Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

Who'll Be the Alpha Male? Ask the Hormones

The brain's secret mechanism for determining who comes out on top

Any time two or more people come together, one of them automatically and subconsciously establishes dominance. That's the reality of being a mammal. We're social creatures; a place in the hierarchy is a matter of life and death. We need allies to protect us, to fight with us, to groom us and help us bear and raise children. So our brains contain circuitry that automatically find a place for us in the social structure. Some dominate, others submit.

But how do our brains decide who will come out on top?

The answer lies in phenomena that take place far below our conscious awareness. Indeed, the circuitry responsible for dominance operates so deep within our brains that much of its workings are accessible only in occasional glimpses. All the rituals of greeting and etiquette, for instance, are functions of our automatic social circuitry: waving hello, hugging, and shaking hands are all part of the stereotyped behavior that cements our social bond with others.

I've long been mystified, at a personal level, by the way that some people, and men especially, seem to have a natural knack for command. They enter a room, and everyone seems to automatically pivot their attention toward them. (An easy way to tell who has established social dominance: when they talk, no one talks over them.) Some might imagine that a typical "alpha male" is going to be brash, assertive, overbearing. But in my experience, that's rarely the case. The men who can quietly command a room tend to be, not loud, but quiet: often, listeners, connectors, mild-mannered, and physically unassuming. What is it about these men? What gives them their seemingly mystical aura?

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A slew of fascinating new studies suggests that dominance process depends on on the complex interaction of just a handful of crucial hormones.

One of the most important, rather unsurprisingly, is testosterone, the hormone of aggression and dominance. Now, testosterone is not a mind altering drug. It's not like caffeine, where you can feel that you're hepped up. But it's important in moderating behavior, especially by boosting decisiveness. When a sport team is locked in a tough match with a longtime rival, the testosterone levels of all its members will go up if they win. If they lose, their testosterone levels will plummet. This gives rise to the so-called Winner Effect, where athletes who are victorious become more likely to win the next time.

The level of testosterone alone, however, is not a good measure of a man's dominance. Its effects are heavily influenced by the levels of another hormone, cortisol, which the body releases in response to stress. A study just published in the journal Hormones and Behavior pitted men against one another in a simple competition, then allowed the losers to choose whether or not they wanted to have another crack at the contest. All of the men with high testosterone and low cortisol wanted to compete again. All of the men with high testosterone and high cortisol -- indicating a state of stress -- declined the opportunity. They were experiencing the flip side of the Winner's Effect.

And there's a third brain chemical that comes into play. Another important hormone involved in regulating social beahavior is oxytocin, the so-called "love hormone." When lovers cuddle or a mother breastfeeds, their levels of oxytocin shoot up. Oxytocin is all about bonding. People with higher levels of the hormone are better at reading the facial expressions of others. Not only does oxytocin tie the members of a social group together, but it plays an important role in moderating stress and fear.

In my book, I discuss a study which found that people who have recently had penetrative sexual intercourse have less social phobia when asked to give a speech in front of strangers. A more recent study provided an even starker picture of the importance of oxytocin: it found that people with a mutant version of an oxytocin-receptor gene were both less empathic and more prone to stress.

A man's status in the hierarchy, then, depends on a complicated dance of hormones that goes on at an unconscious level within his own bloodstream. And it all starts, not with aggression and dominance, but with empathy and bonding. A strong sense of connection to others in the group increases levels of oxytocin, which moderate stress and allows high levels of testosterone to promote competitive behavior.

When it comes to being an Alpha Male, then, the hormones tell the true story: it's more important to be a lover than a fighter.

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Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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