Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Is It Worth Being the Beta Monkey?

You can get out from under your mentor

It's nice to have a mentor help you climb the ladder, but what if he only wants followers? What if he rejects you when you think for yourself, and you lose your investment in the relationship? You may decide that you're not cut out to be a #2. Lighting your own candle is better than lighting someone else's. But are you ready to do without the support of the big kahuna?

Sigmund Freud was Carl Jung’s mentor, and their alpha-beta dynamic is the subject of a new movie, A Dangerous Method. Primatologists have documented the hazards of being the #2 guy to a powerful #1. Every monkey or ape troop has its alpha, and he/she usually has a beta or two for support. Betas have the highest stress levels in the troop, research shows. While it’s lonely at the top, and harsh at the bottom, the #2 spot is the toughest.

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The beta monkey has the most to gain and the most to lose. The alpha spot has its rewards, and though the risk of losing it is stressful, there's satisfaction in having made it. The bottom rungs are frustrating, but you have less invested in the climb so there’s less risk of loss. Beta monkeys have worked hard to get near the top, and they risk losing it all without getting the big reward.

Carl Jung realizes that Freud is only interested in Freud’s place in history. Jung sees that Freud’s acolytes are bitter bullies in the psychoanalytic community, and Jung wants to avoid that route. Most human groups have this dynamic. Individuals seek power by bonding with the leader, but these inner-circle types are dominated so relentlessly by the alpha that they go on to dominate the rest of the group.

A mentor who helps you climb the ladder is nice, but what if he only wants followers? What if he rejects you when you think for yourself, and you lose your investment in the relationship?

Carl Jung decided to be his own person instead of hitching himself to Freud’s star. But the alpha typically ostracizes you from the group when you resist the subordinate role, and Freud was a classic alpha monkey.

Carl Jung took comfort in an extramarital affair with the young woman he was mentoring. Bad move for her. Affairs always end and how do you get a good recommendation from your mentor then? He can easily ruin your reputation in the community you’ve worked hard to progress in.

“Law-suit!” is what the modern mind thinks of. It’s fun to watch historical figures battle it out without running to the courts. Instead, they resort to (spoiler alert): violence and nervous breakdowns. It gave me a new appreciation for our lawsuit culture!

But the better solution is being honest with yourself. Your mentor relationship is a primate reciprocal exchange. You want something from them and they want something from you. When they want more than you’re willing to give, you may feel victimized. It’s better to go in with your eyes open than to expect a ride someone’s coat tails and play the victim when it doesn’t happen.

More on the status-seeking habits of the mammalian brain in my book,
I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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