More Detailed B.S.

Some people take the whole “alpha male” concept way too seriously, and too far.

It’s an unfortunate use of language, and I always wondered about the scientist who came up with the term. A bit of googling later, and my knowledge-vacuum still applies. An article in The Guardian [guard] says it was Frans De Waal’s book Chimpanzee Politics [wc] but that does not sound right to me – the publication date listed on worldcat is 2007 and I know I’d been hearing about alpha males long before that. The Guardian asks “do alpha males even exist?” to which the answer is simple: sure, in chimp groups they do, because that is how a certain set of dominance behaviors in chimp groups are sometimes named. Someone call an appelomancer, stat!

But the obvious response would be, “that does not apply to humans because human tribal structures are quite different from chimp tribal structures” (leaving out bonobos, I assume) – in fact the point of studying chimp packs’ behavior is because they are different from humans and behave differently. Next, we can argue about whether it’s nature or nurture, and whether an alpha chimp can be a fascist or not. Or, perhaps, whether a fascist can be an alpha chimp. Who knows? Whatever scientist came up with the term did no favors, because they could have just called the leader of a chimp pack “the pack leader” and perhaps humans would have been denied another piece of pseudo-science to develop in detail. But, immediately, humans started talking about “alpha male behavior” regarding humans in human packs – never mind that there are reasonable questions as to whether or not alpha male behavior applies to humans at all.

Midjourney AI and mjr: “the alpha chimp of a pack of chimpanzees is interacting with a scientist.”

I wonder if The Guardian‘s article was written by an AI because it seems kind of waffly and uncertain:

It really became accepted as something men should want to be with the success of Neil Strauss’s The Game, based on lessons he acquired from the Pick Up Artist community. This should trigger alarm bells for many; terms and methods acquired from Pick Up Artists should be treated with extreme scepticism at the very least. But, sex being the powerful motivator that it is, the idea that being an alpha male would improve your life and make you more successful with women proved incredibly beguiling, so acceptance and use of the term has now become the norm. But this doesn’t mean it’s valid, just that it’s common.

So, the pseudoscience community adopted the term quickly, and started making a mess of it more or less immediately. Are there “alpha males”? It’s just a word for a collection of behaviors – the collection of behaviors is what’s interesting. From there we can quickly jump into the weeds by asking how a behavior is designated, is “dominance” something we can measure on a scale or not? How do we measure it, etc? I consider this to be a standard problem with psychology, namely that it appears to be highly concerned with coming up for new words for vague concepts, which are then reified as behaviors or syndromes or whatever. But, pick up artists have an interesting problem, which is that they are also trying to describe collections of behaviors and those are also vague or contested concepts. I guess what I’m implying is that pick up artists and psychologists have the same interest and the same problem, they’re just using their organizational frameworks to classify different people in different ways, for their own ends. I don’t have much interest in pick up artists but a few years ago, I thought I might do a blog posting about some aspect of pick up artist philosophy (remember, at the time I was also interested in hypnosis) and I did a bit of searching around until my brain came squealing to a crash stop after I encountered videos about “sigma males.”

There is a lot of shit about sigma males. There are other types that the pick up artists have come up with, too. The different types of males they have designated are presumably more or less fuckable based on the collections of behaviors that they exhibit. I’m not going to bore you with this shit, I’ll just mention that it exists and it’s highly concentrated stupid. For example, a youtube video about sigma males goes on about them [youtube video] and how sigmas are attractive because blah, blah, blah. Here’s a typical description of a sigma:

Often misunderstood and underestimated, Sigma Males are the lone wolves of the modern world, quietly lurking in the shadows. As the alpha male dominates with brute strength and the beta male conforms to society’s expectations, the sigma male follows his own path, choosing to live outside of the dominant hierarchy of society. But make no mistake, this enigmatic figure is more dangerous than any alpha. With his razor-sharp intelligence and ruthless determination, he is dangerous in a way that few others can match. This isn’t an attempt to glorify the sigma male, but he is so private that few know the true power of this mysterious figure.

Wait, what? Is the whole point of life to figure out where you sit in some imagined dominance hierarchy? Well, that answers one question, for me, namely: “why are there so many ‘incels’?” it’s because they are sitting around watching dumb videos about collections of behaviors, rather than asking what they might or might not want to do in terms of their own behaviors, if it’s so important for them to score with a cheerleader. The funny thing, of course, is that the incels have concluded that “chads get all the cheerleaders” not understanding that “chad” is also a designation for a collection of behaviors that they believe increases the likelihood of the “chad” scoring with a cheerleader. If that’s the case, it seems that they should be studying the “chad” behavior collection and doing what “chads” do rather than doing what “incels” do.

