Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Accidental Alpha

"Humans compete less for territory than for rank. Territory and possessions are only symbols of rank. The attention of the tribe is a kind of psychic territory ... He who controls the attention is high status and sexually attractive."
[J. Quirk - It's not You, It's Biology]

Every human interaction creates a power imbalance.

It's inevitable. Any moment humans meet both sides need to decide if and for how long to make eye contact. If people get close by, they need to adjust their interpersonal space. Minute changes in posture signal the mind state we are in whether or not we engage in direct interaction. And if we do, the semantic content of our words and the tonality of our voice will adjust to match our unconscious decision if it is better to respectfully appease or to aggressively push the person to get what we want.

Take this masterful painting by Canaletto, for example, and study the mere body language of the people depicted in the scene (his baroque paintings have the exact right amount of sparseness to study his amazingly naturalistic portrayal of inter-individual interactions):

Let's focus on some highlights and play "Who's the alpha?":

Easy. The woman is more dominant by her natural status (although kids like to challenge) and you can see that reflected in her open and somewhat aggressive body language. Note how she exposes her chest and the way she looks down to them from the side. The kids (literally) look up to her and turned their bodies to face her directly. It's a plea for attention that she seems to grant somewhat unwillingly.

Easy. The guy on the left tries to sell some gross looking stuff and the customers do not seem to be that interested. He leans in to the degree that he almost bows in front of them and spreads his arms in disarmed, friendly fashion (as if capitulating or seeking a hug). The guy with the hat is facing the alpha the same way the kids did above, and leans in to demonstrate his need of approval. The alpha stands straight, faces neither of the betas and manages to take up space without even spreading his arms. His look his contemplative and focused. His demeanor evokes a majestic of air of presence.

More interesting. At first sight, the guy facing us is bigger and more aggressive seeming than the guy facing away from the observer. Yet, he is the one leaning in, while the other guy leans out and seems undeterred. The giveaway, are the crossed arms. The guy whose face we don't see is closed up, minimizing his personal space. Compare that to the open chest and relaxed arms of his adversary. The big guy is the alpha and his leaning in is a threatening gesture. The leaning out of his conversation partner is a defensive reaction.

These are just a few examples, of course. Each of the people in this painting convey high or low social status in similar ways.

Man and women equally respond to these invisible forces of social dynamics. People might follow or challenge the dominant status of a man taking the lead.
Yet, women throw sexual attraction into the mix, and that changes things drastically. It creates positive feedback loops of ever increasing social status (and sexual attractiveness) in men.

And this is how accidental alphas come about.

I have observed this on several occasions. A random, average guy with low status demeanor gets the attention of a girl. Typically this will be because the woman got upset about something (such as an alpha guy demonstrating disinterest). The girl then proceeds to boost up her self-esteem by having a lesser guy salivating all over her. Other girls will become aware of her new attentional focus and (hello social proof!) will inevitable get interested in the putative object of female desire. And the more girls run over, stand close or even start talking to that dude, the more he becomes the focus of increasingly horny women. Eventually, he will be dragged home by one of the female pursuers.

Of course, the guy will wonder the next day how he "got lucky" to "score" a "fool's mate". He might try to repeat anything he did that night, but it won't happen again. The women, too, might wonder why they fell for someone "so not their type". All sides will then happily agree that it was "random" or "hormonal" or come up with other rationalizations, blindly missing the strong invisible hand that guided their behavior that night.


  1. i saw EXACTLY this tuesday night. I predicted it to a buddy of mine. a girl was snubbed and then lavished her attention on a guy, who was sharp enough to engage in push/pull with her, even "putting her in time out" at one point....inevitably he took her home.

  2. interesting since i was thinking about this today.

    i was thinking about it in a more long-term setting. have you ever watched the progression of a guy who starts out as a nerd but somehow winds up with a hot girlfriend? whatever caused that first stroke of luck, this girlfriend is the catalyst for all of his future success with women.

    in social settings, this guy will get praise and attention that he didn't get when he was single. as soon as he gets this hot girlfriend you hear other chicks all of a sudden talking about how attractive he is when you never heard them say a word about him before.

  3. I had this happen to me in class today at school. Some decent-looking redhead with her tits out came up to me and then some sorta okay looking Asian chick came over and they both stood next to me.

    The redhead took out her phone and I could tell she wanted my number, but I was too busy talking to the Professor about class to engage her beyond some light talk the perception of the temperature in the classroom. She thought it was cold, I told her it was hot. I controlled the frame and she was totally into me. She was a soroity girl, so... an obvious slut.

    I'm pretty handsome, but kinda shy at times.

  4. I'm pretty handsome

    The amazing thing is: that doesn't matter at all. It's very counter-intuitive for us guys, but women do not care about looks - they judge appearance.

