors were impressed and said so). Not because I played overt dominance games with anyone – I never even had to raise my voice – but because class Eleutheria was motivated and willing to be led by someone with a clue and the willingness to take responsibility and the right psychology to lead.

The point of this post is that I had the right psychology. I was, rather to my own astonishment, good at this job. It could have gone a lot worse; it was not any kind of given that class Eleutheria had to accept my authority, not as if I was wearing rank tabs in a real military. The way to bet, if I hadn’t had significant command ability, would have been that the unit never jelled.

When I told this story, later, the reaction I got was often something like this: “WTF? You’re a famously charismatic speaker, you energized an entire social movement, legions of geeks look up to you, and you’re surprised you have leadership capability? That is freaking hilarious.”

Um, yes, in retrospect I have to admit it is kind of funny. Even to me. But see above about my values conflicts. I’m an ornery individualist with a bone-deep distrust of hierarchies and people who want to be at the top of them. I wanted to see myself as a sigma, the kind of person who stands outside all that. But, obviously, it’s not that simple.

The experience I’ve just described wasn’t the first that pushed me to face my inner alpha. It was more like the point at which I could no longer kid myself that I wasn’t a natural leader in whatever biological/psychological sense those exist. And my reaction to that was not so much “Oh, cool!” as, “Oh, shit!”

Because with that power comes the responsibility to use it wisely. And, dammit, I don’t want that responsibility! I told myself I was a sigma long after I should have stopped kidding myself exactly so I could evade it.

But you have to take care of your people. You have to take care of your people. And if that means you have to face up to and use alpha qualities about which you remain seriously conflicted, that’s what you have to do.

94 thoughts on “Facing your inner alpha

  1. Interesting.

    Have you studied small unit leadership and such since that time? Any tips for resources?

  2. Bless you esr, I love the fact that you always give RAH his props.

  3. You hit the nail on the head, esr! But, I fail to see how an alpha can survive without PUA techniques, unless of course he is a natural. Being an alpha is great, when it comes to creating a spark of interest in a woman, but a lot of them look for other qualities when the interaction becomes more personal. I am not sure what, a hint of beta?

  4. You guys are acting like PUA is a magic bullet. I think you are also over-focusing on the whole “chicks dig jerks” theme, which is something Roissy harps on, but it’s hardly a universal truth in PUA.

    Also, there are a lot of former PUAs out there who are speaking out against it. Google the following, for instance:

    Assanova game doesn’t work
    Rob Judge death of the pick up artist
    PUAHate

    And there are many more…

  5. That definition makes a lot of sense and corresponds to the reality I observe better than more traditional power-based Alpha definitions, i think, which is of course also subsumed by it. My father was a salt-of-the-Earth sort of guy and could never be mistaken for someone lusting for power or a PUA, yet somehow, everywhere he goes, shomp leadership position within months. Somewhat accelerated by a near-inability to say “no”, but still. And I don’t know if he taught it to me somehow or if it’s genetic, but I’ve had the same experience many times. (Nothing quite as pithy as your story, though.) I don’t feel “Alpha” or try to be one, and I suppose I can’t say I’m the most Alpha Alpha there is by any means, yet, here I am. I don’t say it with pride, because I don’t feel I “earned” this, except inasmuch as true leadership is as you say more about the responsibility than the privilege.

  6. Fascinating post on a personally sensitive subject. I wonder how best to work the Dunning-Kruger effect into this discussion.

    I’m not as exceptional a specimen as some regulars here, but I’m much smarter than average (130-140 IQ) and physically above average (not exceptional, but above average) in several ways. I also have a few other positive ‘leader’ characteristics- I’m one of those people who perform better DURING a crisis than otherwise, I find the clarity and ability to focus a good crisis gives me refreshing.

    And all my life I have avoided leadership and responsibility, preferring to stay outside any system and do my own thing, my own way. There have been times when my alpha urges led me to take charge when needed, but I hated it. Not only did I have reservations about exercising power over others (I explain it that I just don’t like telling people what to do) but I always WAY too aware of my own limitations. The fact that everyone else around me had worse limitations and that there was noone else to step forward was the only thing that would let me, however briefly, lead.

    About that “not wanting to let my will supercede someone else’s thing” – I also can’t bring myself to do anything related to sales, because I find the idea of convincing someone to do something they didn’t already want to do, just to indirectly benefit me, revolting. Also the same reason I despise “seduction”- convincing someone to have sex with you if it wasn’t already their idea (salesmanship of sex). I will not seduce anyone, and have empirically determined that I am immune to seduction. (Yes, I have turned down frank offers of sex with attractive women on multiple occasions for various reasons, mostly to do with personal principles.)

    I wonder how much leadership potential is being wasted because of principled faux-sigmas (really meant to be alphas) not wanting to be “in charge”? And is there a recovery program?

  7. No comment on content (but it is interesting) but your back-link has ‘&action-edit’ included, which requires your WordPress login. Probably not what you wanted.

    ESR says: Fixed, thanks.

  8. Based on your story, it seems there are two possibilities:

    1) There are NO sigmas- only alphas and betas. In this scenario, people who think of themselves as “sigmas” are really alphas, until someone more alpha comes along.

    2) There are sigmas and they are defined in large part by a reluctance to enter into leadership roles; however, if they perceive a leadership vacuum and judge themselves competent enough (or more-so than those around them) they will step into the leadership role.

    It’s possible (likely?) these are distinctions without a difference.

    Personally, the “alpha-beta only” scenario is a little too black and white for me.

  9. About this…

    I’m not going to claim that I’ve had anything close to what Eric describes here in the “real world,” but I was the leader of a 120 person levelling guild in World of Warcraft at one point. I was also something of a (minor, admittedly) celebrity on the forum for a while, although there was a fair amount of negative publicity there as well.

    I definitely found myself nodding and saying Amen when Eric mentions taking care of a group or unit. In my own case in Capture the Flag (Warsong Gulch) games, that meant devising strategy more or less singlehandedly. I can remember several times as Horde player, coming into a game in progress where the Alliance were winning 2-nill, and being able to fairly rapidly turn that around. The issue was primarily raising the rest of the team’s confidence, and also motivating them to simply have the necessary determination to win.

    There is definitely a sense that for whatever reason, the vast majority want or need a parental figure; someone who not only will assume responsibility, but who to a large extent will literally do most of their thinking for them, as well. I think it’s more a case of *want* rather than *need,* personally; but in terms of the end result, that is probably irrelevant.

    I therefore have nothing against the proverbial First Citizen or facilitator role; because the sad fact for us as anarchists, (something else which esr and I have in common, although I probably lean a tiny bit more to the left) is that the majority of human beings really do not seem, themselves, to want the level of self-responsibility and sovereignty that we want everyone to have. So in that sense, I agree that those of us who are able to inspire or help motivate/organise others, are meeting a need, and a very important one.

    I think when I look at it, that my real problem with the alpha concept, is almost exclusively within the sexual context; and also the fact that a couple of guys I’ve known, who fit the sort of definition of the word “alpha,” that we saw in Jennifer Lopez’ movie [i]Enough[/i], really were genuine psychopathic assholes.

