Within popular culture, there is no shortage of references to "alpha males." Plenty of books advise men on how to become one, and an abundance of movies depict their purportedly fabulous lives. From James Dean to James Bond, these are the men who are perceived to be at the top of the pack.
But is there really such a thing as a human alpha male? Scientists have their doubts.
In Faye Flam's book The Score: The Science of the Male Sex Drive, Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky shares his misgivings, stating that alpha males in other species operate differently than what is observed among humans. He notes that in dogs and wolves, for example, every member has a place in the hierarchy. And among baboons, he notes, the alpha male dominates over a group of subordinates who are equal in power to each other—until he is challenged and overthrown. In these species, the alphas exert more power. Humans are more complex, Sapolsky says. We belong to more than one social circle—a man who may be a custodian by day may be a superstar DJ by night. Flam also interviewed anthropologist Tim White, who said that alpha males likely ruled the common ape ancestor humans shared with chimps roughly 7 million years ago, but that they no longer exist among humans.
When we speak of human alpha males today, it may be that we refer to the trait of social dominance: Studies have demonstrated that socially dominant men hold sway with many women, and can invoke feelings of inferiority among men. Thanks to current research, these men may also be more readily identifiable.
Three physical characteristics associated with social dominance include:
Height. Being tall has a range of social benefits: Taller men demonstrate less sensitivity to cues of dominance in other men (e.g., masculinity), and show less jealousy toward socially and physically dominant rivals than shorter men do. Tall men are also perceived as more dominant than shorter men. Similarly, dominant men also “play larger,” as they are estimated to be taller than less-dominant men. Taken together, these results offer some explanation for the well-known association between height and social status. Tall men more often enjoy leadership roles, have higher starting salaries, and have greater overall income. And intelligence may not correct for this disparity: One study reported that full professors were .47 inches taller than associate professors, who were .26 inches taller than assistant professors, who were in turn 1.24 inches taller than the average nonacademic.
Height is also highly valued in the human mating market: Studies show that women favor tall men not just in controlled laboratory-based experiments, but in real-world contexts such as online dating advertisements and speed-dating events. Such men also garner more responses to online dating profiles; are more likely to get a date; and are more likely to be married. There's a curious caveat, however—although height is linked to mate preferences in the West, studies have revealed that a desire for tall men is not a cross-cultural universal.
Voice. Having a deep voice has been referred to as "the Barry White Effect." Studies show that a man's voice communicates much more than spoken words: It's also a signal of physical size, and, in turn, his potential ability to prevail in mano-a-mano combat. Likewise, men with low voices are perceived as older, taller, heavier, and more dominant. In other words, he could best a competitor in a brawl.
And as one might expect, men with euphonious voices show higher levels of mating success. In surveys of North Americans, men with low-pitched voices tallied more total sex partners, and among Hadza hunter-gatherers low voice pitch was related to having greater numbers of children. Further, those judged to have appealing voices also reported having sex earlier; more total sex partners; and more affairs. There may be a double meaning to the phrase “a smooth talker,” as research has found that women find attractive voices more difficult to resist.
Face. A handsome face also advertises a man's dominance as well. A rugged visage is believed to signal optimally elevated levels of T to women in search of high-quality genes they can pass on to their children. While this masculinizing hormone produces these seductive features, it is thought that having too much of it is actually a burden on the immune system. So, the thinking goes, only men with strong immune systems can withstand T's potent effects. And for our ancestors, a powerful immune system that could effectively fight off diseases had great evolutionary currency. Consistent with this argument, studies have shown that facial masculinity is related to higher levels of circulating T as well as perceived and actual levels of health.
The male face as a communicator of dominance has received particular interest from researchers. Scientists have even found an actual measurement to assess these attributes in men: the ratio of facial width to upper facial height (fWHR). This feature becomes pronounced with surges of T at puberty, and is associated with various features of dominance. For example, men with higher fWHRs have higher testosterone, and are comparatively more violent, exploitative, and wealthy. Along related lines, fWHR predicts self-perceived power and success. For example, CEOs with higher fWHRs demonstrate greater financial prowess, and military officers with more dominant visages earned higher ranks throughout their tenures. Moreover, men with wider faces are more formidable opponents: They are less likely to die from physical violence, suggesting they are either more ferocious fighters or even that their skulls are more resistant to injuries. This makes sense, too: Masculine features such as a chiseled jaw and heavy brow may have evolved to in order to sustain blows from a competitor—a broken jaw could have spelled death in the ancient world.
In the animal world, social dominance is often equated with the might of alpha males. But let's remember Sapolsky's caution that humans are thankfully more complex—and this comment from British actress and writer Miranda Hart: “It's a real man who can go out with a woman who's taller than he is. That's an alpha male right there.”
Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships. Connect with Dr. Mehta on the web at drvinitamehta.com and on twitter and Pinterest. You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.