Sunday, June 10, 2012

Stressed-out Alpha Males

We all know that stress kills. The more stress you have the more likely you are to fall ill, to stay ill, and to succumb to illness.

Jonah Lehrer reports that, while stress does not make you sick, once you get sick it makes you sicker.

We also know that high social status is highly stressful. Researchers have discovered that alpha male primates suffer from very high stress.   

Lehrer explains:

It's not easy being an alpha male. Just ask one of the high-ranking baboons living in the Amboseli region of Kenya. Although these males get all the girls, and tend to abuse their lowly peers, their power comes with a steep cost: They're stressed-out. In fact, many alpha males exhibit the highest levels of stress hormone in the entire troop. This is largely because they must work hard to keep their social position, fending off young upstarts and engaging in elaborate courtship rituals that can drag on for days.

One feels compelled to note in passing that alpha male baboons are not pick-up artists. The female baboons who seek out these alpha males are not sluts. They must be Rules girls.

Now Lehrer explains that this creates a paradox:

At first glance, such stress levels would suggest that these powerful baboons suffer from serious health problems. After all, chronic stress exacts a terrible toll on the body. …

And yet, according to a study led by a scientist at the University of Notre Dame, those baboons with the most power suffer from the fewest illnesses and are three times more likely to recover from an injury than those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Lehrer next offers a cogent explanation:

This groundbreaking research—the result of 27 years of tracking primates in the wild—suggests that the problem isn't chronic stress per se. Rather, it's the way that stress interacts with our social status, which is why chronic anxiety is so much more deadly for those at the bottom of the pecking order.

This means that those who study human stress have oversimplified the issue because they fail to acknowledge the fact that humans are social beings.

What applies to baboon social hierarchies also seems to apply to human social hierarchies. A study of workers in the stratified British civil service found that lower status workers between the ages of 40 and 64 had a “mortality rate four times higher than that of people at the top.”

Dr. Michael Marmot tried to explain these shocking results by hypothesizing that alpha males have more control over their environments. They can choose to fight or not to fight, to mate or not to mate as they see fit. Marmot calls this a “demand-control” model.

Whenever I see a scientist explaining human behavior in terms of “control” I am suspicious. In the therapy world the term “control” has become the latest… universal explicator.

No matter what your problem, today’s therapists will tell you that you have “control” issues. Presumably, the term explains everything. When your therapist explains that you have control issues you are supposed to nod in assent, thrilled to have received this word of wisdom.

“Control” is only the most recent of therapy’s universal explicators. In the old days the Oedipus complex explained everything. Then it was all explained by the concept of power. Then it was low self-esteem. Now it’s control.

What does it mean when your therapist tells you that you have control issues? First, it means that he is lazy. Second, it means that he is trendy. Third, it means that he is ignoring the specifics of your situation in favor of an empty generalization.

Allow me to offer some alternatives to the  “demand-control” model of alpha male psychology.

It might be that the alpha male enjoys his enhanced status and the privileges it accords. The rewards may be worth the stress and struggle.

It may be that there are different kinds of dress. There’s stress that drains energy and does not offer any compensation and then there’s stress that mobilizes effort and offers just compensation.

To the best of my knowledge alpha male baboons gain their status by work and by struggle. While we imagine that the offspring of stronger baboons have an advantage over the offspring of weaker baboons there is no hereditary aristocracy among baboons. At least, there is none that I know of.

Among humans there is more to being an alpha male. A human alpha does not merely fight off the competition; he must also set a good example for the rest of his tribe or his team.

If an alpha male sets a bad example, he will be challenged by other males. If he is corrupt or is failing to follow the rules of proper social conduct others will find a way to replace him.

Even those who have inherited their high status are responsible for setting an example. And they should justify their titles and status by working and contributing to society. 

At times, members of the hereditary aristocracy have failed to live up to their duty to be industrious and decorous. Suffering from the curse of unearned wealth they succumbed to the temptation to squander it on all manner of decadent habits.

Naturally, this incites others to disembarrass them of their privileges and even their property.

When we think about the psychological benefit of being on top, we should think beyond the fact that the alpha male is reveling in the fact that he has access to more women.

This might cause some stress but I believe that there’s more to it.

When you are the leader or the boss or the alpha male, people look up to you. They esteem you more than they esteem those who are on their level or are below them. They have more confidence in you than they have in those who are not alpha males.

If we were to ask where the alpha male’s self-esteem or self-confidence comes from, we must note that it does not come from self-puffery. It results from achievement in competition and from the fact that others esteem him and show confidence in him.

Despite the commonly-held belief that esteem and confidence are self-generated-- belief that is manifested in terms like self-esteem and self-confidence-- the evidence suggests that true self-esteem and self-confidence are given by others. 

In time of trouble people look to their leaders. If they look to you to solve a problem or to take charge of a situation you will feel stress. And you will also feel the enhanced energy that comes from being held in such high esteem by your team.   

If you do not you are not long for alpha maledom.

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