Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Better beta?

It's rough at the top! But, better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

I guess I'm an alpha trying to adapt to living beta. Nothing like a steep drop in testosterone level to help with this ...
WSJ: One evening a week, a group of CEOs meets in a Manhattan psychiatrist's office and engages in an ancient ritual. Ostensibly, it is a support group.

Inevitably, it becomes a battle for dominance."Whenever you put alpha males together, the most aggressive will overpower the others," says T. Byram Karasu, the veteran psychiatrist who has run the sessions for the past 23 years. The fighting is subtle, but it's vicious. "Even giving advice is geared toward lowering the others' self-esteem. Those at the lower end of the group come away doubting themselves, and their testosterone falls. They tell me they can't have sex for three or four days afterward."

Alpha males get the girls, but beta males have fewer stress-related health problems, at least among baboons, according to a recent Princeton study. As Melinda Beck explains on Lunch Break, that appears to have health consequences for humans, too.

It isn't easy being an alpha male. Getting to the top and staying there takes a physical toll.

The latest evidence comes from wild baboons in Kenya's Amboseli basin. Researchers from Princeton and Duke universities studied 125 males in five groups over nine years and found that while the alpha males got the best food and the most mates, they experienced far more stress than the beta males just beneath them in the hierarchy, based on the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in fecal samples.

The beta males had almost as many mates and got just as much grooming from others, but they didn't have to spend as much time fighting or following females around to keep other males away.

"Being an alpha is exhausting. I'd rather be a beta," says Laurence Gesquiere, lead author of the study that appeared in the journal Science in July.

In the human savannah, where smarts matter more than brute strength, alphas run companies, amass fortunes and dominate any meeting they're in. They are ambitious, assertive, confident and competitive. "You can smell it in about 30 seconds," says Dr. Karasu, who is psychiatrist-in-chief of Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

... Beta males, by contrast, are nice guys, peacemakers and team players. They make good husbands, fathers and friends. Some experts say they tend to be happier than alphas, since they aren't driven by the need to be on top. Betas can come in many forms—from competent wingmen to extreme introverts who are so determined to avoid conflict they suffer anxiety of their own.

Many observational studies of people and primates have shown that, in general, it's more stressful at the bottom of the social hierarchy than the top. Two long-running studies of British civil-service workers found that people in the lowest ranks had many more health problems and were three times as likely to die as the highest-grade administrators in a 10-year period—even though they all had access to health-care services.

To date, there have been few studies assessing whether human alphas or betas are healthier. ...

Alpha quiz:

Masters of the Universe

In the work world, alpha males are ambitious, assertive, confident and competitive. Here's a quiz that helps define who's an alpha male:

Alpha Strengths

1. No matter what, I don't give up until I reach my end goal.
2. I always say exactly what I think.
3. I have no problem challenging people.
4. I make the decision I believe is correct, even when I know other people don't agree.
5. I seldom have any doubts about my ability to deliver.

Alpha Risks

1. I believe that my value is defined by the results I achieve.
2. I don't care if my actions hurt people's feelings, if that's what's required to produce results.
3. When people disagree with me, I often treat it as a challenge or an affront.
4. If I have a good idea and I'm asked to hold off and listen to inferior ideas, I can quickly become visibly annoyed.
5. People say I become curt, brusque, or frustrated when I have to repeat myself.


If all or nearly all of your responses to statements 1 to 5 were "yes," you are probably an alpha with many of the strengths that make alphas such dynamic and influential leaders.


Robert Rota said...

I think this is an interesting study but I don't think we are biologically forced to behave exactly like a rutting bull elk... We, as humans, have a lot more cerebral matter to use to both identify the alpha risks and counteract them. So, I think there is a possibility for those of us that are intelligent and evolved to display the strengths of both the alpha and beta traits. For example, be assertive without aggression, be at peace without passivity. 

Ene Dene said...