    So there is a lot about the underlying concept which, if it is put in different terms, I don’t have issues with. I think it’s primarily that the word itself has come to leave a bad taste in my mouth. The other issue, thinking about it more, is to me the type of world view that is implicit in the use of the word, “alpha;” namely, that by definition there is a social hierarchy, and the alpha is at the top of it. I am not someone who fundamentally views hierarchy as being a positive thing, and I’m also not someone who views most of the traditional concept of masculinity, as something that has really been very beneficial for males ourselves, as well…so I think that gets my hackles up more than anything else.

    I don’t believe that men as a gender should exclusively hold leadership roles. Not only are we increasingly seeing a scenario where women themselves don’t want that, but I don’t want it either. People need to be encouraged wherever possible, to take responsibility for themselves. So I think in the limited contexts where I *have*, when I think about it, played that role before, my own thinking has most positively been, “I don’t mind helping you, but the truth is that you don’t need me, and it isn’t primarily beneficial to either of us for you to rely on me, either. You can do it, and you should.”

  10. @ Greg

    Your experience is almost identical to mine.

    I can resort to barking orders if necessary and so far they are always obeyed, even by people “over” me. Especially in a crisis. Other alphas in my experience perceive instantly that you know what is going on and what needs to be done and they are usually right there with you pulling in the right direction. Likewise I can take orders for the same reason…even if they are delivered in an angry manner without it crushing my ego. A lot of people can’t do that, they take things personally and get all weepy or huffy. Having an imposing manner helps to scare them into doing what they need to do in spite of their emotional hang ups….

    Command presence is a real thing, and you know it when you see it.

    I don’t like to do things that way…but sometimes it is required.

    BTHW I’ll take a team of thick skinned competent alphas any day and happily follow the competent lead. It’s something hard wired in the hunter gatherer brain. The arrow makers stay back in camp.

    A team of whinny betas expecting me to solve all their problems is a nightmare scenario…one that occurs all too often.

    Thinking that the whole alpha beta dynamic is simple domination/compliance in human societies is a bit simplistic I think.

  11. @Gerry:

    It’s possible (likely?) these are distinctions without a difference.

    Personally, the “alpha-beta only” scenario is a little too black and white for me.

    @Petrus:

    There is definitely a sense that for whatever reason, the vast majority want or need a parental figure; someone who not only will assume responsibility, but who to a large extent will literally do most of their thinking for them, as well. I think it’s more a case of *want* rather than *need,* personally; but in terms of the end result, that is probably irrelevant.

    I think it’s a matter of people who want/need to lead, people who want to be led, people who want a bit of both, and people who want neither.

    I think most politicians fall in the first camp, and most people want a bit of both — they want/need to know their place in the hierarchy. They certainly want a parental figure, but they also want to be a parental figure. They are reassured by the people they look up to that their position in society is secure, and having and raising children assures them that yes, they are now, in fact, grownups, and their opinion is probably worth at least something.

    In some cases, people who would prefer to exist outside the hierarchy are drawn into the hierarchy. The more intelligent of these loners will do a mental match of the most gaping current holes in the hierarchy against their own personal competencies, and head straight for the correct position in the hierarchy. Sometimes, this position will be at the top of the hierarchy, sometimes not.

    Most people, even those who desire a small leadership role, seem to be looking for somebody to lead them. The world is a scary place, and this seems to be one of the major coping mechanisms against the uncertainty, and the major driver of religious organizations. To be that leader one step up in any organization requires (1) either the desire to be on top, or the desire or need to make the organization work, and (2) either actual competence and knowledge of said competence, or, via Dunning-Kruger, supreme incompetence backed up by bravado.

    In an organization or hierarchy where most of the participants are qualified at their jobs and there are no major crises, Dunning-Kruger incompetence may not be so bad, in conjunction with the correct personality. If somebody only wants to be perceived as the leader, but doesn’t want to know or can’t understand about the details, he will simply nod sagely when his underlings present problems and potential solutions and will naturally be guided to the solution that his underlings are proposing. The underlings will be relieved of the actual decision making, and do the right thing, and everybody will be happy.

    It’s only when there are serious problems that the true competence of the leader is discovered. Of course, by then, it’s often too late, and also, of course, the serious problems are often themselves a direct consequence of putting the wrong person in charge, whether because he is incompetent, or because he is calculatedly putting his own interests ahead of those of the organization.

    At work, I try to figure out what’s needed and do it. Since I’m a technical guy and not playing political games, this puts me near the top of the technical hierarchy, but nowhere near the top of the company hierarchy.

    At play, if I go sailing, I fit into the hierarchy. Mostly, I do things outside of a hierarchy. Occasionally, I wind up at the top of a hierarchy, like being a jury foreman. That’s an interesting experience.

  12. >t’s only when there are serious problems that the true competence of the leader is discovered. Of course, by then, it’s often too late, and also, of course, the serious problems are often themselves a direct consequence of putting the wrong person in charge, whether because he is incompetent, or because he is calculatedly putting his own interests ahead of those of the organization.

    I don’t think incompetence in the lead is tolerated in small competent teams where results count. Not in my experience. All the bravado and command presence in the world will only get you arrows in the back if you are incompetent.

    It’s only in larger organizations and societies where the sociopath/incompetent types can hide in the cracks. Thus an totally incompetent buffoon of a politician rutting around with pages and commanding large organizations……would not happen in small groups.

  13. @esr: You are NOT an alpha. An alpha dominates others if he can because he likes the power and perks. You got sucked into leadership roles because, for example, no true alpha saw any payoff in open-source software. (Steve Jobs *is* an alpha. He would *never* do what you did.)

    We Americans were very lucky that the best man to lead the Continental Army was *not* an alpha. He did his job, later served as our first president, and voluntarily relinquished power after two terms. I cringe at the thought that, had things been different, we might have been led by another Oliver Cromwell (*he* was an alpha) instead of George Washington.

  14. some people seem to confuse alpha with self serving sociopath…I think definitions are the problem. ESR is referring to natural leaders. Being a leader is not about being a self serving asshole, in fact it is the opposite in the hunter gatherer sense.

    In the military sense, the lines can get blurry…..you pretend to take care of your men…but you must sacrifice them if ordered to do so.

    Perhaps at the whim of said buffoonish asshole pol.

    Of course you could also just find a place to hide in a cellar and pretend your radio doesn’t work……

  15. @TMR:

    I don’t think incompetence in the lead is tolerated in small competent teams where results count. Not in my experience. All the bravado and command presence in the world will only get you arrows in the back if you are incompetent.

    I agree, to a point.

    Except in a startup situation, a small team usually reports (eventually) up the hierarchy to somebody who is incompetent in the discipline of the team, and who, in the worst case, cannot readily discern who is and isn’t competent on the team. Then the team will devolve into lord of the flies and/or the competent people will bail.

    The other problem with “where results count” is that, often, results really do count, but it is known and accepted by higher-ups that results are not achievable for months or even a couple of years. This sometimes allows incompetence to run rampant and do a lot of damage for at least a while, especially when coupled with employment policies that require several months of documented attempted corrective action.

  16. What about being funny?

    This is a way to get chicks interested in you. But so far no one has mentioned it. And it has nothing to with being an alpha jerk.

    Think Austin Powers, for example.

    Also, I think it is nuts to say that Geroge Washington was not an alpha. Of course he was. But he had a proper sense of limits; no desire to be the King of America.

  17. @TMR:

    some people seem to confuse alpha with self serving sociopath…I think definitions are the problem. ESR is referring to natural leaders. Being a leader is not about being a self serving asshole, in fact it is the opposite in the hunter gatherer sense.

