The ability to harm another
- The ability to harm another.
- Power based on the ability to use force. Dominance
does not require the actual use of force, but can be based on the potential
use of force, or the infrequent use of force.
- Power derived from the potential for destructive
actions. Contrast with stature.
- Coercion potential,
- Fighting ability,
- Competitive ability,
- Influence based on fear,
- Use of force to control sexual access.
Two types of dominance are useful to distinguish:
- intrinsic dominance which is based on an individual's own ability
to use force, and
- derived dominance, based on fighting ability not physically
associated with the individual, such as coalition and alliance partners.
The costs of aggression, such as injury or death are high and can be limited
by submitting to the opponent. The network of relationships indicating what
individual submits to what others establishes the dominance hierarchy. Dominance
orderings are significantly affected by group composition and changes in group
membership. Because humans are members of many groups, some of which are quite
large where each individual may not be well known, the dominance ordering is not a strict
hierarchy and depends on the relevant group or circumstances.
A Human Approach to Dominance
Humans have used their creativity to unleash the primitive concept of
dominance and use their ability to harm others in a remarkably wide variety of ways. Here is a partial list:
- Visual or vocal threat,
- Physical Attack,
- Aggressive display,
- Verbal threat or verbal aggression including forms of: command, order,
ridicule, teasing, threaten, accuse, blame, and criticize.
Bases; the sources of power:
- Individual physical power
- Collective physical power
- Technological power from weapons or other devices. Weapons allow a
person's aggressive power to increase beyond the limits of their
Sources; the instruments of power:
- Dominance capability (e.g. intrinsic ability to do harm based on fighting
ability, physical size, and coalition size.)
- Control of weapons
- Legitimate authority (also known as positional power, formal power, or
structural position). Others may sense an uncomfortable incongruence when
positional power exceeds the individual's intrinsic dominance or stature.
Scope; the range of behaviors and consequences that can be controlled:
- Priority in access to resources, including mates
- Exploitation of subordinates where subordinates are required to bring
resources to, or accomplish various tasks for, the dominants.
Domain; the number of people under control of the superior:
- Dominant controls all subordinates - one-to-one basis
- Dominant controls all subordinates - coordinated group control
Contexts; the social situations where power can be exercised:
- Competition for resources:
- Dyadic (two person)
- Resource-specific coalition
- Crimes (e.g. theft, burglary, etc.)
- Competition for mates:
- Male-male competition,
- male aggression of female,
- Female-female competition,
- Female aggression on male.
- Competition for associates
- Competition for dominance itself;
disputing your rank in the dominance hierarchy.
- Dyadic (a two-person competition)
- Polyadic (a multi-person alliance is formed to provide protection to its
members, overthrow the dominant individual, or establish the allied group as
- Protection of other humans.
- unrelated infant,
- Sexual associate,
- Social partner, friend.
- Personal defense:
- Play derived aggression
- Redirection of aggression
- Psychopathic crimes
- Dyssocial aggression; the unprovoked acts of aggression performed for the
purpose of gaining praise or approval of others. This is common in street
- Intergroup aggression:
- xenophobia; joining together to threaten or attack members of another
- territorial defense; threatening potential
- Intergroup aggression
- Group invasion
- Intergroup alliances
- Violent demonstrations
Structure; the distribution of power among individuals:
- Intragroup structure:
- Dominance orders,
- Revolutionary alliances - forming a group to overthrow the leader.
- Conservative alliances - forming a group to maintain the stability of
- Protective alliances - forming a group to protect the leader.
- Intergroup Structures
Psychological Processes for learning and propagating dominance:
- Individual learning
- Material reinforcement (to gain resources)
- Social reinforcement (to increase stature)
- Modeling influences
- Social facilitation
- observational learning
- Instructional control
- Moral justification
- Displacement of responsibility
- Dehumanization of victims
- Attributing blame to victims
Dominance in Suburbia
While fighting to the death is the time honored way to express dominance, it
is so inconvenient in today's suburban world. Less disruptive dominance
expressions provide outlets for the ferocious behavior we all seek. Here are
- Large cars. Size matters, and I am convinced that primal dominance
explains the popularity of the SUV. Hummer ran an advertisement with the tag
line “Restore your manhood”.
- Killing. Hunting rifles, knives, bow and arrow, hunting, and fishing allow
today's urban predators to satisfy their urges to kill and still come home in
time for dinner.
- Big Houses, especially on mountain tops demonstrate your domination of the
territory. Height (elevation, relief) symbolizes dominance while space symbolizes stature.
- Power suits, ties, dresses, and lunches allow us to express our superior
command of the finer things in life.
- Cheering for the winning team. The biggest sports fan wins.
Dominance in the Wolf Pack
The social structure of the wolf
demonstrates a rather pure and stark example of dominance in action. There are
interesting parallels between wolf behavior and human exercise of primal
Wolves are complex social animals who must constantly kill prey to survive
yet the naturalists who have studied them most closely are struck by their
Each adult wolf eats an average of 8 pounds of meat each day. Wolves prey on
bison, moose, musk ox, caribou, deer and other smaller animals. A bison weighs
as much as 2,000 pounds, a moose weighs as much as 1,250 pounds, and a wolf
weighs only about 100 pounds. Therefore it is fundamental to their survival that wolves
organize into effective hunting groups. This is the basis for wolf packs.
