The archetypes of alpha and beta have become incredibly popular, particularly within the online male self-improvement and dating space of the “manosphere.” Nonetheless, a coherent definition of alpha and beta has never been agreed upon. Within the existing depictions of alpha and beta reside a myriad of contradictions. In many ways the definitions of alphas and betas do not match the way the concepts are used in research of animal behavior.
In this article I will clear up popular misconceptions about alphas and betas in human and animal hierarchies. I will also give you research-based tips to ascend that hierarchy, or to be more “alpha.”
Addressing a dismissal of the alpha/beta concept
The most common criticism I have seen of the alpha/beta paradigm is that human beings don’t have this kind of social structure. Indeed, the terms were brought into the mainstream from a popular study of wolves. Human beings are not wolves, therefore human beings have no alphas and betas… right?
Well, maybe not. Primatologists recognize that chimpanzees, our closest relatives, have alphas. Further, as human beings we have nested social hierarchies that we are subject to. Alpha and beta may not be the best way to describe our roles, but they aren’t baseless concepts. In fact they have some degree of utility.
The problem is not with describing the human social hierarchy. Even people who disapprove of hierarchy as a form of social organization don’t dispute that social hierarchy exists. The problem arises in describing which men are high in the hierarchy, and why.
Dual strategies theory
Dual strategies theory is a framework within evolutionary psychology that asserts dominance and prestige determine one’s position in the human hierarchy (Henrich & Gil-White, 2001).
Dominance is very much as it sounds; aggression, physical power, or strategic violence.
Prestige is prosocial creative behavior. The ability to hunt and provide for the tribe. To help others with a valuable skill. Building a coalition of supporters within your group.
Inconsistent framing of alphas and betas, actual dominance and prestige versus perception
The manosphere can’t agree on what an alpha is. I will use dominance and prestige, our predictors of position in the hierarchy, as an example.
Conventionally, by which I mean in primatology or other mainstream/academic use of the term, an alpha is an animal in the dominant or leadership position. It is at the top of the hierarchy.
But when is the last time you’ve heard someone describe Joe Biden, George Soros or Bill Gates as an alpha? The most powerful men in the world, men in the highest positions of leadership, are rarely called alphas.
Conversely, men who are in low status positions are often described as alpha. This is usually based on their physical appearance (they are handsome or strong) or their behavior. For example, “hot felon” Jeremy Meeks has D-List celebrity status in the manosphere for his handsome face. He is an “alpha” because he is masculine and attractive, despite being an unemployed convict at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Dominance and prestige don’t actually inform the manosphere’s definition of alpha. It is partially detached from real leadership, social power, dominance and prestige. The manosphere does recognize leadership and dominance as alpha — until it suddenly doesn’t.
This is because alpha to the manosphere is, above all, an image. It is a caricature. The term macho can be used to describe this image; in Spanish machismo is an even better way of describing precisely the manosphere’s image of the alpha. It is just an amalgam of masculine stereotypes. A man must check off sufficient masculine stereotypes to fit the image, regardless of their real status in society.
Token behaviors that signal one is an alpha are important in the manosphere, not because they increase real status but because they maintain the caricature of an alpha. You don’t drink soy milk? Very alpha of you. This allows men to feel alpha while still being low in the hierarchy.
Antisocial behavior and alphas
The manosphere can’t decide if alphas are antisocial or not. In nature (for example with chimpanzees, wolves) alphas are highly prosocial. This prosocial behavior is in effect the prestige criteria in the dual strategies theory. Leaders and high status individuals take care of the group.
This is true for our human ancestors, we see it in modern hunter-gatherers and we see it in the society around us right now. Both chimpanzees and humans in leadership positions build strong social organizations and coalitions with their peers and subordinates (Gilbert & Basran, 2019). The highest status individuals are the ones that show a proficiency in resource acquisition. They are the best providers, the best hunters (Van Vugt, Johnson, Kaiser & O’Gorman, 2008).
Yet the manosphere regularly calls providership beta behavior; “beta provider” itself and “beta bucks” are common expressions. But it is not. At least not if the manosphere defines a beta as a low status individual. Across human cultures and time, as well as in our animal relatives, and right now in modern society, providership remains one of the strongest signals of high status (Kasser & Sharma, 1999). Providers consistently become the leaders and the most dominant individuals. Only in the correct sense that betas are high-dominant men who compete for the position of alpha would resource acquisition be a beta behavior.