    As esr said in his first post on the subject (some people disagree, but I think the kernel is correct), being an asshole probably works in many cases for people trying to appear to be an alpha, because back in the day, you couldn’t afford to be an asshole unless you could back it up. This fits perfectly with your observation that in an effective small, somewhat isolated, somewhat self-directed team, the leader will not be a sociopath, or will at least be smart enough to reign in his sociopathic tendencies until he securely commands a large enough group to be able to indulge safely in them at least some of the time.

  18. @Darrencardinal:

    > What about being funny? This is a way to get chicks interested in you.

    I think it’s a great ice-breaker, and can give you an immediate edge with that first 15 seconds. There are a lot of schticks like this — taking photographs, having a really great karaoke song, whatever. BUT — you have to have something else to back it up. Once you have their attention, you have to have something else to keep it, and to the extent that being an alpha male means not being a whiny introvert, that’s a win.

    I’m one who sees the funny side of most things in life, but I have to dial it back a bit sometimes because my wife doesn’t want to be amused all the time.

  19. >The other problem with “where results count” is that, often, results really do count, but it is known and accepted by higher-ups that results are not achievable for months or even a couple of years. This sometimes allows incompetence to run rampant and do a lot of damage for at least a while, especially when coupled with employment policies that require several months of documented attempted corrective action.

    no argument from me…I’ve seen that too. I was thinking more along the lines of if this guy is an idiot..we die… kind of result.

    The problem with the corporate situation is…you are always looking at risk/reward of bailing, looking for new work, paying the mortgage vs putting up with the idiot boss. Yes the results matter, but in an abstract and distant sort of way.

    Now lets say you have a gun in your hand and this clown is trying to march you and all your buddies through a mine field into machine gun fire when everybody knows there is a safer way to do things…what do you think would happen?

  20. I think it’s clear that “competence at leadership” does not map cleanly to “high social status, sexually desirable”. We can use the term “alpha” to mean one of these, but no both.

    In high school, you can certainly see geeks with better leadership skills than the frat boys and future Big Men on Campus, but it doesn’t translate into social status outside of their sub-culture. Later in life, I suspect that leadership opportunities start to be based more on competence and less on the crude teen-status indicators, and that success at these leadership roles is rewarded with status.

    But it’s not a clean thing. The two axes (good leader/poor leader and high social status/low social status) are not orthogonal, but they aren’t parallel either.

  21. no argument from me…I’ve seen that too. I was thinking more along the lines of if this guy is an idiot..we die… kind of result.

    Now lets say you have a gun in your hand and this clown is trying to march you and all your buddies through a mine field into machine gun fire when everybody knows there is a safer way to do things…what do you think would happen?

    Sure, that’s natural selection in action. The team smart enough and brave enough to friendly-fire their stupid lieutenant may live to reproduce. Or not. That’s the nature of stochastic processes — the genes and environment that work the best will win out over the long run, assuming the environment doesn’t change too quickly.

    The problem with the corporate situation is…you are always looking at risk/reward of bailing, looking for new work, paying the mortgage vs putting up with the idiot boss. Yes the results matter, but in an abstract and distant sort of way.

    Kind of like male/female relationships, if you think about it. A bit of immediate pain/gain, some abstract better or worse possibilities, but in any case, it’s a longer-term game. Still a stochastic natural selection process, but not played at all the same — killing your office boss won’t ever actually help and will most probably significantly hurt your future reproductive chances.

  22. >So if we’re going to talk about more than just the PUA subculture, here’s a proposal to use vox day’s terminology.

    Yeah, I’ll second that. I think his “alpha” and “sigma” categories basically coincide with mine. I’ve been using “betas” (under Roissy’s influence) not for what Vox Day calls Betas but for his Gammas, Deltas, and Omegas. I now agree his terminology is better.

    For reference: http://voxday.blogspot.com/2010/01/roissy-and-limits-of-game.html

  23. >Based on your story, it seems there are two possibilities

    No. We cannot exclude the possibility that there are two kinds of sigma: latent or self-suppressed alphas like me on the one hand, and on the other hand sigmas who can’t step up.

  24. I think it’s clear that “competence at leadership” does not map cleanly to “high social status, sexually desirable”. We can use the term “alpha” to mean one of these, but no both.

    “competence at leadership” != “being in a significant leadership position”

    In general, a man in a significant leadership position will find himself to be sexually desirable to a reasonably large number of women of child-bearing years. This may be somewhat less true now than in bygone years, but it’s still very easy to find a large number of politicians and corporate heads who (a) travel in what is considered to be elite social circles, and (b) are routinely seen with women who are much younger and better looking than they are.

    There are also some high-powered females who attract younger, more attractive male hangers-on, but this somehow seems like more of an evolutionary dead-end, unless the males are using the money and influence made available to them to surreptitiously have relationships with other females.

  25. @esr:

    > For reference: http://voxday.blogspot.com/2010/01/roissy-and-limits-of-game.html

    I love this quote for sigmas: “Suggestion: Entertain the possibility that other people are not always Hell. The banal idiocy is incidental, it’s not intentional torture.”

    I have known this for several years now, but I certainly wish I could have figured this out or had it taught to me a few decades ago…

  26. >“competence at leadership” != “being in a significant leadership position”

    Indeed. Henry Kissinger put it well: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”. Expressed, competent alpha-leader types are always attractive to women.

    As the quote implies, women respond more to status than to ability. Take someone with weak leadership abilities, put him in a palace and give him a raft of minions and a kingdom: this is a surer turn-on than a peasant with the instincts of a great leader. In the circumstances of the ancestral environment this bias made sense – women could seldom afford long bets because lifespans were short.

  27. >We Americans were very lucky that the best man to lead the Continental Army was *not* an alpha.

    I completely disagree with you. Washington was true alpha of the most potent kind, as you can tell by his demonstrated competence, and the way his contemporaries regarded him, and his results.

    If you equate “alpha” with “power junkie” you’ll just confuse yourself. No blame: I used to be prone to the same mistake.

  28. Actually after reading through the responses and thinking about it a bit…the absolute WORST situation is a bunch of betas, an incompetent sociopath alpha….and a competent sigma.

    Makes my stomach churn just thinking about it.

    Which is why I prefer to remain outside of organizations since they tend to be chock full of sociopath-alpha boot-licking-beta ugliness.

    A dynamic I abhor in sexual relationships as well. I agree the leadership/popular guy axis are not necessarily the same, more like overlapping sets.

  29. What about being funny?

    This is a way to get chicks interested in you. But so far no one has mentioned it. And it has nothing to with being an alpha jerk.

    Humor is how I deal with bizarre or stressful situations naturally, so I know something about this.

    It works, but its extent is limited. And you run the risk of having the lady not take you seriously.

    I had the good fortune of meeting a woman who used to do improv comedy recently. When I said something funny to her she could see behind the joke, much as a hacker might mentally dissect his favorite video game as he played it. She could understand where I was coming from and that a real person’s attitudes underpinned the humor.

    Not a lot of women can do that though.

  30. Not a lot of women can do that though.

    Not a lot of men can do it either, but we were discussing specifically the case of attracting a woman as a potential partner for sex and other good times.

  31. I pushed myself into a leadership position once by getting everybody to work on the EFF letter writing campaign. I became semi-famous in that particular forum, and that was scary. Being famous, even a little, is not as good as I thought it would be.

