The Rising Influence of the Alpha Female

January 29, 2013

There’s been a shift in what men say they want in a wife, with education, intelligence and financial prospects all rising in importance:



One study examined the social dynamics among 1,700 students aged 11-16 and found that both males and females strategically pursue social dominance and enjoy its benefits.

We argue that overt competitiveness and resultant social dominance in females have been traditionally underrated by biologists and psychologists. Our motivating theoretical perspective suggests that females of high socialdominance are less different from dominant males in terms of behaviors and motivations than is commonly believed, and that these socially dominant females enjoy similar social regard as dominant males do, gender stereotypes notwithstanding.

First, traditional theory:

The lower parental investment of males leaves them free to pursue and compete with other males for additional mates (at great personal risk, but clear reproductive advantage). This male–male competition  🙂  has selected males to be physically larger and stronger than females, and to assume more aggressive behaviors, motivations, and social roles (Clutton-Brock,1983).

Across the board the literature suggests that males are more physically aggressive, more status-striving, and more dominance-oriented than females. But some evolutionary biologists question the dominance aspect:

Hrdy ([1981]1999) has long argued that females’ behavior is no less self-interested, competitive, or dominance striving than males and their subtle social politics can be downright diabolical: They inhibit each others’ reproductive cycles, monopolize resources, dominate and sexually manipulate males, and kill each others’ infants. 

Every female who has navigated adolescence knows how true this is and and brutal this process can be, with clear winners and losers.

Although boys and men have long been considered more overtly aggressive than girls and women, and certainly more lethal in their aggression, relational, social , and indirect aggression appear to be the modus operendi of girls. As foreseen by Hrdy, girls are known to effectively employ gossip, rumor spreading, interpersonal betrayal, and social exclusion as means to harm the social standing of peers. Although the relationships between girls’ aggression and several conceptions of social status have been investigated, its relationship to social dominance remains relatively unexplored.

The authors distinguish between prosocial and coercive strategies for acquiring social dominance.

“Coercive strategies gain access to resources directly and agonistically such as by taking, threatening, or assaulting others and as such are aligned with traditional approaches to social dominance.”

“Prosocial strategies gain access to resources indirectly via positive behaviors such as reciprocity and cooperation. Because these strategies can be used alone or in combination, females consequently have a measurable route to social dominance.”

Individuals may use either or a combination of these strategies to acquire social dominance.

The study found that males were more likely to be coercive and female were more likely to be prosocial, but as many females as males use a bi-strategic approach to achieve social dominance. Boys tended to describe themselves as rather agentic in their methods, while girls described themselves as more relational. However, the students of both sexes who reported having the most social dominance in their peer groups were those who employed both coercive and prosocial strategies.

Prosocial kids were the most well liked, and coercive kids the least, but girls who used both strategies were the most sought after as friends. Neither sex was perceived as being more socially dominant than the other.

Highly socially dominant groups (e.g., prosocial and bi-strategic controllers) were among the most liked, the most desired for affiliation, and viewed as the most popular.

What does it mean when one is high on instrumental goals, the need to be recognized for accomplishments, and interpersonal aggression?

We believe this is a “rather a powerful intermingling of “getting along”and “getting ahead” central to human social competence.

When compared to other girls, the two types of girls who stand out with high scores on coercive control (i.e., bi-strategic and coercive) rate themselves as the highest on extrinsic motivations to pursue relationships (popularity, competition) relative to other girls.

This makes sense from an evo standpoint:

If intimate and exclusive relationships are resources to females then, as with resource acquisition and defense in general, females should exhibit high levels of competition for obtaining high quality alliances, and then defend these alliances strenuously after they have been won. Indeed, girls worry about loyalty and betrayal more so than boys and experience significant distress upon being targetedwith social tactics.

Furthermore, despite the fact that girls“value equity and intimacy,” they are inclined to give up almost anything – including their best friend – to increase their status with other females.

Ultimately, being well liked and being popular are no longer the same thing (if they ever were). It is the combination of prosocial and coercive tactics that yields the greatest social influence:

Emotion decoding skills, prosociality, and alliance building are not viewed as strategies of subordinance, but rather as legitimate and effective strategies of resource control in group living species. In this respect, bi-strategic males andfemales have it all.

In summary, there were three distinct findings:

  1. The most dominant members of a social group are both male and female.
  2. Means other than overt aggression are employed to attain and defend these positions (i.e., relational aggression and prosocial behavior).
  3. Both high dominance males and females attract similar social attention and draw others’ social aspirations (especially females).

The study offers an evolutionary perspective, not a cultural one. However, in my view the cultural influences should not be overlooked. High achieving or “alpha” females are more common today, and less likely to assume a subordinate role. Male preferences have shifted significantly in the last 70 years as well.

By fifth grade every kid knows that popular kids “like” each other, and that continues through college. If the popular females are as socially dominant as the popular males, then bi-strategic types are likely to share social dominance and status throughout their lives. This may explain why “mean girls” are often so popular with boys; their social dominance extends to both sexes.