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Men like power more than they admit

Men and male chimpanzees are very much into power

Ask managers and CEO's whether they are interested in power, and they will deny it. They like "responsibility," or they like to share their "leadership qualities" with the organization, but power, no that's not what they are going for. They know other men, of course, whom they call power-hungry, but they themselves have nobler motives. They are, as Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, recently put it merely "doing God's work".

The above statements were documented in the 1970s by Mauk Mulder, a Dutch psychologist, who tried to understand what drove men to seek top positions. He noted a denial of the power motive. His findings contrast with what I observed in Chimpanzee Politics, in which adult males of another species very openly strove to become the top-dog, or as we call it, the alpha male. But then chimps don't need to fill out questionnaires, which is perhaps a good thing, because they might lie about their motives as much as humans do.

The human situation is cause for despair. The power dimension is totally underestimated and neglected by the social sciences. We all know that it exists, but there is remarkably little serious research on it. I challenge you to find much on power, dominance, or social hierarchy in any social psychology textbook. If it is mentioned at all, it's usually in negative terms, such as "power abuse." Even political candidates prefer to tout their interest in education, health care, fiscal responsibility, but have you ever heard one of them say "I love power" as the reason why they are entering the mudslinging arena? It is a total taboo.

The vertical dimension of social life is blindingly obvious in every primate society, however. Chimpanzee form coalitions specifically for this purpose: to overthrow the leader. Two or three males will band together, spending much time grooming each other, occasionally hooting together in the presence of the reigning alpha, which makes him nervous. They take enormous risks in doing so, and work on power relationships every day. The leader meanwhile is active in trying to prevent hostile coalitions. He monitors all of his rivals and breaks up any and all contacts they have with other males in a divide-and-rule strategy. To hang on to power requires that he shares females and meat with his allies and every day lets his potential challengers feel who's in charge. It's a full-time job.

The male chimpanzee on the left is the same size as the one on the right, but he's the dominant, has his hair up, walks bipedally, carries a stick, and thus looks bigger and stronger, which is typical for dominance rituals. Photo by FdW.

I hear that the same sort of isolation tactics are common in human organizations. The boss will ask those working under him or her why they talk with X or go out for lunch with Y, as if there's anything wrong with it. This is because coalitions are an important part of human power games, too, something to keep a watchful eye on.

If all of this is so obvious, why the power taboo? Why did Abraham Maslow, for example, move from describing dominant monkeys as "self-confident" (Maslow started out as a student of primatologist Harry Harlow) to his later terminology of "self-esteem," which is an internalized form of self-confidence? Was it because he felt social dominance happens inside the individual? This is hard to believe. I think that, like so many social scientists with their egalitarian ethos, he was disturbed by displays of raw power and preferred to couch them in the euphemism of an internal state.

And so, psychologists have always danced around the hot potato of power, seeking a terminology to hide the underlying motives, and to downplay the social inequities we see naturally among people as we see them among other primates. I am not asking here for moral approval of social hierarchies, but for a simple acknowledgement that they exist and permeate everything we do.

One of the most striking illustrations of how important power is to men is how they react when they lose it. Consider the following description of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, in The Final Days, of President Nixon's reaction to his loss of power:

"Between sobs, Nixon was plaintive. ... How had a simple burglary ... done all this? ... Nixon got down on his knees. ... [He] leaned over and struck his fist on the carpet, crying, ‘What have I done? What has happened?'"

Chimpanzees have the same sort of tantrums (minus the words) under similarly stressful conditions. When Yeroen, the oldest male in a group that I studied, was in danger of losing his top rank to another male, he would in the middle of a confrontation suddenly drop out of a tree like a rotten apple and writhe and squirm on the ground, screaming pitifully, waiting to be comforted by the rest of the group.

The expression "being weaned from power" is particularly apt, because Yeroen's (and Nixon's) relapse into childlike behavior was the same as that of a juvenile being weaned from milk. Despite its noisy protests, the juvenile keeps an eye on its mother for any signs that she might give in. Similarly, Yeroen always noted who approached him during his tantrums. If the group around him was big and powerful enough, and especially if it included the alpha female, he would gain instant courage. With his supporters in tow, he would rekindle the confrontation that he had been losing.

Wherever men get together ...

If males get so upset over the loss of status, isn't it about time we acknowledge the power motive? The human male is a hierarchical animal, whether we like it or not. Wherever men get together -- in the military, the church, secret societies -- they quickly arrange themselves vertically. I would even go further: without such an arrangement, men are miserable.

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