An Exhausting Aggression: Alphas, Betas, and the Masters of the Universeby Ethan Richardson on Sep 14, 2011 • 1:00 pm 3 Comments
Despite what you hoped you might become, it’s generally just a matter of time before you find yourself finding yourself out. This is no big secret, that despite the narratives we love to spin about our experiences/relationships/(mis)demeanors, providence dependably illuminates who we really are–Full Monty style. This violent illumination, in turn, allows a person to see what’s there and, yes, what’s sadly not. Sigh.
The Wall Street Journal offers one such Providential exposé in their recent article, “Are Alpha Males Healthy?” It’s a brief study of the two archetypes, the alpha and the beta, and the perceived-vs.-real health of both personality types. On a perceived level, alpha males and females are the masters of the universe, the competitive leaders and thus find themselves in the offices with views, comfortably enjoying their reign atop the executive ladder. On a perceived level, beta males and females are sensitive, better caretakers and friends, and generally have less of a drive toward leadership.
The consequences are logical. According to the study, alphas answer “Yes” to admissions like “I believe that my value is defined by the results I achieve” or “No matter what, I don’t give up until I reach my goal” or “I make the decision I believe is correct, even when I know other people don’t agree.” This, intuitively, would lead us into beta-favoring territory: alpha dogs are anti-gospel. Alpha dogs fight, we don’t fight. We will take “No” for an answer. We are conflicted about our desires because our desires are bad.
The study takes this perception into account, but also advocates for a common ground–with good reason. Sure, alphas are bound to high blood pressure, a slight Jack Bauer complex which can only lead to some form of coping; but betas are no better. In fact, they can tend to become “extreme introverts who are so determined to avoid conflict they suffer anxiety of their own.” In terms of health, sickness is universal, it just comes in flavors.
One evening a week, a group of CEOs meets in a Manhattan psychiatrist’s office and engages in an ancient ritual. Ostensibly, it is a support group. Inevitably, it becomes a battle for dominance.
“Whenever you put alpha males together, the most aggressive will overpower the others,” says T. Byram Karasu, the veteran psychiatrist who has run the sessions for the past 23 years. The fighting is subtle, but it’s vicious. “Even giving advice is geared toward lowering the others’ self-esteem. Those at the lower end of the group come away doubting themselves, and their testosterone falls. They tell me they can’t have sex for three or four days afterward.”
It isn’t easy being an alpha male. Getting to the top and staying there takes a physical toll.
The latest evidence comes from wild baboons in Kenya’s Amboseli basin. Researchers from Princeton and Duke universities studied 125 males in five groups over nine years and found that while the alpha males got the best food and the most mates, they experienced far more stress than the beta males just beneath them in the hierarchy, based on the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in fecal samples. The beta males had almost as many mates and got just as much grooming from others, but they didn’t have to spend as much time fighting or following females around to keep other males away.
“Being an alpha is exhausting. I’d rather be a beta,” says Laurence Gesquiere, lead author of the study that appeared in the journal Science in July.
In the human savannah, where smarts matter more than brute strength, alphas run companies, amass fortunes and dominate any meeting they’re in. They are ambitious, assertive, confident and competitive. “You can smell it in about 30 seconds,” says Dr. Karasu, who is psychiatrist-in-chief of Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
While they may appear cool and calm, many human alphas thrive on adrenaline, the hormone that primes the body to fight or flee in times of danger. Those short bursts of power helped our ancestors outrun predators. But if the perceived threat never lets up, the chronic state of alarm increases cortisol, too, and can eventually weaken the immune system, raise blood-pressure, cholesterol and insulin levels, block arteries and spread inflammation.
Some alphas have so-called Type-A personalities, a combination of aggression, impatience and anger first linked to a higher risk of heart disease in the 1960s. Hostility is the main culprit, according to more recent research. A study of 1,750 Canadians in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology last week found that people who displayed signs of hostility—whether they admitted feeling hostile or not—had twice the risk of cardiovascular problems as those who did not. “Not all alpha males are Type A, but the combination can be deadly from a health standpoint,” Dr. Karasu says.
Women, of course, can be alphas or betas as well, and have the same fight-or-flight response to danger. But some researchers theorize females may experience a “tend-and-befriend” response as well, pumping out… hormones that enhance nurturing. Shielding offspring and blending into the crowd might have enhanced their chances of survival more than running or fighting, the theory goes.
Many alphas are also dedicated to exercise, which helps burn off excess adrenaline and cortisol. But some alphas take exercise, like everything else, to the extreme. “If every runner who passes you makes you pick up your pace, you’re keeping yourself pumped full of adrenaline,” says psychologist Kate Ludeman, co-author of “Alpha Male Syndrome.”
Many alphas find they are happier, healthier and more successful if they learn to temper some of their competitive zeal. “Some alphas compete with their own children,” says Eddie Erlandson, a former vascular surgeon who now runs an executive coaching company, Worth Ethic Corp., with his wife, Dr. Ludeman.
Some primate studies have found that alpha males that survive longest are those who cultivate friendships. That applies to humans as well “with a vengeance,” says Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky, author of “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.”
Beta males, by contrast, are nice guys, peacemakers and team players. They make good husbands, fathers and friends. Some experts say they tend to be happier than alphas, since they aren’t driven by the need to be on top. Betas can come in many forms—from competent wingmen to extreme introverts who are so determined to avoid conflict they suffer anxiety of their own.
Many observational studies of people and primates have shown that, in general, it’s more stressful at the bottom of the social hierarchy than the top. Two long-running studies of British civil-service workers found that people in the lowest ranks had many more health problems and were three times as likely to die as the highest-grade administrators in a 10-year period—even though they all had access to health-care services. [However] to date, there have been few studies assessing whether human alphas or betas are healthier.
Some of the most intriguing questions involve how and when these traits emerge in childhood. Researchers with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development have observed alpha and beta behavior even in kindergartners and found that the subordinate tots have more cortisol in their saliva. “The question some of us are now looking at is how reversible are these early patterns?” says Stephen Suomi, who directs research on human and primate development at the NICHD. “This is all wild new territory.”
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