First, the definition of male alpha could be argued. It does look like we'd like it to look, but in my experience the reality is more down to the earth.
Ability to score with females would certainly be an important parameter. Most of these parameters could be satisfied with someone like non-rich Larry David personality, and we all know what success would such a guy have with women. :)
In today world availability of women for alpha males is easiest then ever in history, they do not need to compete, they are served. We all know guys who have couple of women all the time and very good guys, who would make good husbands and who are rejected by countless females for years. Not getting women in world where everything is about sex can be very frustrating and I know a bunch of "beta" men who get really frustrated with woman because they only fall for the "wrong" (alpha) guys.

MtMoru said...

I guess Steve posts this crap to laugh at the comments.
"In the human savannah, where smarts matter more than brute strength, alphas run companies, amass fortunes and dominate any meeting they're in."
Except humans aren't baboons. Or do I need to have my eyes checked? Maybe those weren't purple pants? 
Then Steve gives a bullshit DSM checklist.

The extent to which one can worry about status or anything else is limited by one's "reactivity". Those whose cortisol and blood pressure are hardly affected by conflict won't avoid it. The physiology "casuses" the personality. Just take some heavy duty alpha blocker and your personality changes.

ben_g said...

"The beta males had almost as many mates"

That doesn't sound right, but if it is, they're much different than humans.

botti said...

***alphas run companies, amass fortunes and dominate any meeting they're in.***

This reminds me of the characters in 'Testosterone Inc, which I picked up from a bargain bin a few years ago. The author covers some of the outrageous behaviour of Jack Welch,  Dennis Kozlowski, Ron Perelman and Al 'Chainsaw' Dunlap and speculates that excessive testosterone may be a factor.


Yan Shen said...

I've always felt that the alpha/beta dichotomy was a bit too simplistic. Is Bill Gates an alpha male or not? No one can agree.

steve hsu said...

You can be alpha in one setting and beta in another. In a business or intellectual setting Gates is alpha, but probably not on the playing field.

Anonymous_IV said...

"I am so glad I am a Beta, the Alphas work so hard. And we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas."  Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932)

Neil said...

This is a topic I have been interested in for many years now. I see what you are getting at, but in my opinion it is wrong to conflate being alpha as a character trait with plain competence, dominance, or talent. 

Now talent, looks, size, and competence matter do matter with being a leader or dominant alpha male (haha) in various fields. But I argue that there is a separate emotional component to leadership which one can call "alpha-ness".

By all account Bill Gates is incredibly smart  and probably got by without being very alpha on the basis of his sheer fluid intelligence alone.
(see here for accounts of Bill Gates' intelligence http://www.quora.com/Mark-Zuckerberg-1/How-smart-is-Mark-Zuckerberg-academic-wise-Is-he-as-smart-as-Bill-Gates).

This isn't just a function of looks for example Robert Reich is 4'10" tall, but is as alpha as they come. (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzxDPQ3pZpg&feature=relmfu).

A G said...

Alpha personality works when they are minority. If every one is alpha, then you get forever non-compromising balkanized society like middle east or balkan itself. Extrem alpha might be similar to psychopath.  Democracy works only when people can compromise.

steve hsu said...

I agree. The desire to be dominant is distinct from the context-dependent abilities required to actually dominate.

Christopher Chang said...

Let's resolve "alpha" into two dimensions:

1. Baseline desire to dominate, independent of context.
2. Self-confidence driven by a track record of competence.

The "alpha personality" problem you describe occurs when too many people have too much of the first trait; you're correct that such a society is likely to collapse under the weight of never-ending status battles.  However, I expect that the set of readers of this blog who are diagnosed as an alpha by the quiz have a wide spread of values of the first trait, while practically all having a high value of the second trait.  A group of "business/intellectual" alphas of this type can certainly cooperate if they have compatible goals.

whatisgoingon whatisgoingon said...

So, from what I can tell, the best predictor for being "alpha" in the playing field is simply having masculine good looks along with being tall. 

whatisgoingon whatisgoingon said...

Are those beta men average/below average height?

whatisgoingon whatisgoingon said...


Luke Nguyen said...

I can add a few to the list.

6. Absolutely no doubt in yourself
7. No such thing as moral consideration, only weak and strong
8. No fear whatsoever
9. Objectives to be reached by any means necessary according to cost/benefit analysis
10.  You believe yourself better than God

This is the mindset, unfortunately, I see very few Asians who possess it.

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