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Of all manifestations of power
restraint impresses men the most

Social Dominance

On this page:
One Ingredient Among Many | Other Problems With SDV | Social dominance isn't about fighting | Where's The Problem?| Pump Up The Status | Text

We hesitated to include this section among the kinds of violence. Why? Because people tend to want simplistic answers and this subject DOESN'T have one. In fact, trying to define social dominance violence (SDV) is a lot like nailing Jell-O to a tree.

It seems like such an obvious simple idea: Someone using violence to prove who's boss. How complicated can that be?

Well, let's start with the idea that in order for you to be able to say -- for certain -- that is the sole motivation for violence, you'd have to be psychic. Unless you can read someone's mind as the assault occurs, you can't say for certain that was the motivation. That's because things are never simple when it comes to human motivations.

More than likely social status was a factor in the violence, but it was not the only motivation OR even the primary goal.

One Ingredient Among Many
Let's start with quiz and see if you can tell why the two following statements don't contradict each other:

  • Trying to establish social dominance/status through the use of physical violence (or the threat) is extremely common.
  • Physical violence, for the sole purpose of establishing social dominance and status, is extremely rare.

Both statements are demonstrably true. The difference is the word 'sole.' Although social dominance is a huge factor in much violence, seldom is it the only reason. It is usually deeply intermeshed with other motivations and commonly combined with other kinds of violence.  Often the other kind is being used as an excuse and cover.

That is why things get complicated. While building or maintaining social stature is almost certainly there in the mix, it hardly ever is the only cause ... or even the true cause. This to the point, where SDV is usually indistinguishable from other types of violence. This especially applies to predatorial violence and behavioral correcting violence.

Even in incidents where establishing dominance and social status IS the primary motivation, it is usually hidden behind another kind of violence as an excuse for the behavior. The other kind of violence is the justification for the aggression. Usually this occurs by claiming the target has performed some kind of transgression that 'needs to be corrected.' In a significant number of cases, the alleged transgression never occurred.

This kind of violence is also strongly motivated by personal insecurities, social ineptitude, low self-esteem and outright sadism. In fact, we can conveniently lump them all into the same category. And when you throw those into the mix you begin to understand our 'mind reader' comment. You can never be certain how much of each ingredient is in any particular mix. And it can change from day to day, hour to hour and minute to minute depending on how the person is feeling at that specific second.

Where this becomes extremely complicated is much of the motivation for this kind of violence comes, not from external and established social protocols, but from an individual's twisted, misconstrued, inept and maladjusted 'personal' interpretation. Putting an example of that in super-simplified terms: What the person is doing isn't what it takes to be an alpha. What the person is doing is what he THINKS will show everyone he is an alpha.

Unfortunately, what the guy thinks he will accomplish by doing this isn't going to happen. Specifically, while he thinks he just increased his social status, usually he actually lowered it. People don't respect violent, selfish and unpredictable people. More than that they don't trust them ... so why should they bother to have you around?

And now we're going to throw another monkey wrench into the works, sometimes the challenges to the social order ARE real (i.e. the transgressions and the need to establish 'who is boss'). The conflict arises because someone is engaging in behaviors that are an attempt for him (or her) to increase social position and power -- at the expense of a higher up.

Other Problems With SDV
We cannot stress this point enough: Even when social domination is the driving motivation, SDV is still almost always a mixed type of violence. That's because another kind of violence is being used  as a casus belli (justification for war). While what's going on is about social dominance, what is happening on the surface is about something else.

Here is where things start to get real complicated, this kind of conflict can  -- and often does -- arise from BOTH sides. If there is a legitimate case of challenge to the social order, then the source of the problem can be from either the dominant or the one seeking to improve social status. The challenger throws down the gauntlet and it is picked up by the dominant.

