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Two Worlds of Dominance

  • genders were hardly in competition with each other due to clear distribution of tasks
  • they developed 2 different dominance strategies
  • women use prosocial dominance
  • men are confident in both strategies: egoistic and prosocial dominance
Overview of topics:
Validity hierarchy
Hierarchy of dominance
Two dominance strategies met …

Our ancestors divided areas of responsibility between the sexes clearly. Probably, they increased their chances of survival and reproduction with it. At the same time, the clear division prevented the sexes from competing with each other. Perhaps there lies the reason why two different dominance strategies have developed: the validity hierarchy and the dominance hierarchy. While men use both strategies, women predominantly use only the validity hierarchy.

Validity hierarchy (prosocial dominance)

A hierarchy of validity is characterized by the fact that rank height can only be earned. The group concedes ranking, but also regularly withdraws and reassignes it. Behavior that is useful to the group achieves the ranking and so got its name prosocial dominance.

Within a hierarchy of validity, there is room to adjust and correct ranks over and over. If there is a fire, the group would more likely award firefighters higher ranks. In the case of flu, doctors would have better chances. In addition to the current situation and expertise, factors such as responsibility, helpfulness, age and experience can play a role.

Prosocial dominance goes hand in hand with recognition and praise and increases not only rank but also self-esteem. Striving for it, people also tend to give unsolicited advice or merciless paternalism.

A more feminine strategy

The social motivation fits in with characteristics that are somewhat more pronounced in the female sex. Women define themselves more about the image others have of them. The validity of their environment is likely to play a greater role for girls than for boys. In addition, prosocial dominance it motivated by sincere concern for others and we consider it proven that there is a higher social interest in the female sex. It remains questionable whether the motivation to help others actually goes hand in hand with a higher empathy in the female sex.

In a study researchers observed a group of girls to see the development. If girls did not grant the desired ranking, they ignored the shared advice or talked badly about the girl with third parties. High ranking members, on the other hand, were imitated and received compliments. Popular girls took care of others1. Attempts among girls to lead aggressively were less successful in the long run.

In society

The ´hierarchy of validity´ strategy provides a basis for democracy, where the majority of the population decides and the individual has only limited power, since the rank can be withdrawn by the group. Moreover, the concept enables meritocracy, where decision-makers are chosen on the basis of their competence.

Within a validity hierarchy it can be difficult to make a decision if no one wants to give in. However, an organization can prevent such problems by using roles as clear indicators for areas of competence. Thus, for each issue, it is clear who is the decision-maker and who is the input giver.

Although a hierarchy of validity focuses on the well-being of others, it is also about power and the feeling of one’s own superiority as well as a demonstration of competence. And on the other hand, declining someone´s approaches also goes hand in hand with a feeling of power. Thus, prosocial dominance is ethically questionable as well. Since the welfare of others, however, represents at least a partial aspect, it´s “better than the mindless jabbing of machos swinging branches” as Bischof-Köhler (2006, p. 316) formulates it. She means the dominance hierarchy which evolved mainly in the male sex.

Hierarchy of dominance (Selfish dominance)

A dominance hierarchy is characterised by a clear and stable ranking structure. The highest ranking member has all privileges. Since the motivation behind this strategy is exclusively one’s own advantage, it probably deserves the name of selfish dominance.

A rather male strategy

In species where the parental investment of the males was low, they had to compete for the interest of females. By demonstrating their own superiority, they tried to impress females and persuade other males to give up (assertive aggression).

Even today, the dominance strategy still enjoys popularity among humans. Men in particular use them by upholstering themselves or drowning out others, ridiculing or insulting them. In a nutshell, it´s any behaviour with the intention to make the other person give up.

In society

The lower-ranking members of a dominance strategy submit to the wishes of the higher-ranking members and do not question their competence. Such a culture offers no room for fair decisions, objectivity, creativity or individual concerns. It is the basis for inequality and arbitrariness.

Last but not least, a hierarchy of dominance is reminiscent of a monarchy in which a single person is in possession of the metropolis of power. A monarch cannot be voted out, even if the majority is dissatisfied. In addition, the monarch makes all decisions independently of his own competence.

Nevertheless, a dominance hierarchy has the advantage that decisions can be made quickly. If a drift was attacked unexpectedly at night, for example, the group had to quickly agree whether to flee or fight. The highest-ranking member makes the decision and everyone else subordinates themselves to it. Whether the decision is good or not remains another question.

Two dominance strategies met …

Today, the sexes compete not only at work, but also at home. Many men are “fluid” in both strategies, while the majority of women think and act exclusively in the validity hierarchy.

Now imagine X trying to gain validity from Y, who in turn acts entirely in the sense of the egoistic dominance strategy with assertive behavior. Help, solutions and advice meet overtones and ridicule.

X is frustrated because her solutions are not taken seriously and she feels treated very unkindly and unfairly. Y is frustrated, because he still hasn’t been able to get his way. They both turn up within their channel. X again explains her ideas of solutions and admonishes them to be constructive. Y becomes louder and more unbearable.

That won´t work!

Y needs to be willing to argue on the topic and not just try to gain control. For X was aware that Y is not trying to find a solution, but to establish dominance, she would not waste her efforts in vain. She would probably try to talk to Y and in a next instance to change his incentives to want to listen (e.g. talk to management). If Y does not change his strategy and way to treat people, he is probable not very useful in his place.


» next topic:

Evolution of cooperation

With the help of dominance strategies, rankings are formed as a basis for cooperation: » Learn more!


sources: 1. Sarin-Wiliams 1979 nach Bischof-Köhler 2006