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The myth of the alpha male

Can men really be divided into alpha and beta? The Independent investigates

Rachel Hosie
Tuesday 09 May 2017 09:18 BST

What makes a man ‘alpha’? Perhaps he’s confident, successful, strong, brave, charming, tall and attractive.

Men want to be him, women want to be with him. He gets his way and picks up women with ease. Everyone loves him.

Or so we’re led to believe.

This James Bond-like idea of an alpha male - in contrast to beta males (shy, weak, nerdy - you know the stereotype) - is one that prevails in our culture. The same concept for women, however, is barely given a second thought.

But can men really be divided into alpha and beta (and perhaps even omega)? Or is it just a case of some people being more confident than others?

According to Stefan Djordjevic, not only do alpha males exist, but anyone can learn to be one.

Djordjevic runs an online course called “How to Approach Women - Effective Ways to Be More Alpha.” He believes that “studying female behaviour is a science just like biology and physics” and revealed to The Independent that he’s been on over 150 dates in the past four years.

If Djordjevic is to be believed, men can learn to be more confident with women, and he endeavours to teach them his ways.

“The course is designed for people who are shy, awkward or strange in some way,” he says. “I used to be extremely shy and awkward, until I learned the secrets to public speaking and female-male conversation. I don't think I'll ever go back!”

As you might expect, the majority of his clients are single males between the ages of 18 and 27 who - in Djordjevic’s words - “need an extra boost when it comes to talking to women. Whether that's fear of rejection, lack of confidence, or an underlying social phobia, the course helps to break through that barrier.”

They all believe they can become alpha men and turn their lives around.

The trouble with the sound of Djordjevic’s course is that he seems to suggest there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to picking up women, and that being confident with women is all it means to be alpha.

However today’s idea of alpha males may actually be more to do with social dominance than anything else:

“Studies have demonstrated that socially dominant men hold sway with many women, and can invoke feelings of inferiority among men,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Vinita Mehta. “Thanks to current research, these men may also be more readily identifiable.”

But when you delve into scientific research, there’s little evidence to suggest alpha males are anything more than a myth.

It’s hard to believe considering how often the idea of alpha males appears in popular culture, but about 50 years ago, it wasn’t a term that was used at all - not outside of the domain of primatology anyway.

The release of the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal’s book Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes in 1982 changed things though: “I don’t think the term alpha male was in use outside of primatology when I wrote Chimpanzee Politics,” de Waal told New York Magazine.

Many primates have social hierarchies with one most dominant member at the top, but this isn’t something that works for humans. If it was the same, that would mean there was only one dominant male in every community.

Men don’t work like that - the guy who’s the confident captain of his rugby team could be shy and retiring at work.

“What too often goes missing in discussions about being ‘alpha’ or ‘beta’ is that status is context specific,” says psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman.

“A CEO of a Fortune 500 company has a high level of status in our society, but if he was thrown into the general population at Sing Sing Prison, he’d find himself at the very bottom of the pecking order. You can be an alpha amongst one group, and a beta in another.”

Whilst this might point to an obvious flaw in Djordjevic’s course, he believes all men have the capacity to be alpha or beta and can sway back and forth between the two.

For his part, Kaufman has a problem with the division of men into alpha and beta - he thinks it “greatly simplifies the multi-dimensionality of masculinity, and grossly underestimates what a man is capable of becoming, but it also doesn’t even get at the heart of what is really attractive to women.”

One of the earliest studies into the link between dominance and attraction was conducted in 1987.

The researchers found that while “dominance” was considered sexually attractive, “aggressive” and “domineering” tendencies did not make men more attractive. Which will be unsurprising news to women the world over.

A further study broke down the idea of dominance into two types and found women respond differently to both: whilst being assertive and confident is considered attractive, being demanding, violent or self-centred is not.

In fact, the most attractive combination according to the women in the study was kindness and assertiveness (which, yet again, most women could have told you).

But does that mean the idea of typically alpha men being most attractive to women is a myth? Should males stop trying to become more alpha in the hopes of attracting women?

“In our species, the attainment of social status, and the mating benefits that come along with it, can be accomplished through compassion and cooperation just as much (if not more so) as through aggression and intimidation,” says Kaufman.

So social status can either be achieved through prestige or dominance. The latter would be the traditional alpha, but perhaps the former could be achieved by someone considered more of a beta.

Kaufman is of the opinion that “dominance is a short-term strategy for success; prestige is a long-term one.” Which suggests that no perceived alpha male will remain one forever.

How many of the most popular, attractive and confident boys from your teenage years at school grew into surprisingly beta adults? Exactly.

The black and white notion of alpha and beta men doesn’t hold up because masculinity is much more multidimensional - as are people generally.

“The most attractive male is really a blend of characteristics, including assertiveness, kindness, cultivated skills and a genuine sense of value in this world,” says Kaufman. “The true alpha is fuller, deeper, and richer.”

As neuroscientist Dean Burnett suggested: “Maybe the supposed human alpha male is a combination of disgruntled male wish fulfilment and borderline-pseudoscientific justification for resorting to bullying, intimidation and generally all-round unpleasant behaviour by men hoping to impose their will on a world they find too complex and unnerving so revert to their baser instincts to get what they want, despite knowing deep down they don’t deserve it and shouldn’t have it?”

Maybe indeed.

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