Here is another factor, in these circumstances the issue is commonly resolved by someone else OTHER than the dominant. Often what occurs in these situations is the individual pushing to increase his status lacks the attributes for the group to grant him increased status. When he attempts to challenge the alpha, another individual steps up and engages in a mixed of behavioral correcting and social status violence. The individual who fights the contender is protecting the social order by stopping the unqualified individual from challenging the leader. In cases like this, the two guys you see going at it, don't really have a beef with each other.

Still a third variation is when one person tries to act as though he is the boss and starts trying to order people around, correcting others and/or telling them how to behave. While most people will simply move away or ignore that person, this can -- and does occasionally -- lead to violence when someone doesn't like being treated like that.

Human beings are social primates, that means that we are physiologically designed to live in groups. The idea of the lone wolf individual who needs no one, is not only a fantasy, but is often the sign of social dysfunction. A huge amount of our social behaviors are not conscious. And while they are socially and culturally influenced, they are, in fact, based in our primate brain wiring.

YOUR socialization, personal paradigms, beliefs and age combine with this programming to create what you believe what will increase, preserve or decrease your social status. Younger individuals are not only far more likely to try to increase their social status, but are more likely to try violence to do so. This arises from their lack of clear understanding of what they are attempting to do (although they feel the need), experience, effective alternatives and -- most of all -- personal insecurities You don't know which way he is going to jump because HE doesn't know which way he's going to jump.

Worse -- when this kind of violence is driven by personal insecurities -- it has no obvious 'fixes,' (like there are with other kinds of violence). Therefore, it is never 'clear' what to do to prevent violence(1). Every case is different -- and in some cases your only choices are to be victimized or offer counter force.

To further muddy the water, four caveats must be added to the subject:

  1. The increasing or maintaining of social status is a huge factor in most conflicts  -- whether they go physical or not.
  2. Although verbally and emotionally violent, an overwhelming majority of these incidents are threat displays -- they are a threat of an attack, not an actual physical assault.     
  3. Generally speaking, people who resort to physical assaults to establish dominance and display status are socially inept(2).
  4. And just to remind you again: While social status and dominance may be the underlying motivation for the conflict, the manifestation is usually over something else.

Do yourself a favor and reread those four points. There is a lot of science, sociology, psychology, management theory and people skills that went into them.

Why do we say they are important? Not only are those points critical to understand how conflicts can escalate and become physical, but  -- they are what people ignore the most.

Then, those same people, are shocked and appalled when someone slugs them(3).

Most of the time violence arising from attempts at social dominance is a two way street. You will see these behaviors displayed by BOTH parties in a situation, including being so wrapped up inside your own head that you ignore, dismiss and minimize what the other person is doing. This is common adrenalized/primate dominance behavior. These often take a verbal and emotional conflict and escalate it up to physical violence. So ignoring these cues is like ignoring that annoying whistling sound as you're standing on the train tracks.

Social dominance ISN'T About Fighting
The constant jockeying for gaining and maintaining social status is a huge element of human behavior. In fact, it is arguable that entire sections of our brains are wired for it. So of course, we're going to do it.

Having said that, there are a lot of people who don't understand the nuances and purposes of this behavior. Or how it manifests in different social and cultural environments. Because of this ... well not to put too fine of a point on it, but they seriously screw up, both the doing it and the reacting to it.

Here is something that is very important to understand: While you can see this in the bar on Saturday night, you're going to see a lot more of it at work. It's the same game and the same mistakes -- even though at work, it doesn't go physical.

That's why we told you those four caveats. They are critical to understand the following point:

      The message being sent by the intimidator is NOT "I am attacking." The message being sent is "I might attack..."

 If not now, then later.

Social dominance is overwhelmingly about intimidation ... not actually engaging in physical violence. If it goes physical, something's gone wrong!

Side note to people wanting to increase their social status by studying some 'reality based self-defense' program: While 'restraint impresses men the most,' there's a lot of childishness out there. And a lot of that childishness is being presented as how you need to establish your social status to a would-be attacker. Unfortunately, MUCH of the advice about how to be an 'alpha' is very childish. It WILL get you into more conflicts than out of them.

