Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Are You an Alpha or a Beta?

Are you an alpha or a beta?

This is a topic that's sprung up a lot lately on Facebook, and it fascinates me. Before we dive into the specifics, let's develop a nice operational definition of "alpha" and "beta." I like to think of this construct as a continuum, or pecking order, present in masculine personalities. 

Alphas are at the top. They are the leaders. They are confident, cool under pressure, and care little about what others think of them. They live life on their own terms. They don't ask for what they need; they take what they need. They fit the masculine stereotype, even though sex is irrelevant.

Betas are the followers. They're pleasers. They are self-conscious and rely on passive-aggressive means to get what they want or need. They whine. They complain. They play the role of victim. They're easily offended. They fit the feminine stereotype.

Does This Dichotomy Really Exist?

In short, not really. The idea is borrowed from the cousins of our best friends- the wolf. Specifically, wolves in captivity. In the latter third of the 20th century, researchers noticed wolves in captivity (that part's important) developed a strict social "pack hierarchy." The strongest male, through force, assumed the role as leader. The strongest female assumed the role of alpha female. They mated. The rest of the pack helped raise their baby wolves. Pop human personality theorists borrowed this concept and applied it to humans. 

Psychologists struggled to actually validate this idea. As it turns out, human behavior is far more complex. In fact, the entire field of personality psychology is plagued by weak correlations and exceptions to rules. There are A LOT of theories out there... some better than others. None adequately explain the depth and breadth of humanity.

This shouldn't be a huge surprise because... it turns out wolves are more complex, too. Captive wolves act differently than wild wolves, which seriously damages the fundamental basis of the alpha/beta dichotomy.

Be that as it may, we still like to make sense of our world. We like convenient categories as they provide valuable mental shortcuts. It's important to remember that all of us have some alpha qualities and some beta qualities at least some of the time, and this is usually dependent on the situation. Even though the concept of alphas and betas may be fantastically over-simplified, it can still serve a useful purpose.

Why We Care

Our society heavily favors alphas. They get the first pick in pretty much everything. Betas... they fight over the scraps. Normally, we fall into one of these two roles- leaders or followers. Active or passive. Strong or weak. The role we play at any given time is inconsequential, as long as it's the role we want to play. Problems arise when betas decide they want to become alphas... usually with really bad results.

The fundamental problem is betas assume being an alpha is a set of behaviors. Do the behaviors -and- POOF! You magically become an alpha.

Unfortunately it doesn't work that way. Alphas aren't alphas because they act cocky, brag, or exclaim their strength. In fact, nothing shouts "I'm a beta" for males than peacocking. You know, the "Jersey Shore" male strutting. It's all just an act, which is painfully evident to true alphas. Real alphas don't need to peacock. For women, it's more common to proclaim strength, which is also a distinct "I'm a beta" cry. Again, real alphas don't need to proclaim their strength. Both of these behaviors are nothing more than facades to hide insecurities.

The real secret to being an alpha is inner contentment. Once you really accept who you are and recognize you're at the helm of the ship that is your life, becoming an alpha is easy. Needing the affirmation of others is the hallmark of being a beta. 

This, of course, is easier said than done. If you're a beta and you want to be an alpha, here are some tips:

1. Introspection helps. If someone hurts or offends you, plumb the depths of your psyche to figure out why. There's a root cause, and it has nothing to do with the other person. You're allowing yourself to be offended and/or hurt. 

2. It's okay to act the part until you achieve inner contentment, just make sure you know how alphas really act. In any given social situation, observe. Try to figure out who is the true alpha in the situation. In a room full of alphas, everyone immediately knows where they fit in the pecking order. True alphas accept this.

3. Develop the ability to lead. Alphas, above everything else, are leaders. They care deeply for their pack and take every opportunity to help them. 


The dichotomy of alphas and betas may not be statistically verifiable, but it is a useful schema we can use. This is especially true if we're a beta and wish to become an alpha. I've always had a lot of alpha traits, but was raised in an environment that more or less required me to learn beta behaviors. It's taken awhile to learn to effectively play the alpha role, but it worth it. Being an alpha is a Hell of a lot more fun. ;-)