Justine: Making Your “Alpha Male” More Like Nature’s Alpha Males

We all know what sort of man an alpha male is…strong, usually buff, definitely tough, and the one who gives orders, not takes them. He typically gets what he wants when he wants it, and if he’s threatened, he’ll go up against that threat, even if it means getting physical.

The trope of the alpha male is alive and well in many romances these days. But is that what nature intended when she created alpha males?

Enter Frans de Waal, a primatologist and ethologist from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who has studied the behavior of alpha males in chimp societies. He recently gave a TED talk at TEDMED in Palm Springs, and what he’s found is that these alpha males display less bravado and machoism and more compassion and peacekeeping.

The term “alpha male” and “alpha female” were originally coined in the 1950’s by scientists studying wolves. “Alpha” denotes the highest-ranking male/female in a group. In every primate group, there is only ONE alpha male and female. The alpha is determined not necessarily by who is the biggest or the strongest, but by who can make everyone happiest.

See, primates, and chimps in particular, form what de Waal calls “coalitions,” or groups within the group. It is these groups that select candidates per se for the alpha, and are the ones who support the alpha once chosen. In one sample group that de Waal studied, the alpha wasn’t the oldest/biggest chimp, but rather a young one who did a good job at keeping everyone happy (and who had the support of the oldest chimp — a former alpha).

De Waal says that there are two primary things chimps must display convincingly in order to be deemed alpha. The first is strength (this isn’t unexpected — the alpha has to be able to protect his group). The second is more surprising — it’s generosity and compassion. Chimps vying for the alpha spot will exhibit very uncharacteristic behavior: sharing food, tickling babies (most males have no interaction with baby chimps), and currying favor with females, for example.

Obviously, the major benefit to being the alpha is the ability to have sex with the female chimps. But there are trade-offs. Alphas also have two major sets of responsibilities. Firstly, they have to maintain control and keep the peace. This means, in addition to defending their own position, breaking up fights between other chimps. Surprisingly, the alphas are remarkably good at not taking sides (i.e., picking mom/their mate over another group member). In fact, they will often support the underdog.

The other responsibility alphas have is to be the consoler-in-chief. Alphas do a lot of consoling, according to de Waal. He cites an example of a male chimp that had gotten into a fight…the alpha consoled the chimp by hugging him.

A good alpha will also earn — and keep — the respect of his group. de Waal told the story of an alpha who had gotten sick and lost his place at the top of the ladder…but that didn’t mean he was forgotten. Many members of his group would provide him with food and other comforts, such as bedding material, literally tucking it up behind him like a nurse (or a mother) would tuck a pillow behind your head. This demonstrates how characteristics deemed less “alpha” can actually go a long way in generating respect, even when they’re out of the top spot.

So…how does this relate to the alpha males we write in our stories? I think it leaves room for our guy to show a soft side, to demonstrate compassion, to stop fights rather than always start them, to solve problems with their brains and not their fists, and to tickle babies every now and then.

What do you think? Do any of these “natural” characteristics of alphas resonate with you? What do you look for in an alpha male? Or do you shun the trope entirely?

8 thoughts on “Justine: Making Your “Alpha Male” More Like Nature’s Alpha Males

  1. This is really interesting, Justine. I originally viewed Abaddon, the hero of The Demon’s in the Details, the second book in my Touched by a Demon series, as a beta because he’s not Mr. Testosterone. Instead he’s small and geeky. As a Hade, a member of the tribe of miners and metalworkers who peopled Hell before Satan arrived with his horde of fallen angels, Bad doesn’t achieve his goals through physical confrontations, but by using his brains.

    Through discussions with.8 Lady Jilly, though, I came to realize Bad really is an alpha, of the type you describe above. He’s really good at figuring out how to keep my heroine happy and he’s smart enough to out-think Satan and all the other denizens of Hell.

  2. I loved one of Frans de Waal’s books years ago, and really gained a lot of insight into primate behavior. I can’t for the life of me remember which one it was, but it detailed the relationships between apes (bonobos? chimpanzees?) in a zoo. I think it was chimpanzees. He’s also done some articles, and I can’t remember if the story of Mama, who took over the whole tribe after the males fell apart as a political force for good, was in a magazine or the book.

    It’s kind of a cliché, but “if you have to fight physically, you’ve already lost the first battle”. Alphas have to be smart and strategic, not just strong enough to look credible as a threat.

    Rosalind Wiseman also has some really interesting insights about primitive human politics in her book about boys. She’s quite famous for writing a book about girl politics that was the basis for Tina Fey’s Mean Girls. She had a special term for the strong-but-dumb guy who backed up the leader of the group. She also talked about the human costs of taking these roles, and ignoring one’s fundamental desires and wants.

    • I love that cliche, Michaeline, and I think you’re right…fighting is a last resort. I’ll have to look up Rosalind Wiseman…sounds like an interesting read.

      If you want a good cry, search YouTube for the video of Mama the chimp when she’s at the end of her life…she’s refused food and water, and does not respond to the other caretakers, but when de Waal comes to visit, she rallies and hugs him. It’s so bittersweet.

      • Aw, I’m tearing up just thinking about it! For some reason, there are a lot of Koko stories around on the internet this week, as well. It’s amazing to have these connections; kind of amazing that the same kinds of things happen with people and say, cats, who have brains the size of a walnut, but can display all these complex behaviors and affection.

  3. Pingback: What’s BDE? – Eight Ladies Writing

  4. Pingback: Jilly: Alpha Males Revisited – Eight Ladies Writing

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