Where's The Problem?
Believe it or not, the biggest problem is with the person being intimidated. To his or her monkey brainIT is happening!

What is 'it?' Why Armageddon of course...

Who knows what this big scary person is going to do? Will he attack now or will he jump out of the bushes at you later? Do you stand up for yourself and risk turning the threat of an attack into a physical assault? Or do you submit and lower your status? And by doing so increase your risk of being picked on again at the whim of the bully?!? Emotionally you are hurt and reeling. All of these and more are racing through your head!

When in fact, mostly, it's a bluff by the intimidator.

He's not going to physically attack, now OR later. And even if he does, odds are the physical contact is going to be limited to a single punch or slap. This to further impress on you that he he's willing to use violence. It's another level of he might 'really' attack you later.

But your monkey brain doesn't see that. It's convinced you ARE being attacked. You ARE about to die! ARMAGEDDON IS HAPPENING!!!! Eek! Freak! Panic!

Well no, not really. In truth, you are being attacked, just not physically. But your monkey brain doesn't make a distinction between emotional danger and physical danger. That means it is the nature of the attack that people are confused about.

Social status, pride, self-worth, public image and emotions, NONE of these can be put in a wheelbarrow. Nor will they appear on a video. In other words, as powerful as these forces are in human interactions, they have no physical existence. They are perceptions and subjective interpretations.

And that applies to everyone present at the situation -- including witnesses and bystanders. Keep this in mind because it is important.

Will these forces guide people's actions? YES! Do they create -- and are spurred on by -- neuro-physiological changes in your brain and body chemistry? Yes! Do your perceptions change under the influence of adrenaline and emotions? Absolutely. Do you fall into deeply ingrained psychological patterns when confronted? Yes, yes and yes. None of these, however, mean you are being physically assaulted.

The threat that you might be ... if not now, then later ... is how social domination works. Because although no physical assault has occurred, the threat alone is going alter people's attitudes and behaviors.

While the bully hopes for a beneficial shift in his direction, in truth, the shift is usually more towards the long-term negative. While the bullied person, fearing a shift towards the negative, actually seldom suffers that much of a loss of status from everyone else. That's because people are generally to busy thinking "What an asshole" about the bully to think "What a wimp" about the bullied person.

But try to tell that to a person who's panicking because they've just had a run in with a bully. Usually the person is as emotional and fixated on his or her social status as much as the bully. And like the intimidator, blind to what other people are really thinking about the situation.

Pump Up The Status
When it comes to dealing with potentially violent people what you can't see is the fear, insecurity, self-loathing and low self-esteem that drives them. Nor can you see how socially inept and limited in resources they are.

What you usually see is the person yelling, screaming, glaring at people and trying to intimidate them.


Many years ago someone once threat

Return to top

1) Often with other kinds of violence you are told what you can do to prevent physical violence (e.g. 'shut up,' 'leave,' 'stop doing that' or 'give me your money'). This is like a test where someone gives you the answer before hand. Sadly, even knowing the answers, many people fail this test. Return to Text

2) Do not confuse this with Behavioral Correcting Violence (BCV). Although elitists would like to think so, B.C.V. is not necessarily a sign of social incompetence. It commonly used to expediently end unacceptable or dangerous behavior. An example of this is an officer using force to subdue a violent person. Social skills have little effect. Such a person cannot be 'talked down' in time to prevent them from harming others or themselves. Therefore BCV is the fastest and most effective method. Return to Text

3) Punches them incidentally because they
   a) ignored
   b) dismissed
   c) failed to recognize the danger signals
   d) were so emotionally out of control they were oblivious to everything
       except what was going on inside of them.
All of these decisions and behaviors increase your chances of being physically assaulted. Return to Text

(#) #) Return to Text

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