    I never date women and don’t know much about attracting the opposite sex. I have very few friends in the real world. I am not a self-sustaining entity either. It also become more urgent for me to work jobs and not be so lazy so that I can exists outside of my parents’ home. So I am the stereotypical nerd living the basement.

  32. > “Actually after reading through the responses and thinking about it a bit…the absolute WORST situation is a bunch of betas, an incompetent sociopath alpha….and a competent sigma.”

    Sounds like my experience of the organizational structure of universities, with the general faculty as the bunch of betas, the chancellor/vice-chancellor being the incompetent sociopath alpha and, um, me being the competent sigma….

    ;-)

  33. Some year ago, when my then employer decided that they had no further use for in-house copy editing, they sent me to a job search training program. One of the things were learned about in it was a theory of key career motives, of which there were eight. One of them was managerial competence: The person to whom the biggest possible payoff is to be in charge of a bunch of other people. Another was technical competence: The person to whom the biggest possible payoff is to do a skilled job and do it well, and who regards managing other people as unpleasant shitwork that you have to do some of to get technical jobs done. I instantly recognized myself as a “technical competence” type, not least because I had been carefully avoiding getting put onto the managerial promotion ladder (which might have gotten me still employed, but at a price I’m relieved not to have to pay).

    It was interesting to me that the course material explicitly recognized that there’s a problem in business reward structures that treat becoming a manager as the ultimate payoff for good work . . . which to many skilled technical people is not a payoff but an added cost. And yet corporations seem to think that this is the only way to do things, perhaps because corporations are run by people to whom it IS a payoff.

    Anyway, the two patterns sound somewhat related to your “alpha” and “sigma” patterns.

  34. > No. We cannot exclude the possibility that there are two kinds of sigma:
    > latent or self-suppressed alphas like me on the one hand, and on the
    > other hand sigmas who can’t step up.

    I was all set to disagree with this, thinking the latter is just a trumped-up beta. But that’s incorrect- the key trait for a sigma is not caring about the social hierarchy. Clearly the ability or the inability to step up is unrelated to this trait.

    The definitions at vox day’s place don’t change this either.

  35. I was all set to disagree with this, thinking the latter is just a trumped-up beta. But that’s incorrect- the key trait for a sigma is not caring about the social hierarchy. Clearly the ability or the inability to step up is unrelated to this trait.

    The ability/inability to step up will also be heavily related to context, and is completely orthogonal to whether somebody is a Sigma or happily exists within any hierarchy.

    We all know and know of people who were born at exactly the right time, too early, too late, etc. This, of course, describes how well their traits work in the environment they found themselves.

  36. > The ability/inability to step up will also be heavily related to context

    Agreed.

    It appears that one’s categorization also is context dependent. For instance, Henry Kissinger is floated as a prototypical alpha by Vox. In his comments, he’s clearly referring to Kissinger in a present-day context. But was Kissinger an alpha when he was in high school? Yet supposedly, one is born an alpha. Vox even goes so far as to say that alpha’s can’t blog about what they do because they are completely unaware since what they do is natural.

    Who’s to say that today’s delta wasn’t a high school beta who hit a bad luck streak?

    And who chose the Greek alphabet-soup for all this anyway? About now I’d like to teach him a little “gamma”…

  37. “competence at leadership” != “being in a significant leadership position”

    esr@ “Indeed. Henry Kissinger put it well: “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”. Expressed, competent alpha-leader types are always attractive to women.

    “As the quote implies, women respond more to status than to ability. Take someone with weak leadership abilities, put him in a palace and give him a raft of minions and a kingdom: this is a surer turn-on than a peasant with the instincts of a great leader.”

    I grant all of this, but how did the male get that status and the associated palace?

    Granted, in many times an places he inherited it by birth. But even then, if he is incompetent to wield the power he is likely to be assassinated, overthrown, bankrupted, or some other variation. In modern Western societies, it is much more difficult to obtain this type of position without demonstrating merit, and nearly impossible to keep that position without it. Whereas the peasant with the instincts of a great leader has far more opportunity to accomplish something and raise his social status, which would not in all likelihood have occurred under a feudal system.

    But what about the EEA? What opportunities would a highly competent young male have had to raise his status and perhaps displace the alpha of his tribal band, or to split away a part of the tribe and form a new one? I don’t know, and I suspect that there is too much variation in such tribal societies to come up with a firm rule. Have any anthropologists written about this? He would certainly have more opportunities than under feudalism, and less opportunities than in the modern West. But that’s quite a range. :-)

  38. >> I don’t really know what makes alphas; I wasn’t always one myself, formerly having been what another commenter describes as a sigma <<

    After reading these comments I realize that YOU don't decide if you're an alpha; other people decide that you're an alpha. As a loner who distrusts hierarchies and gets sucked into leadership vacuums I don't consider myself an alpha but I still end up with people taking direction from me. I guess that sometimes makes me the alpha.

  39. I’m a big fan of your blog. I have already read plenty of Heinlein, so I’ve been wondering what books you would recommend to someone who is interested in learning more about basic military structure/doctrines? If that’s too general, it seems like you have no military background but know a great deal about defending yourself and militaries have historically done; what have you read to make that the case?

  40. It would be interesting to unpack this quality of “gets sucked into leadership vacuums”. Maybe a combination of:

    * Strong internal frame of reference (ie the person knows he’s right most of the time and does not suffer fools and fads gladly)
    * Strong internal locus of control (“I make my own destiny” = attractive to those who see themselves as victims of external forces)
    * Signals masculine, dominant features
    * Signals confidence and competence
    * Signals some kind of likeability

    More?

  41. >Anyway, the two patterns sound somewhat related to your “alpha” and “sigma” patterns.

    They fit better with Vox Day’s Alpha and Beta; his beta is the competent lieutenant/support person.

  42. >what books you would recommend to someone who is interested in learning more about basic military structure/doctrines?

    That’s not a question for which I have an answer ready, partly because I’ve been interested in the topic for so long that my basic reading was decades in the past. I’ll contemplate it and perhaps blog something.

  43. >After reading these comments I realize that YOU don’t decide if you’re an alpha; other people decide that you’re an alpha.

    Sorry, I don’t think that’s true. I think alphaness is a set of qualities and behavioral signals to which others respond at a gut level. It’s difficult for me to identify them directly, but I have noticed one thing that seems invariable: Alphas have presence. They seem larger than they are, they own the space around them when they move, they draw attention even when relatively still and silent.

  44. Sorry, I don’t think that’s true. I think alphaness is a set of qualities and behavioral signals to which others respond at a gut level.

    Yes. I’m not sure you can cultivate them, but you can definitely discover them within yourself. You don’t decide you’re the leader; you are the leader. Others don’t decide you’re the alpha, they just assume it.

    OTOH, I’m not sure you can deliberately decide to be a sigma, either. You can allow other alphas to assume command, but in the absence of those, you will then necessarily become the leader. Even if you allow others alphas to assume command, the sigmas will still see you as a sort of ‘unofficial’ authority figure.

  45. I was editing my Aphorisms files, and just came across a piece I wrote sometime between 1995 and 2005 and had forgotten about. It discusses the alpha/beta/gamma as they were presented in Douglas Casey’s “Crisis Investing for the Rest of the 1990s”, which was on functioning in hierarchies and business rather than socially.