    We have a hard time graspiong this because looks are so important to us. But for a woman handomseness is as sexy as her having a great career us - it simply is not a factor.

    The only reason women respond to handsome men is that they think or feel that these guys think better about themselves. There was a cartoon in the New Yorker one day with two women gossiping about a guy in the background going "I wonder what he looks like without the money". This captures it nicely - in her eyes you become beautiful by what you represent.

  5. ..HAHA... The post is logical – good job 11mins, but the respond by the Anonymous is one of the most idiotic and funnies things I’ve read in a long, long time. Even when you boys feed each other each move/word with a spoon, you still 1) don’t fully grasp discussed concepts 2) don’t even realize how silly you sound. But it is entertaining to see how pompous one becomes in a matter of minutes, while quiet possibly misinterpreting the situation. Thank you for the morning laughs Anonymous! Keep up a good work!

  6. Truly body language is subconscious for most. It took me many years of frustration to learn to read it. Women are intuitively better at this but it still tends to operate below the radar. This is optimal if you know how to manipulate it to your advantage however.

  7. Great post, 11. You are on a roll lately.

    I like your analysis of the last pair in the painting. I had the same thought train... The leaning-in, leaning-out behavior is usually beta-alpha. But sometimes alphas assert their dominance with a strong forward movement, and the beta response is to close up as the man in the painting is doing here.

    There's an unwritten rule that you don't make eye contact for longer than two seconds on the train in New York City. A game I like to play is to NEVER be the one to look away first. This is pretty easy with about 98% of people. Girls will look away quickly (then look back quickly if they are intrigued or attracted). Beta men will look down and away. Sometimes though you meet eyes with another alpha and it can get a little uncomfortable. But it's good practice to see it through. The other group that sometimes doesn't look away is wise old ladies. To them I usually just smile kindly and they will smile back.

    The other day though I locked eyes with this weird old guy in a porkpie hat and beige overcoat. He stared right at me, so I stared back. He kept staring and staring, with an aggressive look on his face. I just looked at him calmly. Then he started getting upset. It was a crowded train and all he did was start whispering and mouthing "Don't look at me!" without breaking eye contact. I played dumb and pretended I couldn't hear him. He got really frustrated and finally looked away and muttered loudly to himself so that all the people around him were giving him funny looks. It was much, much more humiliating for him than if he had just looked away casually right off the bat. So... to your point, body language says a lot, but context matters.

    PS: No, I am not dead! I'll be posting again soon!

  8. Yes, the joke is on you, "SelfishIGuess". Thanks for providing the funnies, loser.


  9. @Anonymous
    Yes, namecalling is very alpha; it's right next to feeling the need to defend yourself on a blogpost followed by a selfclaimed "original" smilyface that should indicate smiling, snizzing, sleeping or whatever else you are trying to express.
    Don't get worked up over my comments. I am just a silly girl!

  10. @SelfishIGuess

    Aww... how cute you felt the need to respond.

    It's okay, don't cry little baby. Here, suck on this nice bottle, so you can stop your whining.

  11. @Master Dogen:
    There's an unwritten rule that you don't make eye contact for longer than two seconds on the train in New York City. A game I like to play is to NEVER be the one to look away first.

    I am with stagetwo on the observation that most young women daydream about sex when riding the train. You can literally see it in their eyes. Once you lock your gaze, they often feel "caught", and start smiling nervously. I think that this is why kids and old women are such a different category.

    The weirdest thing that ever happened to me playing the "never look away first" game on the train happened a couple of months ago in DC: I sat down and an angry looking hipster guy stared at me intensely. I locked my gaze and stopped blinking. I was intrigued by his intense stare and started wondering whether he was on drugs (it was around 10PM). He started talking to me, still keeping eye contact. I have no idea what he said since I did not feel compelled to remove my headphones.

    Then it happened.

    He looked more than angry, grabbed into his shirt pocket and took something out. I couldn't tell what it was since I maintained the eye contact we had going for what seemed minutes now. He moved his arm up - and all of a sudden I was blinded by light.

    The freak held a small bicycle flashlight in his hand and tried to get me to blink by directing its bright rays of light onto my retinae.

    I couldn't help but burst out in laughter. The guy now looked like he was going to kill me. He looked insane. There must have been drugs aboard. He kept talking and we still stared into each other's eyes. At that point the train came to a stop. He rushed up and left. I looked around and saw that pretty much everyone else on the train wondered what just happened. I wonder what he had muttered while shining a flashlight at me from across the train. The music in my ear was too good to hit pause and ask any of the bystanders.

    Schizophrenics and people on drugs are much more susceptible to the subtle cues we manage to miss when our minds are occupied with chasing money, power or women.

  12. Accidental Alpha. I like that. Another community term for the same phenomena is "feeding frenzy".

    Great analysis of social proof and social cues.

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