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

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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