    There are three types of people, corresponding roughly to Douglas Casey’s Alpha, beta, and gamma, but more descriptively
    labelled power-seeking, security-seeking, and freedom-seeking. The security-seeking are the largest group, probably a majority. Power-seeking and security-seeking individuals readily participate in the same society. A society for freedom-seeking individuals is the most productive society possible and is very uncomfortable for power- and security-seeking individuals. The society desired by power- and security-seeking individuals is unproductive, class-bound, and hell-on-earth to freedom-seeking individuals.

  46. “Sorry, I don’t think that’s true. I think alphaness is a set of qualities and behavioral signals to which others respond at a gut level. It’s difficult for me to identify them directly, but I have noticed one thing that seems invariable: Alphas have presence. They seem larger than they are, they own the space around them when they move, they draw attention even when relatively still and silent.”

    @esr It’s just like nuclear radiation. That much awesomeness simply can’t be contained within the human body; leakage is unavoidable. ;)

  47. At our high school, the guy who was the most popular with the girls belonged neither to the group of bullies nor to the ones being bullied, nor somewhere between, but he was the type who protected the weak ones from the bullies. And he spent a suprisingly lot of time helping the hopelessly beta, taking them to gym, to a music club, showing techniques etc.

    I suppose on an evol-psy basis, there are two components of being a good chieftain

    1) fighting your way to the top

    2) actually doing the friggin’ job after you got it: care for the tribe, protect it, father it around.

    IMHO the “alpha male” term has negative associations because it is associated solely with 1) while 2) is just as an important part of it. (Aristotle would have called it the difference betwen a monarch and a tyrant.)

  48. >After reading these comments I realize that YOU don’t decide if you’re an alpha; other people decide that you’re an alpha.

    Sorry, I don’t think that’s true. I think alphaness is a set of qualities and behavioral signals to which others respond at a gut level.

    I think you’re really saying the same thing here, but are hung up on the word “decide”.

    You don’t get to “decide” if you are an Alpha = Your decision as to whether to label yourself as “Alpha” is orthogonal to whether you are an Alpha. You can be an Alpha and decide to call yourself a Sigma….

    Other people decide that you’re an alpha = other people respond at a gut level to Alphaness, and thereby “decide” the question of who is an alpha. This sense of “decide” is not about a conscious choice. Lots of unconscious decisions are made; I believe the vast majority of decisions fall into the unconscious category.

  49. The entire alpha-beta-etc debate doesn’t work well with people, not surprisingly since it was originally developed studying wolves. As several people, elsewhere, have pointed out, human social ranking is both much more complex and is highly situational. For example, in the Lazarus Long quote – “take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone”.

  50. I think the article described a vanilla alpha male or the version we nerds might have of an alpha male. You are wrong. An alpha male probably doesn’t read blogs. An alpha male is the guy you are afraid of in public places and at work. An alpha male generally seeks out other alpha males to test his physical abilities on. He is the one who when you meet him gives you a crushing handshake, looks in your eyes and offers a thinly veiled insult about your manliness. It is a test which most fail because another alpha male would look him back in the eye and challenge him right then and there. I’m betting you have either never met an alpha male or when you did simply cowered and wrote him off as a dangerous jerk to stay away from. Not a lot of need for alpha males in our society and a lot of them end up in jail or dead before they are 50. You like to think you are a leader. You are probably fairly smart and could indeed probably be a reasonably good leader. Except you would be clueless and helpless as to what to do with the alpha males in your little band of followers when they rebelled against your idea of leadership. Do not kid yourself. You are not an alpha male. You are an outspoken male, an untested male and like all the rest of us free to claim to be whatever you want to knowing our society protects you from any real challenge. If you don’t know this then thank me for the eye opening advice because when push comes to shove an alpha male will kick your ass. If you do know this then you are a fraud and a fool.

  51. And being exposed to those kinds of ignorant misconceptions while growing up is part of the reason why folks like TMR and myself censor ourselves so badly, I imagine.

    @GWTW: what you’re describing are bullies and thugs. Some of them may genuinely have alpha characteristics, but many are just pathological fake alphas who act like whipped curs within their own peer groups. And it may interest you to know that the commenter population of this blog includes martial artists, firearms enthusiasts and former soldiers (with a great deal of overlap), several of whom have experience with employing violence in self-defense. And, I’m willing to bet, all of whom can tell the difference between natural leadership and sadistic bullying. Junior high school is over, stay out of the biker bars and you don’t have to be afraid anymore.

  52. I’ve known I was sigma/alpha from about 16 years of age. Never bullied – those few that tried learned a swift lesson. Never failed to get the girl, and never needed to resort to trawling ghastly meat-market bars/clubs. High standards (tried some slumming for sport – no joy in it) that kept my list of eligible females short indeed.

    The thing that keeps me mostly in sigma-mode is my disdain of the cloying nature of so many. They detect an alpha and they plead for a ‘leader’ to ‘save’ them…they’re always looking for their Messiah. I consider that weakness to be a sad thing, and varyingly nauseating.

    I’m certainly no Messiah, but I am a naughty boy ;)

    Which leaves me with those that do warrant my alphaness – my family primarily, but also the team I work with. My wife says I’m “a good man that knows how to be bad when needs must” !

  53. I agree with daniel b swift that thus whole alpha thing does not fit well on humans.

    If you ever watched a chimpansee or baboon alpha man in action (can be done in most zoos) you can only consider human displays of dominance with a smile.

    If you want to see real human alpha males in action, or the closest you get in humans, watch the youtube video. Concentrate on the body language.

  54. Eric: Most classes have a larger number of students. Most classes have more than one alpha. Therefore: most classes take longer to come to decisions as to who’s the lead.

    Aegis tends to attract rational alphas.

  55. >Eric: Most classes have a larger number of students. Most classes have more than one alpha. Therefore: most classes take longer to come to decisions as to who’s the lead.

    That is an excellent point, David.

    >Aegis tends to attract rational alphas.

    Indeed it does. With yourself as a not-inconspicuous example.

  56. esr wrote:
    No. We cannot exclude the possibility that there are two kinds of sigma: latent or self-suppressed alphas like me on the one hand, and on the other hand sigmas who can’t step up.

    It seems to me, from vox’s descriptions, that all sigmas have the ability to step up. That is, the sigma, or lone wolf persona, is basically an alpha who doesn’t like or want to be an alpha.

    Vox would classify someone without the ability to step up as being either a delta or an omega.

  57. hsu is correct in my experience. Sigma’s generally have to have basic alpha abilities in order to survive as sigmas. You can only be “left alone” if you can enforce your will on the fake alphas, and that takes true alpha-ness.

  58. We seem to have two distinct views of ‘alphaness’ influencing comments here: (a) the alpha of attitude,and (b) the alpha of quality.

    There are endless examples of brash, loudmouthed, crass grunts that become considered as ‘alphas’ by virtue of the way they physically and psychologically intimidate others and force themselves to the ‘top of the heap’. These are alphas of class (a). I do not consider these to be alphas.

    I consider ‘true’ alphas to be of class (b). A core essence of quality that, albeit optionally, can induce an almost metaphysical sense of presence in the minds of others. It need not be much – ‘Joe is one solid guy’ – but it always commands attention.