Midjourney AI and mjr: “the female chimp is posing in a fashionable gown like a runway model.”

These videos about “sigma” males are unsettling for me: they consist largely of footage extracted from movies that supposedly illustrate how “sigma” males behave. What the makers of the videos don’t seem to understand is that they have their epistemology backwards; someone is not born a “sigma” they are born in some way and develop a collection of behaviors, and then someone comes along and designates them as an alpha, or whatever. As Bob Dylan said in Theme Time Radio Hour about an old school musician, “I suppose nowadays you might call him ‘bipolar’ but back then we just said he was mean.” You are not born “a fashion model”, you are born a certain way, grow up and practice certain behaviors that form a collection that some people might say are things a “fashion model” might do.

The other aspect of the videos I’ve seen (I have not looked at many) about “sigma” males and the other designations of males, is they are focused to some degree on various strains of violent authoritarianism. Review the description of “sigma”s above:

But make no mistake, this enigmatic figure is more dangerous than any alpha. With his razor-sharp intelligence and ruthless determination, he is dangerous in a way that few others can match.

/me puts on his psychologist hat “OH! A psychopath!”

Of course, “psychopath” is a collection of behaviors and existing states (nature and nurture) and it’s impossible to pick those apart, either. What bugs me about this particular pseudo-science is that it appears to be implying that being a “sigma” is attractive, or something. The implication is “dangerous is good.”

These people should get some counsel from a pack of bonobos. Anyhow, in addition to the 12 different types of people from the zodiac, and the 16 different types of people from the Myers-Briggs “type indicator” and so forth, we have multiple collections of behaviors that represent an example that I suppose we are supposed to emulate. I’m not going to give advice, here, but it occurs to me that my experience of women is that they like guys who are fun, interesting, industrious, organized, capable, and gentle. Sure, a soupçon of ruthless determination can be attractive if a man is re-wiring a house or changing the oil in a car. Empress Josephine was less than impressed by the ruthless determination in Napoleon’s grand strategic opus, his attack on Russia. Was Napoleon a “chad”? Or an “alpha”?

These collections of behaviors are considered desirable: ruthlessness, hidden violence, etc. But based on my life, I’m not so sure that ruthlessness and hidden violence is what gets the babes. I have noticed that lots of money brings a certain kind of partner. I have noticed that lots of alcohol brings another. Being Bonaparte attracts a certain kind of woman, too, but it seems to me that putting some thought into what one wants in a partner is probably a better strategy than just deciding “I want a cheerleader” and working backwards from there. Oh, look at me, there I go thinking like a “sigma” again.


  1. anat says

    I recall the term ‘beta male’ applied to a character in Michael Crichton’s ‘The Lost World’ which was published in 1995.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    The “alpha male” concept was applied to wolf packs in a 1947 paper based on zoo observations:

    … David Mech, the founder of the International Wolf Center and one of the world’s foremost experts on wolf ecology… published a book called “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, which proved immensely popular and further ingrained the concept of the alpha wolf. … after he published the book, he noted that later studies on wolves in the wild showed that this model is outdated. … “[The book was] republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. …” … humans who subscribe to the idea of “alpha males” might want to keep in mind that this concept only applies to the behavior of captive and cornered creatures.


    I think I first saw the term applied to humans in Diane Duane’s 1989 Star Trek novel Spock’s World, where its repeated use for Captain Kirk/William Shatner made me laugh out loud.

  3. Tethys says

    The term Alpha originated in Wolf Research, and entered popular culture via the writing by Wolf researcher L. David Mech, and the film ‘Never Cry Wolf’ which used Alpha to describe pack hunting in wolves.

    It is wrong, and outdated among wolf researchers. It is not a mystery why women have an aversion to sex with any dude who literally uses predatory terminology to describe their transactional approach to procuring females.

    If anything, humans are hyper-social in comparison to both wolves, and other primates.
    Gibbons are closer in social structure than either Chimps or Bonobos, and Gorillas are very gentle creatures unless the males are fighting for dominance or feel threatened.

    No animal can match humans for sheer blood thirsty violence.

    On his website, Mech puts it like this:

    The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature, at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years than in all of previous history.

    One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”

  4. Tethys says

    Lol, there were no comments while I composed mine and tracked down a quote from fellow MN resident, L. David Mech.

    I believe Pierce is also originally from MN, so I’m not surprised we both supplied the source for the outmoded ‘Alpha Wolf’ nonsense.

  5. says

    No animal can match humans for sheer blood thirsty violence.

