Do alpha males always get the girl?
The comic book character Archie was always your typical beta. So was Richie Cunningham from Happy Days, while Fonzie played more the alpha.
And girls prefer bad boys! Don’t they?
Well, maybe the whole alpha and beta thing isn’t that simple.
Even though our book The Great Sex Rescue is launching March 2, Keith and I are in the middle of writing the first draft of The Good Guy’s Guide to Great Sex. Keith’s been doing all this research and going down all these rabbit holes to figure out what makes sex best for both men and women.
Not surprisingly, the idea of “confidence” and the alpha male has come up a lot. But the more that Keith’s done research into this, the more he’s found both that alphas don’t exist in human societies the way that we think; but also that the whole idea of what will make an alpha is skewed.
The most dominant, meanest, strongest animal often loses out on alpha status
The idea for the “alpha” really comes from animal studies, where one male animal seems to be in charge of a whole group of women and children, providing them protection in exchange for mating rights. And that male fights off both other males and other predators. In other animal groupings, the non-alpha males aren’t expelled, but one dominant does rise to the top. So how do these groups decide who is dominant? Is it always the most aggressive, meanest, and strongest?
Turns out it’s often not. Animals can gain alpha status by doing favours for other animals. Sometimes the animals just realize they don’t want a bully in charge, and so they find an alternative. In many primate groups, the females are quick to defend the group against intruders as well, and don’t rely only on the male to be strong. So they’ll choose a male who won’t abuse them. In fact, in many animal societies it’s the women who decide who they want to be in charge–and again, it’s usually not the most predatory. It’s usually a combination of strength, yes, but also an alpha who will treat them and their children well.
When it comes to human societies, we tend to prefer stability over bullying behaviour, too. While there is a certain amount of typical “alpha” behaviour that societies may tolerate, and even like, at some point it becomes too much. A person who is violent disrupts the entire society, and so they’ll be ostracized.
We may talk about the macho, controlling, bullying alpha man as being the most attractive, but it turns out most women would rather have a caring man, just like most chimps or wolves or any number of other animals.
What makes “alpha” attractive may not be what we think.
I read a really interesting study as Keith and I were looking into this that I want to share with you that helps illuminate what it is that women want. It was one of the earliest studies done on dominance and sexual attraction, and it’s talked about in this article on alpha males.
In the original study, college-aged women were given one of two descriptions of John, a tennis player. Both descriptions started out with the same sentences:
John is 5’10” tall, 165 lbs. He has been playing tennis for one year and is currently enrolled in an intermediate tennis class. Despite his limited amount of training he is a very coordinated tennis player, who has won 60% of his matches.
Then one group was given a further description of John that used words like confident, dominant, authority, and assertive. Another group read a passage that described John as “not particularly competitive“, and somebody who preferred to play for fun rather than to win, and who was easily dominated by others.
When given those two descriptions–one of the typical Alpha, or dominant male, and one of the typical Beta, or submissive male, dominant John was called the most sexually attractive, but also the least appealing as a spouse.
But then the researchers wondered, what words are women actually reacting to when they called alpha John sexually appealing?
In follow-up studies, they found that “dominance” and “assertive” were appealing, but “aggressive” and domineering” were not.
But guess which John scored the best between dominant and assertive John, aggressive and domineering John, and John with no adjectives, where it was just three-sentence John with no qualifiers?
Turns out sexiest John is three-sentence John, with none of these descriptors at all (like above).
What’s going on? Well, this most certainly doesn’t mean that the extremely brief three-sentence description of the John depicted in the control condition was sexually appealing. Rather, it’s more probable that hearing about either dominant or nondominant behavior, in isolation of other information about him, made him less sexually attractive. The researchers conclude: “In short, a simple dominant-nondominant dimension may be of limited value when predicting mate preferences for women.”
They went on and measured more words, and developed a new way of looking at what actually is sexually appealing. Here’s what they concluded:
Instead of thinking about alpha males and dominance, we should start thinking about prestige.
Prestige is formed when people (males in this case) use their assertiveness and confidence to gain other people’s approval and to gain status in the long-term. It’s not about being domineering in the here and now, but about demonstrating a particular character over time. They further elaborate:
The dominant male who is demanding, violent, and self-centered is not considered attractive to most women, whereas the dominant male who is assertive and confident is considered attractive. As the researchers suggest, “Men who dominate others because of leadership qualities and other superior abilities and who therefore are able and willing to provide for their families quite possibly will be preferred to potential partners who lack these attributes.”
Their results also suggest that sensitivity and assertiveness are not opposites. In fact, further research suggests that the combination of kindness and assertiveness might just be the most attractive pairing.
What I find so interesting about this is that you’re basically describing Jesus.
Jesus was confident and assertive, but he also cared deeply for people. His kindness was what gave him moral authority and status–basically prestige.
And these characteristics of being assertive and confident but also kind and sensitive are not true only for males, but also for females.
I worry that the “Alpha Male” that many talk about in the church isn’t Christlike at all–and also is the least appealing to women.
We tend to divide men into “real men” and “wimps”. And yet this isn’t telling the real story. That “real alpha man” who is domineering, aggressive, controlling? He doesn’t usually win, either in the animal kingdom or in love.
As the study concluded:
Taken together, the research suggests that the ideal man (for a date or romantic partner) is one who is assertive, confident, easygoing, and sensitive, without being aggressive, demanding, dominant, quiet, shy, or submissive. In other words, a prestigious man, not a dominant man.
I find this whole thing fascinating, and if you want a shorter look at the alpha male debate, here’s an awesome four minute video from the Adam Ruins Everything YouTube channel:
Now, that still doesn’t answer the question about why women often go for bad boys.
I think for that we need to look more into trauma theory, and how, when we’ve been traumatized and hurt in the past, we often subconsciously recreate those relationship dynamics because they feel normal, but also because it gives ourselves a chance to get it right this time.
The only problem? It never works.
So all that is to say that aggressive, domineering behaviour is not what is sexy.
Women: we need to see these behaviours as red flags. We need to steer our kids clear of them by teaching empathy and real Christlikeness. And men? Let’s stop idolizing and propping up other men who display these character traits. Let’s prop up men who are assertive but also humble, who are kind, and who show empathy. That’s what Jesus did, and I think He’s a pretty good example!
What do you think? Do we emphasize the wrong things in masculinity? What do you think are the most appealing traits? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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