We’ve all heard the term: alpha male. Depending on who you ask, alpha males either represent the height of male desirability or the worst of toxic masculinity. It’s a complicated topic, to be sure. It doesn’t help that much of the so-called “science” behind the concept is laughably wrong. The reality is the whole alpha male myth is rooted in outdated research. It's a mistake. The researcher who originally popularized the concept of alphas in wolf hierarchies has since refuted his own findings.
So, does that mean alpha males don’t exist? Well, yes and no. There is validity to the alpha idea, but it’s more of a social concept than a scientific one. There certainly is research about animal hierarchies, including among primates (our closest cousins), that supports the concept. What an “alpha” looks like for different animal species varies, though; just as it does for different human groups.
More importantly, even though the initial research upon which the idea was rooted was flawed, the idea still exists. The term has come to describe a certain type of male, wonky science or not. If you asked a random assortment of people, most would generally agree on what an alpha male is. Which means we can’t just dismiss the concept out of hand. But there’s value in understanding that “alpha males” are a social construct, not a biological fact. In this article, I’ll discuss the definition of alpha males, why the idea persists, and what it means for you.
The Alpha Male Defined
If you watch TV or movies, you’ve undoubtedly heard someone referred to as an “alpha male.” He’s the character that always gets the woman and wins in life. In short, he’s the ideal, while the lesser “beta males” are the ones constantly being rejected by girls. But what does “alpha male” really mean?
Like most concepts that have permeated the culture, there are various ways to define alpha male. On Urban Dictionary, there are dozens of definitions, ranging from vaguely scientific to utterly dismissive. Nonetheless, most people would agree that alpha male, as it relates to humans, is about status. In the colloquial sense, alpha males are those men who stand above their peers. Generally, it’s a term that suggests a hierarchy among men, especially as it relates to sexual and financial success.
Alpha males are expected to do well in business and attract the most desirable women. To most, the quintessential alpha male is a fit, handsome man with a firm handshake and plenty of confidence. He’s strong, forceful, and unwilling to compromise. Broadly, being alpha means being in control. Then again, for some, “alpha male” has become shorthand for a cocky, loudmouth guy who thinks too much of himself. More like alpha jerks.
Whether you put much stock in the idea or think it’s nonsense, it’s worth knowing how the alpha male myth began.
The Alpha Male Myth
Alpha males debunked?
You might hear some people say the whole concept of alpha males has been debunked. It’s more complicated than that, though.
For one, the notion of hierarchies among social animals is real. Scientists have observed this type of power dynamic and numerous animal groups. For instance, considerable scientific research has been devoted to the presence of alpha males among primates. So, the fact that certain males dominate their packs or tribes is indisputable.
However, what scientists mean when they talk about “alphas” among animals differs by species. Not all alpha animals dominate by force. Some use mental manipulation or bribery to assert control, not strength. The colloquial concept of the alpha male–rugged, strong, sexually desirable–derives from a 1960s scientific study of wolves. The thing is, though, the original researcher has since dismissed his own findings.
The alpha wolf myth
In 1970, biologist Dave Mech, who specializes in wolves, published The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. It was this book that originally established the idea that wolf packs are led by alphas, both male and female. The book contended that the alpha pairs dominated their packs through contests and feats of strength. Their power allowed them to maintain control.
However, in 1999, Mech published a study that refuted his own findings. He acknowledged his original (flawed) study was based on captive wolves. In the wild, his updated research found, wolf packs worked more like families. Wolves come to lead packs not by physical power, but by the mere fact of having more offspring. Their packs are literally just their own pups.
Mech has called the alpha wolf concept “misleading”. Mech doesn’t argue that hierarchies based on strength don’t exist. Such hierarchies were, in fact, observed among captive wolves. He is simply saying they aren’t any more “natural” than other types of hierarchies and familial structures. In fact, wolves in nature create packs by reproduction, not through domination.
The enduring myth
Despite Mech’s retraction, interest in alpha-based hierarchies–ones with betas, omegas, and so on–remains strong.
Researchers have even investigated this dynamic among human adolescents, though the findings don’t exactly align with the common alpha concept. What they’ve found is that while hierarchies of dominance exist, how dominance is gained varies. It’s not always about strength or power. Strength is just one of dozens of ways that humans establish pecking orders. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. There are all sorts of social and friend groups with pecking orders not based on strength.
Ultimately, the alpha male myth is just one of numerous explanations for social hierarchies. It doesn’t provide a perfect explanation for human behaviors, but it’s not exactly wrong either. The alpha male idea can be useful as a conceptual framework. Using terms like “alpha” and “beta” to describe common power dynamics is useful because those concepts are well-known.
Still, if you hear someone claim they can teach you to be an alpha male, be suspicious. Likely they’re only offering some simplistic stereotype of “manliness,” one that might not actually be all that beneficial.
If You Can’t Be Alpha…
Understand human behavior
Maybe you’re disappointed to find out that the concept of alpha males has been debunked. You aren’t alone. Countless people have put a great deal of value in the concept; some even base their whole identities around it. There are men who write books about it and offer lessons on how to be “more alpha”. It’s even become something politicians brag about. So, yeah, it might be pseudoscientific hogwash, but as a concept, it isn’t going anywhere.
Here’s the truth, though: even if alpha males don’t exist, we can still derive some value from the idea. It’s a fact that in most social settings, there are hierarchies. From the classroom to the office, sports teams to rock bands, groups naturally develop power dynamics. It’s not just among men. Anyone who’s ever been around a sorority house knows alpha women can exist too.
What’s important to understand about the alpha male myth is that it’s descriptive, not prescriptive. It can help you recognize patterns and modes of behavior, but it can’t tell you how to be. No one can. In life, every situation you’ll find yourself in will be different, every social circle will have its unique qualities. Sure, there are commonalities and personality types, but life isn’t some formulaic video game to be won. It’s a series of opportunities to learn new things.
Be more than an alpha male
So, how can you utilize the concept of the alpha male for success, even if it is mostly bunk? Well, right out of the gate, just by being aware of the flaw in the idea, you’re a step ahead. As I’ve already said, tons of guys believe wholeheartedly in the idea of the alpha male. As a result, they’ve created a worldview for themselves that is dramatically narrowing. They’ve allowed themselves to be boxed into a rigid definition of manhood.
I don’t deny that for some men, being super assertive and domineering works. It can lead them to success in their careers and in relationships. For just as many men, though, assertiveness comes off as arrogance, or worse. The “alpha” personality is like a suit. It’s not right for every situation, and sometimes it’s simply not tailored to who you are. You’re better off wearing something more relaxed.
There are absolutely situations where being the strongest man in the room will be an advantage. And, yes, some women are more attracted to the musclebound, macho types. But there will be just as many situations where physical dominance is unnecessary. Plus, most women you’ll meet will be more attracted to guys with good personalities than chiseled bodies. A guy who can hold a conversation with a woman will outshine a ripped jock nine times out of ten.
Instead of reading books on how to be dominant and more “alpha,” just try to be an interesting, well-rounded man. It’s not just that you’ll find success in life. You’ll find life more satisfying because you won’t constantly be pursuing some imaginary ideal of manhood. And nothing is more alpha than being fulfilled in life.