    Apparently that’s how human males are supposed to behave, in pick up artist/incel-land. And they wonder why people avoid them?

  6. says

    I am reminded of something, I believe it was Steven Jay Gould taking E O Wilson apart for ascribing ant nest behaviors to humans – humans aren’t ants.

    It’s amazing how pseudoscientists love to implicate other species behaviors as though they somehow reflect on human strategies. One of my profs described animal mating behaviors in frogs as “the baritones and the sneaky fuckers” – apparently some male frogs hide and wait for a female to come by, attracted by a better singer, then they jump out and mate and hop off. I wonder that pickup artists/incels have not made a big deal of this behavior. Or, as I said earlier, act like a chad if that’s what’s so important.

  7. Tethys says

    And they wonder why people avoid them.

    Toxic masculinity is exemplified by the overwhelmingly male Q following of aggrieved nincompoops and their hero worship.
    It also explains their obsessive fan-boying over the douchebag that owns twitter. They think social interactions are transactions.
    Relationships and feelings are for all those little poor beta’s. /s

    Humans don’t generally mate, which any animal behavior scientist should be aware of. We have sex, which is actually a completely separate human social behavior from human reproduction. Sort of like how breasts are completely separate in function from lactation, despite using the same anatomy.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    mjr @ # 4 – Thanks!

    Tethys @ # 6: I believe Pierce is also originally from MN…

    Actually from MS, near the other end of The River (MN is one of three contiguous US states I’ve yet to set foot in). [/irrelevance]

    Your summary/extracts are better than mine.

  9. kestrel says

    Human behavior is so weird to me because an awful lot of people will double down on things that quite clearly do not work. I’ve heard people say something like, “I’ve been beating that dog with a newspaper for three years and he still craps on the floor!” and I’ll think, “WOW. Even one of my chickens would have figured out to change strategies by now*” because for the most part animals stop doing things if they don’t work. Now, sure enough, some people will. Not all people, though. There are people who will decide to do something (“behave like an alpha”, for example, whatever the hell that means) and they just keep doing it even when it does not work out.

    *I’ll also think, “Quit beating your dog, you foul and loathsome creature” but someone who would do such a thing is a scary person, to me, so I don’t confront them.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    tl;dr: PUA talk of alpha/beta/sigma males is just there to pad out the information they’re either (a) selling or (b) talking about to avoid having to go out to meet women.

    There’s so much b.s. written about the PUA thing, mostly it seem to me by people who’ve obviously done no research.

    Primarily, the mistake people seem to make about the PUA community is that it is focused on picking up women. It isn’t. It says it is, obviously, but if you actually READ “The Game”, one of the most important observations Strauss makes is that most PUAs are either (a) men selling pickup strategies to paying customers (other men) through the medium of seminars and other courses – which is to say spending a large amount of their time hanging around exclusively with men – or (b) buying those courses and spending the vast majority of their time hanging around with other men, to the point that they start actively making excuses for why they’re not actually, tonight, right now, going to, y’know, actually go out and attempt to pick up women, but instead staying in talking strategy. The whole culture, intentionally or otherwise, seems to result in men spending LESS time trying to pick up women, not more. All the classifying of men into types is just more “content” – it’s there to pad out and lend an air of novelty and credibility to the common sense that forms the core of what PUA material actually tries to teach, and to give men something to talk about to each other instead of risking rejection.

    Another mistake people commonly make is to focus on the apparently “problematic” bits like, y’know, pick up lines, and to imply that they are excessively transactional and thus bad. Again, this speaks of a lack of research – in fact if someone goes there and goes there first they sound VERY much as though they’ve either done NO research at all and are merely parroting what they’ve learned from some other critic, or when they’ve actually picked up some PUA material (e.g. Strauss’s book(s)) they’ve skipped huge swathes of it to deliberately get to the bit they know will allow them to become angry. If you DON’T skip to the bit that will make you angry, you’ll discover that in reality PUA advice doesn’t start and end with chat-up lines. Where it starts is with common sense advice like stand up straight, get a haircut, wear some decent clothes, get some exercise and BE INTERESTING. A lot of the “alpha male” nonsense is, to my eyes, couched in those terms because it is by definition aimed at an audience who need telling that you don’t go to a job interview at a bank wearing a clown suit. People who don’t have common sense, in other words. Also: people who, with some justification, have no confidence in themselves.

