Thursday, July 30, 2009

Alpha Male Territory

There is a reason that the eyes are called the "window to the soul". It's the same reason why Poker players like to veil these exact windows with impenetrably dark shades as well as why weak men prefer breaking eye contact: no other part of our body reveals as much about our inner world as our eyes.

Not so for many other mammals: Primates are particularly good at transmitting and receiving that kind of information from each
other. Evolution has caused our eyes to move into the frontal plane and blessed us with a unique set of eye movements.

This is particularly true for us human primates. We feature a particularly high contrast between iris and sclera - which makes it even easier to track gaze.

There is something else that distinguishes us from many other animal species - we share our territory. While alpha males of other species tend to compete for the biggest, best-est territory to attract females, us 'higher' primates are rarely seen in isolation.

Of course, it is not like human alpha males don't care for space at all. The ridiculous fight for corner offices is testament to our believe that social status and territory relate. And even if shared by other males, they will claim ownership by means of body language.

Yet, women do not flock to CEO's with oversized offices and window fronts (although a big wallet does make a sexual difference), but to rock stars, mass murderers and - let's face it - even androgynous, creepy-as-fuck celebrities lacking any of the aura of testosterone, masculinity and heroism celebrated across male improvement community.

There is a different kind of territory that gets controlled and guarded by primate alpha males. It is invisible to the naïve observer since it is placed inside a subjective interpretation of the social environment. What all of the above examples of human alphas have in common is that they do well (very well) in attracting, bundling and keeping the attention of pretty much everyone around them.

While females in many animal species select for males who are able to fight for and defend spatial territory, women select for males who reign the attentional territory.

And that is the main reason why eye contact is so important for social dynamics.

We are unaware of it, but we are gaze addicts.

Take any picture of a human face (such as the one on the left), track our eye movements - and you will find we keep getting back to the person's eyes. We are drawn to each others eyes because we want to read the inner state of whoever is looking at us. We monitor pupil dilation, the miniscule movements of muscle controlling our lids and brows. We can even tell the sex of a person by just looking at the contrast between their eyes (and lips) and the rest of the face.

And, by checking gaze we also get to know where another person's attention is at - most of the time at least.

There is a reason that we think of ourselves as "paying" attention. For primates, attention is a resource - a valuable entity we need from others that we often compete for.

To control a conspecific's behavior is a very powerful display (of high social status). But to control the inner state (such as the attentional focus) of that other social agent is even more powerful than that.

Primates have learned a very special skill in the face of this:

Monkeys, apes and humans can direct their attention to any location, object or person in their field of view without moving their eyes. This grants us a slight advantage over the other players in the game of life: By hiding what our inner eye is focused on we can be deceptive about where we spend our attentional resources. Thanks to this ability we can covertly inspect a woman's chest on the train, for example, while pretending to read a newspaper in our hand. And we can monitor any other guy's in our vicinity without granting them a (reactive) behavioral response.

But, alpha males are always one step ahead. Knowing that we are able to shift our inner gaze without moving our eyes, forces alpha males to take things a step further. They take control again:

Primate alpha males do not allow low status males to establish direct eye contact.

This rule is so strict and without exception that even humans can get attacked by monkeys for failing to to do what the alpha expects. A primate alpha male demands covert attention around him, and interprets any direct eye contact as a challenge of status or threat - and responds accordingly.

What does this mean for humans? Aren't we different? Don't we like to establish direct eye contact during conversation?

Yes, and no.

While we do not fight anyone who looks at us, it is striking to observe that most men break eye contact within milliseconds of establishment. The reason for that is that we, too, interpret a long, cold stare as a threatening, aggressive dominance gesture - and most men avoid it in order to play out their automated dovish flight-response when confronted with the Dove-Hawk dilemma in real life.

An alpha male does not need to do that (thanks, stagetwo for pointing that out to me).

Hence, one way to demonstrate high social status is to freely look at whatever (and whoever) you want to look at; for how long you want to look at it.

Attentional space is abstract and invisible to the unitiated. But if you are on top of the social ladder, this is your very territory.
Own it!

5 comments:

  1. i wonder how much women notice the eye contact thing between guys in mixed setting, particularly guys who are meeting for the first time. i've wondered how unabashedly ignoring some guys in a group whom you do not entirely know is perceived, i'd expect it's as much HOW you ignore someone as much as the choice to do so. ignoring b/c they aren't important to you is very different from ignoring b/c you are a beta who's intimidated etc.

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  2. Great post, and absolutely correct.

    "Primate alpha males do not allow low status males to establish direct eye contact."

    There's some of this in humans too. It's rumored that talk show host Don Imus forbids any of his underlings to look him directly in the eye, with serious repercussions for any transgressors. I'm certain there are other high-status men who have the same hang-up.

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  3. When you mentioned the Chicken game it reminded me of a book. The first chapter is on bargaining and it is good. There is a pdf link in the comments.

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  4. "Stony was waiting. Every once in a while he glanced at the tables to his right. Three guys sat there checking out the scene. One of them, Mott, kept staring at Stony. When Stony looked over that way, he would lock eyes with Mott for a second, then they would both feign disinterest and look away."

    --Richard Price, "Bloodbrothers" (1975) p. 20

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