Learning Lab


Two ears, two eyes, one mouth. The paradox of being one of the “top dogs”

Like many of our animal cousins, we humans often find ourselves living and working in social hierarchies. The formation of a natural order where, at least at a group level, some people have more power and control than others (even if at an individual level we are all considered equal). A way of assigning roles and responsibilities to enable the progression of human activity. And resulting in a hierarchy of dominance.

The most dominant individuals, the “top dogs”, are those who are successful in the art of control.  They can get people to listen to their ideas. People do as they ask. They are masters of persuasion. And whether they are the head of a family, head of a business, or head of a country, the same principles apply.

Destructive Aggression

But so often this dominance is shrouded in aggressive tactics. Where people think that by showing an aggressive authoritarian stance, they can get others to do what they want. And of course, they can. It can be a very effective form of control.

But usually, it also creates a trail of destruction along the way. Negatively impacting the people they are trying to control. Creating feelings of low self-esteem. A sense of not being listened to. Fear and demotivation. Not exactly the kind of working environment which fosters the openness, creativity and empowerment that most organisations strive to achieve.

But there is another, less heavy-handed way of getting what you want. And that is by being what’s called “socially dominant”. It is still based on having a solid and independent self-belief in yourself. Still strongly valuing your own opinions and abilities over others. But instead of applying aggressive or Machiavellian tactics, you instead implement a more positive and reasonable approach to controlling others. You avoid using threats. You appeal to reason. And you use clear and direct body language and eye gaze strategies to deal with conflict.

Learning from the best

And neuroscience has more recently shown that being high in this type of “social dominance” is a bit of a paradox between what is perceived on the outside and what is happening on the inside.

Because although outwardly these highly dominant people consider themselves independent-minded and self-sufficient, internally their brains are actually paying close attention and learning from the people around them. Picking out the individuals who are themselves successful. Using their eyes and ears to “see” what worked for them. And using these insights for their own gain.

Individuals who rate low on dominance don’t show this type of “social learning”

Neither do individuals who rate highly on aggressive dominance, suggesting it is particular to those who apply more socially intelligent tactics.

The role of serotonin.

But what is it in your brain which makes you a “dominant” person? Well, it is partly due to the specific patterns of neural activity in the large-scale brain networks which coordinate your emotions and social behaviour. But is also has something to do with the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Serotonin helps regulate your emotions. This doesn’t just mean regulating your happiness. It is also involved in regulating how dominant you behave in social situations. For example, one study found that giving people tryptophan (the building block of serotonin) made them both more dominant and less quarrelsome.

Dominance from a viewers perspective.

But what about the other side of dominance. Our ability to scan a crowd and instantly know who is in charge. How does our brain work it out?

Your amygdala (and its associated network of brain regions) tells you.

In fact, people with greater amygdala volume (the neuroscience metric for saying how big a region of your brain is and how many neural connections it contains) are better at evaluating who is in charge. Something that has been shown by researchers using a  technique called voxel-based morphometry. Your amygdala, once is has worked out someone’s “rank” then uses this information to adjust your behaviour accordingly.

Signs of dominance.

But how does the amygdala make this judgment?

By evaluating the person’s posture. Their turn of phrase. Their gestures. And all usually at a subconscious level without you even realising. Scientists have even shown that dominance is “written on your face”.

Together with trustworthiness, it is one of the core facial dimensions which contributes to the way your character is judged. Not only that, but your brain creates these impressions in as little as 34ms after you first meet someone – a near instantaneous assessment which biases your perception of them from that point on.

So next time you are trying to win someone over. Asking someone to do something. Pause for a moment and think about how you are being viewed. Consider which strategy you might best apply to persuade and control. And pay attention to the social information on offer to guide you in your actions.

If you would like to find out more about dominance and other social traits which are critical to the smooth running of your organisation then please get in touch with us at Synaptic Potential.




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