Social Dominance Explained Part I

Why dominance exists and is good for you, sometimes.

Posted Mar 02, 2012

In a recent PT blog post called Social Dominance Is Not a Myth, Marc Bekoff makes two points I fully agree with: Dominance is real and it has often been misunderstood. Marc also writes that dominance is a slippery concept, that a unitary explanation of dominance is misleading and simplistic, and that one needs to be cautious when talking about dominance. Finally, Marc describes some expressions of dominance and its consequences in different animal species but he doesn't explain dominance.

In my view, there is nothing slippery about the concept of dominance, nothing simplistic or misleading about unitary explanations of this phenomenon, and no need to be cautious about it. All is needed is a clear explanation of what dominance is and how it works. To try to address this, I will write several posts about dominance, beginning with this one, which addresses why dominance exists and what individuals get out of it.

Dominance is a characteristic of highly social animals, such as humans, in which individuals of the same species compete intensely with one another for food, mates, territory, or any other resource, including money. In highly social species, individuals establish social relationships with their family members, sexual partners, friends and enemies, and co-workers and competitors. A social relationship exists when two individuals interact repeatedly over time, they remember their past interactions and have expectations about their future ones. Social relationships can be strong or weak, good or bad.

A problem common to all relationships, no matter how strong or good they are, is one of conflicting interests—individuals want to act in ways that benefit themselves at the expense of their partner. Individuals with close social relationships interact regularly, and their interests clash multiple times a day. The easiest way for two individuals to resolve a disagreement would be to have a fight. The winner gets what he wants and the loser, well, loses. Disagreements between two parties can also be solved by negotiation leading to compromise.

The problem is that these ways of settling disagreements can be very costly and are not always effective. Fighting can cause significant damage (both physical and psychological) to the parties involved and to their relationship—possibly leading to its dissolution—while negotiation can entail significant costs in time, energy, and cognitive and emotional resources (for example, constant worrying and rumination). Continuous fighting or negotiation also makes relationships unstable and stressful. Mother Nature has found a better solution to the problem of settling disagreements: Dominance.

Two individuals in a relationship establish dominance with each other so that every time a disagreement arises, there is no need for fighting or negotiation. The outcome is always known in advance because it's always the same: the dominant individual gets what he wants and the subordinate doesn't. All that is needed when a disagreement occurs is some communication between the dominant and the subordinate. The dominant says to the subordinate: We are doing this My Way, with a threatening look and tone of voice. The subordinate smiles submissively and says "Okay!" There is no risk of injury, and no waste of time or energy or cognitive or emotional resources. The relationship is stable and predictable, which is good for mental health, and both partners can accomplish whatever joint goals they have.

Dominance doesn't exist because it's beneficial to the species, the community, or the family. Dominance is established within a relationship because it has a "net" benefit to each individual, which means that its benefits are greater than its costs. The benefits and costs of dominance, however, are different for the dominant and the subordinate. The benefits to the dominant are obvious: he gets what he wants. If there was a fight with the subordinate, the dominant would likely win the fight, but by resolving the disagreement through threats and submissive smiles instead of fighting, the dominant benefits by reducing the risk of injury.

The costs of maintaining dominance include having to intimidate the subordinate every now and then to "remind" him of who is in charge, and some anxiety and stress associated with the preoccupation that the subordinate may be plotting a rebellion. These costs are small when compared to the huge costs the subordinate has to pay: always letting the dominant get what he wants. But the subordinate benefits, too. If there was a fight with the dominant, the subordinate would likely lose the fight. Not only would the subordinate not get what he wants, but by fighting he would also risk major injury and stress. By smiling submissively to the dominant instead of fighting, the subordinate benefits from reducing the risk of injury. The advantage of establishing dominance to the subordinate is that he cuts his losses. Cutting one's losses? That's it? Yes, the truth is that subordination sucks, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

Behaving submissively to the dominant is advantageous to the subordinate only as a short-term strategy, to give the subordinate some time to acquire more physical strength or political power to mount an effective rebellion against the dominant. For example, it's advantageous to a younger and smaller individual to be subordinate to an older and larger one until the former has grown to be as large as or larger than the latter. Then, a fight will become necessary and advantageous. If the subordinate never challenges the dominant, the costs of subordination would continue to accumulate over time and at some point, this would become a maladaptive strategy: the costs would be greater than the benefits.

A dominant can do two things to keep the dominance relationship stable and prevent a rebellion from the subordinate. First, a dominant can use any means at his disposal to keep the subordinate from acquiring more power and to increase the potential costs of a rebellion (for example, by threatening the subordinate with violence against himself and his family members). This is the strategy used by dictators in despotic political regimes, and also by some domineering people in their personal relationships.

Second, a dominant can increase the benefits to the subordinate by sharing some resources with him—by giving the subordinate a small piece of the pie—or by giving the appearance that this is the case, that is by treating the subordinate nicely and making him think that his predicament is not so bad after all. This is what benevolent or manipulative leaders do in democratic societies, or in their personal relationships.

Bottom line: Dominance between two individuals helps keep the peace and increases stability and predictability in the relationship, thereby allowing both partners to benefit from their relationship. Dominance, however, is a better deal for the dominant than for the subordinate because the latter pays disproportionately the price for the peace. If one is in a weak position and unlikely to win a fight against a more formidable opponent it's okay to be subordinate but only for a short time and if this time is used to increase one's strength or power. Patience is a virtue for a subordinate, but resignation is the kiss of death.

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