Antisocial individuals are rarely elevated to leadership positions. When they do enter leadership positions they often fail, since antisocial leadership styles are associated with poor coalition-building (Basran, Pires, Matos, McEwan & Gilbert, 2019). They provide fewer benefits to the group and consume the resources of group members. Individuals who violate group norms, for example by harming other group members, are punished. Expulsion from a group is common. Antisocial behavior can provide benefits to the individual, but rarely provides benefits to the group. This makes it a risky behavior, but also explains why antisocial behavior persists from an evolutionary point of view. There is a risk-reward tradeoff. It doesn’t pay off enough for antisocial behavior to become a norm, but it does pay off enough for antisocial behavior to persist in a minority of cases (Ferguson, 2008; Paquette, 2015).
Despite antisocial behavior being both an indicator and cause of low status (Piotrowska, Stride, Croft & Rowe, 2015; Tuvblad, Grann, & Lichtenstein, 2008), the manosphere glorifies antisocial traits. A salient example is endorsement of the emulation of the Dark Triad (DT), a cluster of antisocial personality traits. DT traits (mostly psychopathy and narcissism, less Machiavellianism) do predict some relationship outcomes, such as having more sexual partners (Borráz-León & Rantala, 2021) or interpersonal aggression (Pailing, Boon & Egan, 2014). DT traits also slot neatly into the macho, the caricature of the alpha. The fact that DT traits predict sexual partner count makes it appealing to men who want to have sex with more women.
As you might expect from a cluster of maladaptive personality traits, the DT predicts negative outcomes. The DT predicts abuse of intimate partners (Carton & Egan, 2017; Kiire, 2019), criminal behavior and incarceration (Brugués & Caparrós, 2021), addiction to drugs (Jauk & Dieterich, 2019) and social media (Lee, 2019), higher infant mortality (Jonason & Lavertu, 2017), as well as poor physical and mental health (Jonason, Baughman, Carter & Parker, 2015). This is not a comprehensive list; you can fill pages with the negative outcomes associated with the Dark Triad.
The point is that these are not traits found in competent coalition-builders or leaders. If they facilitate dominance or prestige it is rare and in a minority of cases. That is to say, the DT does more harm than good to your position in the social hierarchy.
Refer back to the link at the beginning of this article on chimpanzees. The alpha chimpanzee is not a rugged loner who claws his way to the top of the social hierarchy. He is physically imposing, but he is prosocial. He is elected, given the position of alpha by consent of the group. If he behaves antisocially he is removed by the chimpanzees below him and replaced with a new alpha.
Individualism vs collectivism
This brings us to a minor related point: alphas only exist within the context of a social group. Individuals or loners who separate themselves from social hierarchies are not alphas. It is not alpha to isolate yourself socially or withdraw from society. In human prehistory, isolated individuals were those cast out from the group. By themselves, they probably didn’t live very long.
Yet it’s common to see this type of antisocial individualism framed as alpha as well. The outlaw, the Western prospector, the homesteader or hermit. These were all men seeking out some alternative lifestyle from mainstream society precisely because they were at the bottom of the social pecking order.
Being an alpha only means something as far as you are an active participant in the groups around you. It is a description of your relationship to others in a hierarchy that you share with them.
The dual-mating hypothesis vs alphas and betas
The dual-mating hypothesis (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000), also called strategic pluralism, suggests that women have evolved a two-pronged strategy for selecting a mate. On the one hand, women select mates who are reliable long term providers. On the other hand, women select mates who have good genes (or, in other words, who are physically attractive).
The manosphere tends to associate alphas with the second choice: good genes. Meanwhile, betas are associated with the first choice: providers.
Decoupling of these two traits is the largest misunderstanding of alphas and betas.
In fact, alphas are likely to have good genes and be good providers. Betas, as the men who compete for the position of alpha, are also likely to have good genes and be good providers. Traits associated with attractiveness, such as physical strength, are also traits associated with resource acquisition ability. Resource acquisition is determined by genes and environment (Puillet, Réale & Friggens, 2018).
This is because what makes “good genes” good, in part, are the genetic physical and behavioral traits that make an individual good at acquiring resources (Hunt, Bussiere, Jennions & Brooks, 2014).
