The Alpha Factor

Again, very inter­est­ing analy­sis. I’ve def­i­nite­ly seen the same dynam­ic in more per­son­al contexts.

The Alpha Factor 
By Stephen Dinan

Humans have evolved sophis­ti­cat­ed neur­al soft­ware that allows us to inter­pret and manip­u­late the world in new ways, cre­at­ing every­thing from sym­phonies to iPods. Social­ly, though, we are main­ly gov­erned by the soft­ware that ruled our ances­tors. In short, we now think like humans but often make our social choic­es more like apes. That is why the alpha fac­tor plays such a key role in social deci­sions like elect­ing leaders. 

Pack ani­mals such as dogs rec­og­nize the alpha fac­tor instinc­tive­ly. Even dogs that are phys­i­cal­ly larg­er will defer to an acknowl­edged alpha once a dom­i­nance hier­ar­chy is estab­lished. These hier­ar­chies allow for smooth social func­tion­ing and eas­i­ly coor­di­nat­ed effort, which has evo­lu­tion­ary advan­tages for the social group.

Among our clos­est rel­a­tives, the alpha goril­la pro­vides the cen­ter pil­lar around which the rest of the troop moves and feels secure. His dom­i­nance gives coher­ence to the troop. Humans, as social ani­mals, retain much of the same patterning. 

While the cur­rent Pres­i­den­tial con­test may seem to be about poli­cies and ide­olo­gies and a host of oth­er ratio­nal sub­jects, the emo­tion­al sub­text is often more impor­tant. In a Pres­i­dent, our more prim­i­tive brain enters are still look­ing for alpha dom­i­nance. That is why face-to-face debates are so vital. They allow our low­er brain cen­ters a chance to see which can­di­date is alpha dom­i­nant over the oth­er. who will be bet­ter at pro­vid­ing that order­ing func­tion at the top of the troop? 

In mod­ern pol­i­tics, alpha dom­i­nance is not estab­lished by ram­ming antler racks or chest thump­ing or slash­ing at each oth­er with ivory tusks. It is estab­lished by a com­bi­na­tion of intel­li­gence and tal­ent and per­haps most impor­tant­ly, pres­ence. Fac­tors such as height also play an impor­tant role in assess­ing dom­i­nance, which is why height is one of the sin­gle best pre­dic­tors of vic­to­ry in elections. 

How­ev­er, there is some­thing sub­tler at work as well, some­thing con­veyed in tone of voice, pos­ture, emo­tion­al reac­tiv­i­ty, and defen­sive­ness. Once some­one is defen­sive, the oth­er per­son has seized the alpha posi­tion. We inter­pret this as being com­mand­ing or pres­i­den­tial, but stripped of a euphemistic glaze, we are real­ly talk­ing about dom­i­nance. Who is in charge? 

When any two alphas meet, there is typ­i­cal­ly a sub­text of test­ing each oth­er’s pow­er, ide­o­log­i­cal chal­lenges, name drop­ping, show­ing off mon­ey or social sta­tus. A quick wit and quick mind are assets in estab­lish­ing alpha dom­i­nance. There is a jock­ey­ing for posi­tion. Most alphas will avoid naked con­fronta­tion with anoth­er alpha, unless the terms of engage­ment are weight­ed to their advan­tage. The pow­er­ful CEO might invite anoth­er alpha type to meet him, but do so in an impos­ing office, with lush fur­nish­ings and an ornate desk. This ensures his dominance. 

Because Bush is the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, he has a range of forces to draw from to main­tain dom­i­nance. He has advi­sors and spin-doc­tors, han­dlers and script-writ­ers, body­guards and spokes­men, all of whom cre­ate an insu­lat­ed cocoon in which his dom­i­nance is unchal­lenged. He has vast amounts of mon­ey at his dis­pos­al to care­ful­ly craft pub­lic messages. 