    they should be studying the “chad” behavior collection and doing what “chads” do

    This is not advice, because “chad” is NOT a behaviour collection, unless you can count “being tall”, “being healthy”, and “being rich” as “behaviours”. What chads do is have good hair, wear a Rolex, drive a Mercedes and not need an inhaler. If you’re 5’8″, bald and asthmatic and making minimum wage – fucking good luck emulating “that behaviour”. Arguably US presidents are the ultimate chads. What proportion of men in the general population are bald, vs. what proportion of US presidents in the last 100 years? (Prediction: someone will refer to the fact Strauss is bald…)

    I’m not so sure that ruthlessness and hidden violence is what gets the babes

    I concur. But I’m pretty sure that ruthlessness and hidden violence is what gets the MONEY, and with money comes clothes, haircuts, healthcare, dentistry, and parties. And confidence… and if there is one thing that does get “the babes”, it is confidence. Teaching that to people who have none is what PUAs should be trying to do. As previously stated, what they are (or were – is it still a thing? It feels pretty noughties) actually doing is finding enough such people who do have a bit of money, and getting them to hand over as much of it as possible in return for some spun-out common sense surrounded by this kind of pseudoscience.

    One place I think PUAs do get it wildly wrong is trying to get out of the friendzone. Here for free is my own advice: get friendzoned. Get friendzoned by as many women as possible. Do all the good stuff in the PUA manuals (haircut, exercise, wardrobe, hobbies to make yourself interesting, and yes, the conversation-openers if you feel you need them) to meet these women but make NO attempt to actually pick up your friends, because you genuinely do want them to be genuinely your friends. If you take the time to listen, you will learn more from them that you ever will from some dude in a seminar or on the internet, and it will be more useful than what you learn from your male friends (if anything). If you’re lucky, one or more of them may at some point attempt to pick YOU up, but I cannot overstate that THAT IS NOT THE PLAN. You can take to the bank my guarantee that one or more of these women will introduce you, sooner or later (and it might take years…) to the love of your life. They will do this because if you’ve been a good friend to them (and you MUST be) they will know you better than you know yourself and they will actively want you to be happy, and they will find someone they like and who they think will like you, and put the two of you in a room. They may or may not actually “set you up” explicitly, but your circle of female acquaintances will naturally expand. And if you’ve been a genuinely good friend to their friend, you will NOT come across as some creepy dude who read some lines in a book. You will come across as someone who has worked on themself to be the best person they can be. Actually do that.

    Post script: I obviously did read the Strauss books and didn’t skip to the end. When I eventually became single, I briefly employed some of the tactics I learned there. They work. Having them work is a bit like doing a thumb-tip silk vanish – the workings are so obvious to you, the performer, that it seems incredible anyone falls for it. One understandable but very wrong thing to do in these circumstances is to lose respect for the people it works on. A better plan is to hope to get better and offer them more moments of wonder.

    However, much like the “You just ASK them?” chapter of Feynmann’s book, I found it was a correct answer to the wrong question. However, I also took the advice I offer above. We’ve been together eight years and have two kids and I’ve never been happier, thanks to the friendzone.

  11. xohjoh2n says

    I wonder if The Guardian‘s article was written by an AI because it seems kind of waffly and uncertain

    No, waffly and uncertain is just what The Guardian does.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    Midjourney AI and mjr: “the alpha chimp of a pack of chimpanzees is interacting with a scientist.”

    Bravo! One of the most interesting Midjourney images I have seen yet. Although unspecified in the instructions, Midjourney has chosen to make the scientist a chimpanzee. Bold. Thought-provoking. The scientist is wearing a space suit, which is also thought-provoking. Do all scientists in this world wear space suits? Is this perhaps a dystopian future with a toxic atmosphere? Or is the scientist from another planet, here to investigate a primitive society on this newly-discovered planet? There are some flubs, such as impossible lighting, but they are certainly not as distracting as the wheel-before-the-cart thing.

  13. moarscienceplz says

    re #14
    Yes, I too was struck how the AI decided that space suit = scientist. Only a very small percentage of people in space have been bona fide scientists. Most have been meat robots simply doing tasks that actual scientists and engineers have chosen for them.

  14. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#14:
    Do all scientists in this world wear space suits? Is this perhaps a dystopian future with a toxic atmosphere?

    I was really impressed with the AI’s efforts – or, more precisely, the random-walk it took through its data sets. (Which is what I think human artists do, too)

    I saw that and did the same train of thought as you, then realized that of course the chimp is one of the early patients in a new pandemic, COVID-2030, which wiped out most of humanity on Earth in cooperation with global climate change. Humanity’s great legacy, sending chimpanzees out to the asteroid belt to mine and survive in the deep black, is endangered by the virus.

