Emotional Competency

Explore the Logic of Passion

The ability to harm another


  1. The ability to harm another.
  2. Power based on the ability to use force. Dominance does not require the actual use of force, but can be based on the potential use of force, or the infrequent use of force.
  3. Power derived from the potential for destructive actions. Contrast with stature.
  4. Coercion potential,
  5. Fighting ability,
  6. Competitive ability,
  7. Influence based on fear,
  8. Use of force to control sexual access.

Two types of dominance are useful to distinguish:

  1. intrinsic dominance which is based on an individual's own ability to use force, and
  2. derived dominance, based on fighting ability not physically associated with the individual, such as coalition and alliance partners.

The costs of aggression, such as injury or death are high and can be limited by submitting to the opponent. The network of relationships indicating what individual submits to what others establishes the dominance hierarchy. Dominance orderings are significantly affected by group composition and changes in group membership. Because humans are members of many groups, some of which are quite large where each individual may not be well known, the dominance ordering is not a strict hierarchy and depends on the relevant group or circumstances.

A Human Approach to Dominance

Humans have used their creativity to unleash the primitive concept of dominance and use their ability to harm others in a remarkably wide variety of ways. Here is a partial list:


  • Visual or vocal threat,
  • Physical Attack,
  • Aggressive display,
  • Verbal threat or verbal aggression including forms of: command, order, ridicule, teasing, threaten, accuse, blame, and criticize.

Bases; the sources of power:

  • Individual physical power
  • Collective physical power
  • Technological power from weapons or other devices. Weapons allow a person's aggressive power to increase beyond the limits of their physical strength.

Sources; the instruments of power:

  • Dominance capability (e.g. intrinsic ability to do harm based on fighting ability, physical size, and coalition size.)
  • Control of weapons
  • Legitimate authority (also known as positional power, formal power, or structural position). Others may sense an uncomfortable incongruence when positional power exceeds the individual's intrinsic dominance or stature.

Scope; the range of behaviors and consequences that can be controlled:

  • Priority in access to resources, including mates
  • Exploitation of subordinates where subordinates are required to bring resources to, or accomplish various tasks for, the dominants.

Domain; the number of people under control of the superior:

  • Dominant controls all subordinates - one-to-one basis
  • Dominant controls all subordinates - coordinated group control

Contexts; the social situations where power can be exercised:

  • Competition for resources:
    • Dyadic (two person)
    • Resource-specific coalition
    • Crimes (e.g. theft, burglary, etc.)
  • Competition for mates:
    • Male-male competition,
    • male aggression of female,
    • Rape,
    • Female-female competition,
    • Female aggression on male.
  • Competition for associates
  • Competition for dominance itself; disputing your rank in the dominance hierarchy.
    • Dyadic (a two-person competition)
    • Polyadic (a multi-person alliance is formed to provide protection to its members, overthrow the dominant individual, or establish the allied group as dominant)
  • Protection of other humans.
    • Kin,
    • unrelated infant,
    • Sexual associate,
    • Social partner, friend.
  • Policing
  • Personal defense:
    • Individual,
    • Cooperative
  • Play derived aggression
  • Redirection of aggression
  • Psychopathic crimes
  • Infanticide
  • Dyssocial aggression; the unprovoked acts of aggression performed for the purpose of gaining praise or approval of others. This is common in street gangs
  • Intergroup aggression:
    • xenophobia; joining together to threaten or attack members of another group
    • territorial defense; threatening potential trespassers.
    • Intergroup aggression
  • Group invasion
  • Warfare
  • Intergroup alliances
  • Violent demonstrations
  • Terrorism

Structure; the distribution of power among individuals:

  • Intragroup structure:
    • Dominance orders,
    • Revolutionary alliances - forming a group to overthrow the leader.
    • Conservative alliances - forming a group to maintain the stability of the leader.
    • Protective alliances - forming a group to protect the leader.
  • Intergroup Structures

Psychological Processes for learning and propagating dominance:

  • Individual learning
    • Material reinforcement (to gain resources)
    • Social reinforcement (to increase stature)
  • Modeling influences
    • Social facilitation
    • observational learning
  • Instructional control
  • Self-reinforcement
    • Moral justification
    • Displacement of responsibility
    • Dehumanization of victims
    • Attributing blame to victims

Dominance in Suburbia

While fighting to the death is the time honored way to express dominance, it is so inconvenient in today's suburban world. Less disruptive dominance expressions provide outlets for the ferocious behavior we all seek. Here are some examples:

  • Large cars. Size matters, and I am convinced that primal dominance explains the popularity of the SUV. Hummer ran an advertisement with the tag line “Restore your manhood”.
  • Killing. Hunting rifles, knives, bow and arrow, hunting, and fishing allow today's urban predators to satisfy their urges to kill and still come home in time for dinner.
  • Big Houses, especially on mountain tops demonstrate your domination of the territory. Height (elevation, relief) symbolizes dominance while space symbolizes stature.
  • Power suits, ties, dresses, and lunches allow us to express our superior command of the finer things in life.
  • Cheering for the winning team. The biggest sports fan wins.