Wolves maintain a system of order based on dominance and they use a system of
communication that promotes that order. Establishing dominance can be a matter of
life and death, but dominance order is typically resolved without a fatal fight.
That would just be too costly to the pack so wolves rarely inflict grave injury
to establish or assert dominance within the pack. Dominance order is established
early in the life of a wolf. After some serious fighting among littermates
dominance can be established as young as 13 days old. Basically the fighting
continues until dominance is resolved and accepted. Then the fighting ends and
the dominance hierarchy establishes the individual roles within the pack. This
maintains harmony within the pack. Submission is the easiest way to avoid a
fight. Dominance crosses sexual lines in young wolves, but then separates into
two dominance orders within the pack, a male order and a female order. The
highest-ranking male is referred to as the “alpha male” and similarly the
highest female is the “alpha female.” In addition there are mature subordinate
wolves, low ranking outcasts, and juveniles in the pack.
A wolf must consistently assert its position to preserve its stature. These
stature displays take on several forms, depending on the harmony in the pack.
Usually, in a stable pack, the mere exercise of the privilege and leadership
that is characteristic of the dominant animal is sufficient. Submission, which
is an appeal for friendliness, is an important behavior contributing to pack
harmony. When a higher ranking wolf approaches the lower ranking wolf, the
superior raises its tail and head and keeps its ears erect. The subordinate wolf
lowers its tail and head, closes its mouth and draws back its ears.
Social order and harmony are maintained by frequent displays of dominance and
In cases of intense rivalry, the dominant wolf may harass its subordinates by
crouching and threatening to spring, baring its teeth, or by opening its mouth
wide. It may even assume the “bite-threat” posture, baring its teeth, staring,
raising its ears, and stretching out its legs. The tail trembles and its mane
and rump hairs bristle while it growls. This may lead to an actual attack.
stature quarrels are public and are watched closely by the members of the pack.
However, the alpha wolf can’t stay on top forever. stature changes take place
most often during mating season. The conflicts are usually resolved through
ritualistic threatening and relatively harmless fighting. A “lone wolf” is an
older wolf who had been the alpha male until he lost a
dominance contest. He is then cast out of the
pack and may soon die as a result of losing the support of the pack.
The alpha pair enjoy nearly exclusive access in mating. Most
of the females prefer the alpha male as their mate and most of the males
prefer the alpha female as their mate. Quarrels and challenges between
animals of the same sex prevent most mating attempts from completing. Often
it is only the alpha female that mates successfully. Sometimes the alpha
male is the father and often he is not.
Dominance provides the benefits of privilege and leadership to the alpha pair. The dominant animal
takes the initiative to claim whatever he or she wishes. After a kill, they eat
first. The other pack members don’t dispute the claim. So the alphas get the
most food and their choice of mate. This prepares and sustains them for pack
leadership. The decisions on when and where to hunt, when to pursue, attack, or
abandon particular prey, when to rest, and what direction to travel can mean the
difference between life and death for the pack members. The alpha male has the
responsibility to make these decisions, and the others must follow his lead.
The leader is clearly in charge, but is not especially harsh or cruel. The
leader seems to rely on a well-chosen middle ground between an autocracy and a
democracy. Basically the leader’s decisions are followed immediately unless a
large majority of the wolves clearly disagree with a decision. This may occur if
the pack is being lead into an extremely dangerous area, or if many of the
wolves are more tired than the leader may recognize. Then the leader will defer
to the groups needs.
The typical pack has no more than eight animals. The largest pack ever seen
was 36 animals. Several competing factors determine the pack size. Larger packs
have the advantage of providing more hunters to cooperate in the kill. However
as they grow larger packs encounter several social stresses. Eventually the
competition for food, mates, leadership and dominance limits its size.
It is unusual for two packs to meet. If this happens, the two alpha males
often fight each other until the weaker one is mortally wounded or killed.
- Hummer advertisement: “Restore your manhood”.
Images of dominance from istockphoto.com
Beyond Dominance: the importance of leverage, Rebecca J. Lewis, The
Quarterly Review of Biology, volume 77 (2002), pages 149–164. Published by
the University of Chicago Press
Chapais B. 1991. Primates and the origins of aggression, power, and politics
among humans. Pages 190-218 in Understanding Behavior: What Primate Studies Tell
Us About Human Behavior, edited by J D Loy and C B Peters. Oxford: Oxford
The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, by L. David
Fear, Sadness, Anger, Joy, Surprise, Disgust, Contempt,
Anger, Envy, Jealousy, Fright, Anxiety, Guilt, Shame, Relief, Hope, Sadness, Depression, Happiness,
Pride, Love, Gratitude, Compassion, Aesthetic Experience,
Joy, Distress, Happy-for, Sorry-for, Resentment, Gloating, Pride, Shame, Admiration, Reproach,
Love, Hate, Hope, Fear, Satisfaction, Relief, Fears-confirmed, Disappointment, Gratification,
Gratitude, Anger, Remorse,
power, dominance, stature, relationships