    Bullies & thugs belong in class (a), and I have historically enjoyed dismantling their worlds, the most amusing part being when all the ‘gangsters molls’ that flocked around them took to wing once they discovered how impotent their ‘champions’ were…which only made the fuckers angrier at me, yet they did not dare to attack the guy that left a dent in a locker approximately the same shape as one of their compadres’ face.

    I attribute my alphaness to my father, whom I do not consider an alpha (he is too meek) – he led me to understand two things from the age of 4 : (1) martial arts, and (2) nobody is my master.

    Self-determination, confidence, humility & integrity. Alpha.

  59. @ Greg

    I moved around a lot growing up. I got to fight a lot of bullies.

    It was good for me.

    Do you suppose GWTHW has ever had to face down 5 people with knives unarmed?

    I backed down.

    I must not be an alpha……or a sigma……QED

  60. @ Greg

    RE self censorship….honestly I do self sensor quite a bit, simply because I don’t think people will believe me. My personal experience is outside the norm. I try to down regulate it to more common ground. Otherwise, it would be filtered out as noise. To me outliers are the most fun. I always try to get to know foreigners, people who are unusual.

    Today I was at a neo-Luddite commune visiting a friend of mine…an old hippie dude who is tres capable. He’s having a hard time with the Luddites because he likes technology. Things like tractors and back hoes….They prefer the hair shirt of hard labor and ineffectiveness.

    A friend who hunts pirates called me Friday night to ask if I would help a friend design a sheath for a fighting knife…..

    I don’t need the money and will hopefully trade for training….

    Tomorrow I interview candidates for dept head involving nano-tech….

    I have an odd collection of friends and experiences. Unless you met me, you might have a hard time believing most of it…..

    I hesitate to hit the enter key.

  61. “We seem to have two distinct views of ‘alphaness’ influencing comments here: (a) the alpha of attitude,and (b) the alpha of quality.”

    Surely this must have been the case in the EEA as well. What happened in that era when a man with good leadership skills, “presence”, and good problem-solving skills was challenged by a total idiot who was bigger, stronger, and faster?

    In most cases, I would expect the thug to win. The exception would be if the good leader had a very loyal team of fighters at his back. But in an internal challenge for power inside the tribe, I don’t think that would occur.

    Many of the writers on this thread seem to believe that being an “alpha of quality” means that you can dominate the thugs. I’m not so sure.

    One thing is clear to me from reading this whole set of threads — the alpha/omega ranking for females is based on very different criteria from those that determine the male pecking order.

  62. >The exception would be if the good leader had a very loyal team of fighters at his back.

    That’s the whole point of the exercise.

  63. TMR does highlight the whole point of the exercise. In a small, tight-knit group of hunter-gatherers, the strong idiot is a known quality, and the whole point of the procedure is to either plan ahead and make a challenge a losing proposition or to get the dumb thug on your side to begin with.

    Dan is also more or less correct on the reason a sigma personality can often stand in for the alphas as well. My idea of the ideal vacation is to aimlessly wander a swamp alone, and observing people interacting makes me feel like an alien from another planet – at the gut level I can’t fathom why other people care about social status, are frightened of being alone, etc. That perhaps makes me almost a lab-pure sigma, I suppose. In going it alone, there is no one else to share the load; you must make plans and carry them out yourself. I have found that a whole constellation of traits are pretty much imposed by reality on any given “sigma”, and most of these are directly applicable to leadership, if necessity or a sufficiency of unpleasantness has forced you to assume leadership.

    From time to time I’ve wondered what the adaptive benefit of the sigma (strong introvert/lone wolf) personality to human survival was. By definition, they seek to be outside the social structure, and the tribe’s survival was predicated on that social structure. After much contemplation I’ve come to the conclusion that having a small set of sigma personalities around provides a strong firewall against getting carried away with groupthink. Things like the Abilene paradox and the Asch conformity experiment are torpedoed by having even a small minority who may not know and certainly don’t care what the social hierarchy deems true. It rings true with my general experiences in life; any time a foolish/faddish idea comes down the line, it seems to be my designated function in the group to denounce it. And I don’t mean that in a subjective sense that I feel like it’s my lot in life, but that people will actually turn towards me expectantly, wait for me to be the first to say it’s a bad idea, and then and only after I have gone to the trouble of breaking consensus will begin discussing it. Is it really that hard to be the first to say ‘no’?

    Group dynamics, they are very weird. Humanity is baffling at any and all times, and ten times worse in a crowd.

  64. >> the alpha/omega ranking for females is based on very different criteria from those that determine the male pecking order

    In a past life I bred Irish Setters. Having 8 – 12 adults running around the yard was a lot of fun and an interesting study in pack behaviour. First, there’s an alpha dog and an alpha bitch. The alpha dog (in my case) was quite gentle but as #1 stud got laid a lot and the other dogs seemed to respect this. No fighting at all. The alpha bitch was the oldest bitch and tried to disrupt any other breeding by knocking the dog off the bitch with a hip check. She was always trying to lure the boys away even when she wasn’t fertile. Lots of snarling, snapping and posturing with the other bitches too.

  65. >From time to time I’ve wondered what the adaptive benefit of the sigma (strong introvert/lone wolf) personality to human survival was.

    One of the papers in the seminal evo-psych anthology The Adapted Mind is about an adaptationist account of what the authors call “wayfinding”. The thesis is that nomadic kin-groups in that the ancestral environment needed scouts who were both motivated and able to operate solo at some distance from the group. Thus, kin-groups collected a selective advantage from having a minority of members with a personal style in which curiosity and self-reliance are dominant themes.

  66. @Locarno
    “In a small, tight-knit group of hunter-gatherers, the strong idiot is a known quality, and the whole point of the procedure is to either plan ahead and make a challenge a losing proposition or to get the dumb thug on your side to begin with.”

    Read Frans de Waal’s account of how an old chimp male teamed up with a Beta chimp male to dislodge the current Alpha.
    http://chimpansee.homestead.com/separating.html
    http://monkeyprose.blogspot.com/2007/03/chimpanzee-politics-by-frans-de-waal.html

  67. Most bullies are not alpha’s they are simply bigger kids who are either older then their classmates or genetically larger. Also, You are conflating a leader with an alpha. In a civilized society a leader may be smarter, he/she may be related to someone with power, they could even have worked their way up the ladder but they are not necessarily alpha. A leader leads today by fiat. In a civilized society your only legitimate choice if you don’t like a leader is to quit your job. You could be a leader your entire life and never be confronted with a situation that would require an alpha male unless you are a Marine or military combat NCO. The general ignorance of what is an alpha male, is understandable because in an ordered society they don’t seem to be necessary. But I cannot express in words how laughable it is to read how nerds and gamers describe themselves as alpha’s based on their naive views of gaming theory or their jobs.

  68. William Stoddard,
    You sound like my father. He’s been offered a managerial position a number of times, but refused. As he explained it, managers have to deal with the computer department workers and their needs, and upper managements desires, and make them fit. Way too much stress. Most managers survived about 4-5 years. He’s been in his job based on technical competence for 30 years and is as happy as a cat with a mouse.

    GWTW,
    Your bigotry against gamers is noted. Please define exactly what an alpha male is (and never fear, I aren’t one.) I do well in leadership if I happen to trip and fall into it, but then I also go with the ideal Christ proposed, that of ‘servant leadership’ which is rather similar to what ESR says about junior officers.

