Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Alpha Spark

By mere chance I came across the recent PBS series "The Human Spark". To be frank, I only watched one single episode of that series while lazying in a hotel room. But that one episode was marvelous, factually accurate and very inspiring. The main point of the series is the age old question that Charles Darwin burdened us with (and which still is the basis of any primatologists career):

"What makes humans special?"

There are many attempts at answering the question, typically including tool use and language, moral reasoning and other things that we like to pride ourselves in. And to cut a long story short - none of them holds in the strictest sense. But while language and tool use were falsified decades ago by the rather eloquent use of sign language demonstrated by all main ape species as well as the frequent tool use observed in wild monkeys (and even birds), "moral reasoning" managed to linger around for quite a while.

The episode I watched was centered on that question, embedding it in a more general approach on "social networks". You can watch an excerpt of that episode here.

The take-home-message of the main experiments shown in the series is that when it comes to altruism, humans seem to act differently compared to any other primate species. It is that difference might enable us to live in the overwhelmingly large societal structures that have changed the surface of the planet.

This idea is based on a large variety of observations, some old and some new.  One of them is that there is a close correlation between primate brain sizes and the size of the groups they live in. And one idea is that this is not a coincidence, but rather has a causal basis (Dunbar's number): Larger brains enable individuals to keep track of all other group members, and that allows us to keep track of our favors.

And keeping track of who owes to whom is important: Altruism in animals occurs only between related individuals (kin altruism) or if the favor is likely to be returned (reciprocal altruism). And for the latter, you need to be able to keep track of who did what do to whom.

The idea that larger brains have something to do with sociality also sits well with the idea that larger groups come with an increasing risk of scams, fraud and deception. The "Machiavellian Intelligence" hypothesis states that primates gathered increasingly large brains to deal with the inflating number of tricks and intrigues that come with larger social groups. And of course, related to that, for monogamous species, a larger brain also helps to manage the increasing risk of cheating mates in larger sexual markets.

The series claims that only humans have acquired a lose form of altruism that allows us to be nice to total strangers, and therefore limits the aggression in our species. Thanks to that, we went ahead and populated all climate zones while our closest kin is about to go extinct.

What is most interesting are the repercussions:
Larger social groups come with new laws of social hierarchy and dynamics.

And this is true in particular for social status.

[Note that social status is something entirely different than societal status.
The two often get confused.
Social status is something you do.
Societal status is something you get.]


While monkeys spend their entire lives in a well defined cohort, they can establish stable social hierarchies. For monkeys (as for many other animal species) the rule: once an alpha male, always an alpha male really holds true. At least for rather large amounts of time.

I do not believe that this is the case for humans. I (again) recommend reading the important book "Impro" and what these actors found out about the important sub-communication of social status in human interactions. There are many important points made in that chapter, but one of the most striking is the incredible speed with which things can change:

Humans can go from alpha to omega in a heartbeat.

Actors call it "status swap".

Actors know that we all love to watch these social dynamics; it is the very basis of drama. Movies feed off these moments: A mighty super villain, invincible seeming, and full of confidence threatens the weakened hero that we all sympathize with. Yet somehow things change, and moments later the villain begs for mercy, crawling at the feet of our beloved main character.

We have seen it many times like that on screen, but to a lesser, much more subtle degree status swaps happen around us all the time. For a moment one man might seem more submissive to another, just to become more dominating in the next. Status often fluctuates so quickly, one sometimes cannot even say who is dominating whom, although interactions always imply some sort of hierarchy.


Our ability to swap status at any moment, and never cast someone's status into stone explains a lot of what we observe in human social and mating dynamics. Whereas other primates quickly establish rank orders that last for significant amounts of time, humans are rather flexible in whom they grant higher and lower status. This allows us a degree of flexibility in social interactions that is unprecedented. It also allows us to deal effectively and efficiently with anonymous strangers.

The aloofness of human social status is also why societal status is so irrelevant for mate selection. The position you got thanks to your education, hard work or your family's connections does not tell much about how other people perceive you in direct social interaction. And it is the latter that was important in the stone age when our brains and the constraints they impose on our behavior were formed.

As everything else when it comes to social status (or what makes a man an "alpha"), things are subtle. Status gets communicated by tonality, gestures and body language via a separate, unconscious information channel while our minds are focused on more overt things such as the content of speech.

But you can train your skill of conscious status detection. By querying yourself: "Is this person more dominant or more submissive?" in any particular moment, you will gain astonishing revelations.

Learning how a person's status fluctuates over time will transform your ideas of what constitutes and "alpha male". You will get to understand that no man is "alpha" per se. Instead, each of us are alpha in some moments, and far from that in others. It is just that some people are better at spending more time in a higher status.

One of the most surprising insights one can gain by constantly evaluating status, is that a person's status does not even need other people to exist (and fluctuate). We practice status with inanimate objects, too. And even in those situations, our status is not cast into stone:

10 comments:

  1. eastbound & down is hilarious. watching how his frame, and nearly unbreakable self-belief sucks others in is comedic genius.....kenny powers 4 eva!

    the moment to moment fluctuation in status is interesting when considering shit tests, and how quickly men/women turn on a dime when dealing with one another. simply the way you phrase a question or voice tonality can completely obliterate pre-conceived notions about someone.

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  2. Perfect example of *social* status vs. *societal* status: Borat ;)

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  3. Another excellent post.

    Just to add a little what has been posted: Scientists used to believe that the reason why human beings had such large brains was because of our tool use combined with environmental pressures to survive in various climactic conditions. Scientists now largely disagree with this view and have adopted the Machavelian hypothesis to which you referred to above.

    Also, for those wanting to learn more about altruism, kin selection, and game theory and how they apply to evolution go read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

    Once again, great post.

    I will need to get a copy of the Impro book.

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  4. I, unknowingly, picked up a PUA last summer.

    Me being me, conversation somehow turned to social dynamics, sexual dynamics, and he started talking about different games using the vocab and then it was out on the table.

    We ended up having this discussion over dinner, how men can be alpha of one group, but easily toppled, and how we both believed that unless he can translate it to different, totally unlinked, social groups, it's not a natural alpha, simply a male who can temporarily fill a role, or has specialized in filling that role in particular kinds of groups, and how disappointing that can be for women, once they find out that their partner they were drawn to due to his status in a certain group is a little beta in most others.

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  5. unless he can translate it to different, totally unlinked, social groups, it's not a natural alpha

    I prefer Johnstone's term "high status specialist" as no "alpha" is always alpha, natural or otherwise.

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  6. Thanks for that interesting look at social status. Makes me want to go take an improv class.

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  7. "High Status Specialist" sounds like a job description where the worker in question does absolutely nothing but gets paid an amazing amount of money.

    There has to be another phrase to use.

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