In last night’s debate, how­ev­er, the rules were set up in a way that allowed Bush no struc­tur­al advan­tage: same size podi­um, iden­ti­cal amounts of time to respond, no cheer­ing from the audi­ence, no prepa­ra­tion for the ques­tions in advance. Amer­i­ca was giv­en a chance to see if Bush could retain his alpha dom­i­nance in a head-to-head sit­u­a­tion rather than in sit­u­a­tions that have been care­ful­ly craft­ed and insulated. 

And the result was that Ker­ry estab­lished clear alpha dom­i­nance. Ker­ry won the alpha fac­tor hands down. He stood res­olute and pow­er­ful, with an impres­sive com­mand of facts, speak­ing with­out pause or flaw. Bush squirmed, mean­dered, looked ner­vous, whined, repeat­ed him­self, and gen­er­al­ly looked annoyed. He had all the hall­marks of a man who has tak­en his alpha sta­tus for grant­ed and is dis­com­bob­u­lat­ed by a sit­u­a­tion where he is outclassed.

While that may not have imme­di­ate­ly won Ker­ry votes, it will def­i­nite­ly shift the psy­chol­o­gy of the race. For the first time, the Amer­i­can peo­ple who are not blind­ing them­selves with par­ti­san­ship could see that Ker­ry has more alpha fac­tor than Bush. Peri­od. Bush may be more aggres­sive. He may remain more acces­si­ble and lik­able for some peo­ple. But he was alpha-dogged, plain and sim­ple. And in the prim­i­tive brain cen­ters of social ani­mals such as humans, that lodges deep. 

Since Bush is run­ning on his abil­i­ty to be a res­olute and strong com­man­der-in-chief, the expo­sure of his sec­ond-tier sta­tus is a dev­as­tat­ing blow. Watch for Karl Rove to pull him from sub­se­quent debates with a con­ve­nient excuse. They sim­ply can­not afford for the image of Ker­ry as the stronger alpha to be seared into the Amer­i­can psy­che. They will attempt to gain con­trol of sit­u­a­tions again and cre­ate an arti­fi­cial bub­ble of pow­er, such as dur­ing the care­ful­ly craft­ed Repub­lic Nation­al Convention.

How­ev­er, every­one who watched the debate has now smelled weak­ness. Reporters who have been afraid to REALLY do their job smelled it. Swing vot­ers smelled it. And polit­i­cal con­sul­tants smelled it as well. Now that Bush has been revealed as the beta in a head-to-head match, reporters will like­ly swoop in and start hit­ting Bush much, much hard­er. Pent-up resent­ment of the alpha can rush in now that it is safe.

Bush’s debate per­for­mance last night had the feel­ing of the Dean Scream in Iowa, it was a moment in which Bush could no longer assume the man­tle of look­ing pres­i­den­tial. I was begin­ning to think Bush’s vic­to­ry was assured but after so clear­ly los­ing the alpha fac­tor last night, I expect a bar­rage of attacks that weak­ens him fur­ther. He is now on the defen­sive. One way to win the pow­er back is to become the alpha in the next debate, which is increas­ing­ly unlike­ly. More like­ly, Rove will attempt dirty tricks to under­mine the new alpha’s sta­tus. How­ev­er it pans out, if Ker­ry retains alpha sta­tus through Novem­ber 2nd, we can expect to see a new president.


Stephen Dinan is author of Rad­i­cal Spir­it (New World Library, 2002), and founder of TCN, Inc. Stephen direct­ed and helped to cre­ate the Esalen Insti­tute’s Cen­ter for The­o­ry & Research, a think tank for lead­ing schol­ars, researchers, and teach­ers to explore human poten­tial fron­tiers. Cur­rent­ly, he is a mar­ket­ing con­sul­tant for a num­ber of star­tups, polit­i­cal action groups, and non-prof­its and runs work­shops through the Rad­i­cal Spir­it Com­mu­ni­ty. For a full archive of his arti­cles, vis­it http://www.stephendinan.com/.
Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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