  69. @GoneWithTheWind:
    I disagree. A commander has control by fiat, or by position, or authority. Leadership is about having people want to do what you want them to do. Basically, leaders are able to have others internalize their own goals automatically. It’s quite entertaining to watch.

    Command, leadership and management are separate, but related skills. In my experience, the “alphas” being discussed here are those who naturally do all 3. These are all attributes which are very helpful in the military, and thus are places where you are likely to see many of them, through selection bias. I’ve seen a few others in tech management, which is unsurprising as one of the attributes of senior manager positions/executive is the ability to get things done.

  70. I have seen big differences between people in how able they are to get other people’s hindbrains enthusiastic about “following.” (Or more broadly enthusiastic about agreeing to key choices on strategy, delegation of authority, etc.). A lot of those person-to-person differences seem to be along the lines ESR has described. Like many people who’ve read about and watched people and animals, I agree there seem to be many points of correspondence between human status cues and animal status cues. I might quibble that humans always seem to have a significant amount of flexibility woven around that, and from reading things like _Chimpanzee Politics_ it seems pretty clear that even chimps do. (It might be more accurate to think of the light-up-the-hindbrain ability as working indirectly, e.g., determining where the Schelling points are, rather than directly driving outcomes.) And in some kinds of situations, I’d promote that point from quibble to major objection. Here I will describe one property of situations that seems to affect the flexibility: how easy is it to judge leadership performance more directly?

    From experience running a free software project, I have some confidence in my ability to convince people to accept my authority in a situation like the Scott/Amundsen/Shackleton era Antarctic expeditions, where there were a bunch of little make or break situations to let people judge for themselves whether my decisions tend to be sound. But I have no confidence I could convince people to follow me into high intensity combat (where there’s a classic “peacetime army” problem the you can train and test as much as you want but only imperfectly capture what will really matter at a crunch time that hasn’t happened yet). Particularly I doubt my ability to lead them the first time, without ramping up by somehow building a reputation for sound judgment in earlier incidents of actual combat. I suspect various other people I’ve met (including some martial artists strong in the signalling that ESR is describing) would be considerably more effective at that.

    Leading people into high intensity combat is not the only example of the difficulty. I have no particular confidence in my ability to succeed at second-level or higher middle management. It’s typically difficult to judge performance of middle managers, in large part because it’s so difficult to measure what effective resources someone is working with, and how realistic goals are. Thus it seems Alpha personal presence can be persistently important (and I’m 5’5″). And other confounding factors can run wild too (like in-groups playing tricks to climb in the organization by making each other look good and/or sabotaging others).

    And maybe I underestimate how important primate hindbrain heuristics are for organizing people even in the presence of objective ways to judge performance. In particular, my free software project experience was a rather flawed test of the importance of physical presence because I never personally met anyone in the project. (It was 100% low-bandwidth Internet communication: CVS, email, IRC…) That makes it a beautiful demonstration that cooperation can be arranged without the designated cat herder impressing the cats with physical presence. But it does nothing to exclude the possibility that I’d’ve been excluded as an absolutely unsuitable cat herder if someone with more convincing physical presence had been around.

    (As for most women in the dating sphere, incidentally. In Cathy’s post in the Game thread I wryly noted the conjunction between “since so much of [female attractiveness] is based on physical attractiveness” and her citation of Gottfried, who chooses a 5’4″ man with a bad nose as a universally recognizable how-low-I-was-becoming-willing-to-go to her intended audience.)

    I don’t know how to completely exclude the possibility that personal presence trumps all in face to face leadership. However, from (nonleadership in) various other activities, it seems to me that there is a very strong anticorrelation between the (medium- and long-term) importance of physical presence and the ease of evaluating ability directly. I have a lot of experience in some fields where ability is exceedingly easy to judge (especially thousands of hours spent with the game of Go). I have some experience with various other activities where ability is harder to judge (caving, scruffy art or music and poetry as opposed to exceedingly technically demanding variants of those things). In intermediate activities, I have spent thousands of hours on programming and simulations, and I have some experience with other things (rock climbing, robot building, various martial arts, prose writing, performing classical music). Essentially all of those experiences seem to me to support this pattern.

    I’ll close with an example of the kind of thing I have seen in activities where performance is easy to evaluate. I’m no acute student of psychology and unspoken cues, but it’s still hard not to notice (and enjoy:-) the transformed atmosphere in a non-English-speaking Go club as it dawns on onlookers that perhaps the American hasn’t just wandered in from shallow curiosity (after reading manga or something?) but indeed knows how to play. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone experience anything like the same attitude transformation in the hard-to-evaluate fields without personal presence or the other kinds of hindbrain-oriented stuff you can read about in Cialdini’s _Influence_.

  71. When GoneWithTheWind writes “a leader leads today by fiat” it seems to me he must be cut off from much of the world. People start or take over companies, political campaigns, worldly religious bodies, and other dozens of other flavors of volunteer activities including weird stuff like World of Warcraft guilds. None of those things are led by fiat, and some do succeed much better at leading them than others.

    In situations where people have significant freedom of association and some ability to to defend themselves and reasonably good ability to succeed by performing well (i.e., not prison, public school, public housing, absolute financial dependence on lifetime employment at the USPS…) damned few people of any importance seem to be your “guy you are afraid of in public places and at work.” But quite a few of them (except in WoW and certain obscure free software projects:-) seem to lean significantly on the kinds of skills and attitudes that ESR has been discussing, that other humans recognize when they walk into the room, and somewhat plausibly argue they recognize in primates too.

    Also FWIW, outside of certain situations in dysfunctional places like prison and public school, it’s hard to get very far at all with pure loner unarmed physical intimidation. Once lethal force, coalitions, and/or weapons come in, many or most of the most dangerous people don’t look all that much like GWTW’s version, and most people realize it.

  72. “Alphas have presence. They seem larger than they are, they own the space around them when they move, they draw attention even when relatively still and silent.”

    Stanley Lovell, who was research chief for the OSS in WW II, wrote of OSS chief “Wild Bill” Donovan that he had “presence”. He noted that Donovan would come into a crowded room, and conversation would pause. The first couple of times he saw it, he thought it was because Donovan was an expected VIP. But then Lovell saw it happen when no one expected Donovan at all, and many of those present didn’t know who he was.

    As to sigmas: there is at least one other class of them: those who don’t want to command or be commanded, and who have no ability to command or lead; who have no special abilities at all. Just average-to-mediocre Joe or (Jane) who nonetheless won’t be led around.

    As to alphas: historically there have been a lot of false alphas who had position without ability by reason of inheritance. One should realize that this was not an either-or situation. Many individuals inherited social positions that were not sustained by their abilities, but were not completely incapable either. Others held positions by inheritance or other default which they could handle in easy times, but failed at the first serious challenge.

  73. Rich Rostrom: As to sigmas: there is at least one other class of them: those who don’t want to command or be commanded, and who have no ability to command or lead; who have no special abilities at all. Just average-to-mediocre Joe or (Jane) who nonetheless won’t be led around.

    I would disagree. It’s been my experience that you can have “reluctant” betas, but ultimately the only people who can successfully remain a sigma for any length of time must have alpha qualities. The reason for this is, as a sigma you are constantly challenged by both alphas and fake alphas, and unless you can stand your own ground (logically, if not physically) they will eventually force you to capitulate (by repeated assertion if not out right violence.