Let’s look at an example: married men are called betas within the manosphere. Yet, married men on average have higher incomes (Pollmann-Schult, 2011), are more physically attractive (McNulty, Neff & Karney, 2008) and are taller. They are more desirable mates, both as potential providers and as far as physical attractiveness. They are not the lowest men in the social hierarchy. The lowest men are usually those unable to provide.
Single men are less likely to be good providers and less likely to have those valuable good genes. In other words, you are coping hard if you are a man who can’t form relationships while telling yourself that you are an alpha.
Long term providers are the preferred mate
Research on the dual-mating hypothesis also indicates that reliable, long term mates are the preferred mates (Pillsworth & Haselton, 2006). This is why serial monogamy is the dominant human mating pattern (Jokela, Rotkirch, Rickard, Pettay, & Lummaa, 2010). It is why fewer than 1-6% of children have historically been from extra-pair fathers (Larmuseau et al., 2019). It’s possibly why women evolved a birth canal shape that requires assisted birth (Rosenberg, 1992), as well as why women evolved concealed ovulation (Benshoof & Thornhill, 1979; Strassmann, 1981). It is related to the long gestation period and extended childhood of humans relative to other mammals.
Women are consistently selecting the so-called betas, the men with a preference for long term mating. They are having the children of those men and raising those children to viability with those men. The genes of those men, their dispositions and traits, are consequently passed on.
Women are attracted to resource acquisition ability. The manosphere copes by repeating the narrative that women don’t find betas, which they define as low status men or ordinary men, attractive. Apparently the Red Pill maxim “watch what women do” does not apply here. If we watch what women do, we consistently see women mate with and have the children of physically ordinary men who are still considered attractive because they have traits that signal providership: intelligence, humor, etc.
Betas vs men low in the dominance hierarchy
Betas are often described as abject losers. Physically weak, soyboys, the bottom of the totem pole. This is incorrect. Beta should be really used to designate a group of dominant males who compete for the position of alpha.
Betas are the boys on the football team who are the football captain’s best friends. They are the best friends of the popular girl. They are not the isolated loners who don’t participate in extracurricular activities.
After all, who is higher in the hierarchy: the 60th percentile man with a girlfriend or the 30th percentile man who is single and didn’t have sex last year?
Summary, or; So, you want to be an alpha
Based on the traits of men high in the social hierarchy I can give you some research-based do’s and don’ts if you want to be more alpha:
- Avoid antisocial behavior. Don’t come at me with “muh nice guys.” No one is telling you to put on a fedora and roleplay a 19th century gentleman. The fact is that antisocial behavior will backfire most of the time and lower your position in the dominance hierarchy. It will cause a world of problems for you. You most likely don’t have genuine antisocial personality traits to begin with and, since personality is highly stable, you’re unlikely to be able to copy them consistently anyway. That is probably a good thing.
- Boost your resource acquisition ability and signal competence. This effectively means you need to stay in school. Education level is one of the most robust predictors of status in Western society. It remains one of the most robust predictors of income as well. Forget “just do a trade bro” unless you’re going into trade school after getting at least a Bachelor’s degree.
- Learn social skills and be liked by your peers. This is your coalition-building ability. It does not even mean being the most extraverted person with the most friends. What it does mean is being liked by those around you, being looked up to and being trusted. You should be kind and you should know the difference between kindness and “niceness” per above. People should desire to be around you and feel safe with you. They should look back and feel like they had a good time with you.
- Lift. There it is, bros. Your physique is one of the things that signals both dominance and prestige. No amount of macho LARPing is going to be as good as being physically imposing. It is an ancient signal of resource acquisition ability and of your ability to protect others. You should look like you wont get immediately rolled by a foe and like you can chase down a gazelle.
Importantly, I want you to remember that human hierarchy is a spectrum. It is not a bimodal distribution. You do not have to be the top man in every room. It is statistically impossible for us all to be number one at everything. Not being a Giga-Chad does not make you undesirable or low status. Don’t get in the habit of comparing yourself to the top 0.01%. Set realistic goals for yourself. Try to make yourself a little bit better than you were yesterday. Do it consistently and one day you will wake up and realize how far ahead of everyone else you are.
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