  15. captrench says

    Hi Marcus,

    I am trying to get my email address changed on my account here but nobody is responding. I have twice tried changing it via the portal but each time I click on the link emailed to me to validate the change i get a message to the effect of…

    “You attempted to access the “Freethought Blogs” dashboard, but you do not currently have privileges on this site. If you believe you should be able to access the “Freethought Blogs” dashboard, please contact your network administrator.”

    In effect I cannot change my email address from one that is no longer valid to the correct and valid one. I have logged two support tickets via the “Tech Issues” link on the menu bar for the site, first one from 25th November, and again on the 18th December. I have also emailed PZ directly to his gmail account.

    The email validation link I’m being sent is not working and nobody seems to watching support tickets. I’m at a loss as to how else to contact anyone here.

    As the email address currently linked to my account is not valid you cannot email me on that unless you can also see the address that is pending validation. And i cant validate it as the validation link I am sent fails every time with the above message.

    Can someone please help resolve this?


  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    captrench @ # 17 – Look up towards the little gray bar above the header here (or on any other TfB blog), and you’ll see the third item, “Tech Issues”.

    Go there and post your message. From my limited past experience, you prob’ly won’t get a reply, but you may get a fix.

  17. says

    Most have been meat robots simply doing tasks that actual scientists and engineers have chosen for them

    I think there is a fair bit of imagery in Midjourney’s “memory” of chimps in space suits.

    By the way, it is currently unknown how many of those images were fake or real: some of the early rocket missions may have been part of the CORONA spy satellite program,[NRO] and carried cameras not science packages. I grew up reading National Geographic and looking at the amazing photos of airplanes hooking parachute falling space packages, and the skyhook technique is definitely how CORONA cameras came back to Earth.

  18. captrench says


    Appreciate the reply, but that is what I have already done, twice now, first time on 25th November, second time on 18th December, as mentioned previously in my first post here, #17 (no snark intended, but I hope you can understand the frustration).

    Its precisely because I have had no response I am resorting to openly asking for help here. Interrupting the discussion of a blog meant for much more interesting things is not my intention, and is very much a last resort.

    Apologies, but really would like to get this resolved so normal activity may resume,

  19. says

    The email validation link I’m being sent is not working and nobody seems to watching support tickets. I’m at a loss as to how else to contact anyone here.

    I’ve poked PZ but that’s really all I can do. I think that he needs to go into the user database and do some SQL squizzling. As you can probably tell from some of his postings over at Pharyngula, PZ’s pretty buried pretty much all the time.

    FTB hasn’t got a tech team – it’s just PZ. None of us sub-bloggers have site admin credentials. Because then we would go wild and put banner ads on all the pages and each become our own little Elon Musk clones and start mutual ban-wars. OK, that’s just me being silly.

    You can poke me by email instead of here, but I don’t respond any faster that way. I’ll try to bulldog your issue and get it fixed, though.

  20. captrench says

    #22 @Marcus,

    Really appreciate that, thank you muchly. I totally get that its just you guys and I’m happy to wait. I couldn’t see your email, otherwise I would have tried that first tbh. Assuming its public knowledge already could you direct me to where your email is listed or just reply here with it? If i haven’t heard anything in a few weeks I can try reaching out to you via your email instead then. It really goes against the grain to hijack a discussion thread with my account issues.

    Again, thank you for the response. The monkeys in my brain that started hopping about and upsetting the furniture since these issues started can be forced back in their cages now ;)


  21. Tethys says

    Yes, I too was struck how the AI decided that space suit = scientist.

    Maybe the AI interpreted the word Alpha as a call letter, and obliged by depicting NASA astronauts as a science organization that would use military style call letters for radio transmissions.

  22. Tethys says

    Is the astronaut concerned about the other Chimps third hand? I hadn’t zoomed in to notice its crossed eyes, but that third hand holding the yellow folder appears to be what the astronaut is attempting to repair with that toolkit.

  23. Reginald Selkirk says

    @25: Just possibly, the hand below the fold is the alpha chimp’s and the hand above is the scientists.

  24. lanir says

    So sonofrojblake got into it in more detail than I was going to but the whole alpha male thing is attractive. It’s just not attractive to women. The reasons are fairly simple. Breaking things is always easier than building them. The alpha male model is all about breaking whatever society you’re in so you can own what’s left easier. You don’t build trust and show you’re dependable. You bludgeon.

    The allure of the alpha male is the allure of taking the easiest path. There are still difficulties along the way but the alpha male behavior promotes making those someone else’s problem. If you go that way you’re not dependable and in fact you’re pretty useless. I suppose you can drive other parasites away but that’s about it. And I think this is why there are always people who think being one is attractive. But not very many people want to be around one.

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