    One thought however, Sigma may be a true pathway from Beta to Alpha status. Deciding to stand your ground may force you to arm yourself mentally to do what has to be done to accomplish that, and in so doing, you will naturally have to behave more like an alpha and be seen as such by others. I think this may be part of what creates leaders our of “nobodies” under extreme pressure (e.g. war).

  74. @GoneWithTheWind

    You are confusing martial prowess with being an alpha.

    There are many, many alphas in history that have had very little martial prowess. FDR is one of the best examples – a wheelchair bound paraplegic who was easily the biggest alpha in an era that produced a lot of alphas.

  75. ESR,

    “The thesis is that nomadic kin-groups in that the ancestral environment needed”

    Medieval towns needed executioners, hangmen, yet nobody would have allowed his daughter to marry an executioner, except for other executioners of course. “Needed” does not equal “was a good reproductive strategy go be”.

    Nomadic kin-groups needed shamans too, or at any rate they wanted them. What little I know about the methods of selecting and initiating shamans, suggests to me that most of them must have been mentally ill and had all sorts of other kinds of defects, in fact, a visible genetic defect such as six fingers was often a sign for a shamanic calling. They were “needed”, but I figure most of them died as a virgin.

  76. re ESR’s “The thesis is that nomadic kin-groups in that the ancestral environment needed…” — Group selection can be tricky to think about, and harder than you might think to achieve.

    I could imagine selective pressure on individuals to step outside coalitions in human dominance hierarchies. One of the patterns we see in large human coalitions is requiring all sorts of very strange beliefs and behaviors purposefully to signal membership and loyalty, and also sometimes coming up with more very strange beliefs and behaviors apparently accidentally by aimless groupthink. I don’t know how strongly this pattern scales in bands of the size typical of most of human evolution, but my guess is that the pattern remains visible. There are reasons for the signalling beliefs and behaviors to tend to be individually dysfunctional, esp.: the better to keep individuals from cheaply faking them to spoof other members of the coalition. I don’t think there’s any reason that groupthink needs to tend to be dysfunctional overall, because imitating other successful individuals is often a good strategy. However, even if perhaps groupthink overall tends to be positive, it clearly has some spectacular failure modes. In any generation when the main body of individuals who win by conforming happen to dysfunctionally signal their membership and/or executing bad groupthink hard enough, then a tendency to opt out could obviously be a survival trait. Maybe the opters out experience moderately negative selective pressure in 80% of generations but then win it back with compensating large positive selective pressure in 20% or so of generations when the main coalition stampedes into something spectacularly dysfunctional?

  77. Cathy wrote:
    “…the alpha/omega ranking for females is based on very different criteria from those that determine the male pecking order.”

    I’d be interested in your elaboration.

    There’s some Heinlein quote about all the things a ‘real man’ should be able to do…I’ve got quite a lot of them checked off…but I think they largely apply to women too. I never did go for prissy princesses – ladies, yes – and always admired women withs metaphorical balls…oh the irony.

  78. >“Needed” does not equal “was a good reproductive strategy go be”.

    No. But under the right circumstances, individual selective pressures on a kin group can act in ways that mimic teleology and group selection even though that’s not actually what’s going on. This is not even controversial anymore; the math has been modeled.

  79. I don’t consider FDR an alpha, maybe Teddy was but even there I doubt it. In fact FDR was more like a bully then an alpha. I think you have confused hollering and demanding with alpha qualities.

    I’m not sure I harbor any bigotry against gamers. It was just a case that a gamer had made lame statements about how alpha’s proved themselves in computer games. Kind of made me laugh to think anyone could even be that naive.

    Garrett I don’t disagree with how you describe leaders. But I do not believe all or even most leaders are alphas. Some very smart and ambitious people make great leaders and I would follow them anywhere. But they are not alphas.

    Other references were to entrepreneurs not alphas. Again some very smart hard working people succeed in business but that does not make them an alpha.

  80. GoneWithTheWind,

    > I don’t consider FDR an alpha, maybe Teddy was but even there I doubt it.

    I don’t think your definition of alpha is useful in any way. You seem to think alphas are rare, but every little tribal group of ten families would have one. Alpha does not mean “Conan the Barbarian” or “Gengis Khan”.

    Yours,
    Tom

  81. >Alpha does not mean “Conan the Barbarian” or “Gengis Khan”.

    I think GWTHW has in mind Hannibal Lecter in the body of R. Gracie…

    A totally useless definition. Some of the most effective leaders and alphas are of small physical stature and do not rely on physical intimidation. There are plenty of loyal meat heads for that.

  82. > Some of the most effective leaders and alphas are of small physical stature and do not rely on physical intimidation.

    Think of Jerry Markbreit. If you ever watched him personally take the stage you know what an alpha may look like. When you talk to him, although his head barely reaches up to your shoulder, you always have the impression that YOU are one who’s looking up.

    And then there was one Gaius Octavius Thurinus.

  83. You know, I’d thought that Starship Troopers hadn’t influenced me, but after seeing the movie version of Prince Caspian, I was struck by Peter being placed in the position of commanding an army and leading them into a trap. Good people died, people whose only mistake was to believe that he could competently command them. I remembered the explanation of unit command from Starship Troopers, that the power of command flows pretty much entirely from being responsible for leading your charges in the right direction, and I wondered at how blasé Peter seemed about the whole thing, like command, for him, was just a game that he’d get a better score on next time. If nothing else, an event like that should make one a lot older, all at once. But no, it’s forgotten as soon as it’s off-screen.

  84. @Kurt and TMR
    “> Some of the most effective leaders and alphas are of small physical stature and do not rely on physical intimidation.

    Think of Jerry Markbreit.”

    My first association was quite obvious. But maybe you do not think Napoleon Bonaparte was of Alpha material?

  85. Dang, Eric, you remind me of two of my favorite milbloggers, whose blogs I read every day.

    They are http://www.Neptunuslex.com

    and http://www.thedonovan.com.

    Both of them are retired military guys. Cap’n Lex is a retired Naval Aviator, and The Donovan is a retired Redleg. Both of them have Seen the Elephant, I believe. They both do strongly believe in looking out for one’s people.

    Being Irish, both of them are gifted with language and write like angels. You should read their stuff.

  86. P.s. The Donovan has absolutely and completely the best Gun Pr0n on the ‘net, on his site. He has an amazing collection of firearms and other militaria. Hell, his wife even bought him a Maxim Gun. (It doesn’t work; machine guns which work are way too expensive these days.)

  87. I understand all too well being sucked into leadership voids. I have found that the danger is committing so much of myself to make the situation better for others that I am drained of energy. For what it’s worth, I would counsel to respect, but push against your energy limits.

    This sounds cheesier than it should, but it is important.

  88. Ayup. My brother is “your sort” of alpha (I suspect that we’d need the entire greek, roman, and cyrillic alphabets to truly nail down all the social types of humanity, but that’s a completely different post) in that he doesn’t even seem to want to be in charge, it just sort of happens to him. People have ideas, they bring them to D. D. says “hey, how about this stuff happen?” and people trip over themselves to make things occur. And this is in a social hierarchy that’s like herding cats (goths). Hell, I do it myself. I find myself wanting to do things because D. would like them done. And I’m generally as sigma as it gets. (No interest in your power structure, willing to work with people as equals, really do not want to be in charge.)

  89. Pingback: Dog Training Tips for Training Your Dog | Paws Kennels Blog

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