Dominance in the Wolf Pack

The social structure of the wolf demonstrates a rather pure and stark example of dominance in action. There are interesting parallels between wolf behavior and human exercise of primal dominance.

Wolves are complex social animals who must constantly kill prey to survive yet the naturalists who have studied them most closely are struck by their friendliness.

Each adult wolf eats an average of 8 pounds of meat each day. Wolves prey on bison, moose, musk ox, caribou, deer and other smaller animals. A bison weighs as much as 2,000 pounds, a moose weighs as much as 1,250 pounds, and a wolf weighs only about 100 pounds. Therefore it is fundamental to their survival that wolves organize into effective hunting groups. This is the basis for wolf packs.

Wolves maintain a system of order based on dominance and they use a system of Wolf Love communication that promotes that order. Establishing dominance can be a matter of life and death, but dominance order is typically resolved without a fatal fight. That would just be too costly to the pack so wolves rarely inflict grave injury to establish or assert dominance within the pack. Dominance order is established early in the life of a wolf. After some serious fighting among littermates dominance can be established as young as 13 days old. Basically the fighting continues until dominance is resolved and accepted. Then the fighting ends and the dominance hierarchy establishes the individual roles within the pack. This maintains harmony within the pack. Submission is the easiest way to avoid a fight. Dominance crosses sexual lines in young wolves, but then separates into two dominance orders within the pack, a male order and a female order. The highest-ranking male is referred to as the “alpha male” and similarly the highest female is the “alpha female.” In addition there are mature subordinate wolves, low ranking outcasts, and juveniles in the pack.

A wolf must consistently assert its position to preserve its stature. These stature displays take on several forms, depending on the harmony in the pack. Gray Wolf Submits to the Alpha Usually, in a stable pack, the mere exercise of the privilege and leadership that is characteristic of the dominant animal is sufficient. Submission, which is an appeal for friendliness, is an important behavior contributing to pack harmony. When a higher ranking wolf approaches the lower ranking wolf, the superior raises its tail and head and keeps its ears erect. The subordinate wolf lowers its tail and head, closes its mouth and draws back its ears.

Social order and harmony are maintained by frequent displays of dominance and submission.

In cases of intense rivalry, the dominant wolf may harass its subordinates by crouching and threatening to spring, baring its teeth, or by opening its mouth wide. It may even assume the “bite-threat” posture, baring its teeth, staring, raising its ears, and stretching out its legs. The tail trembles and its mane and rump hairs bristle while it growls. This may lead to an actual attack. stature quarrels are public and are watched closely by the members of the pack.

However, the alpha wolf can’t stay on top forever. stature changes take place most often during mating season. The conflicts are usually resolved through ritualistic threatening and relatively harmless fighting. A “lone wolf” is an older wolf who had been the alpha male until he lost a dominance contest. He is then cast out of the pack and may soon die as a result of losing the support of the pack.

The alpha pair enjoy nearly exclusive access in mating. Most of the females pWhite Wolvesrefer the alpha male as their mate and most of the males prefer the alpha female as their mate. Quarrels and challenges between animals of the same sex prevent most mating attempts from completing. Often it is only the alpha female that mates successfully. Sometimes the alpha male is the father and often he is not.

Dominance provides the benefits of privilege and leadership to the alpha pair. The dominant animal takes the initiative to claim whatever he or she wishes. After a kill, they eat first. The other pack members don’t dispute the claim. So the alphas get the most food and their choice of mate. This prepares and sustains them for pack leadership. The decisions on when and where to hunt, when to pursue, attack, or abandon particular prey, when to rest, and what direction to travel can mean the difference between life and death for the pack members. The alpha male has the responsibility to make these decisions, and the others must follow his lead.

The leader is clearly in charge, but is not especially harsh or cruel. The leader seems to rely on a well-chosen middle ground between an autocracy and a democracy. Basically the leader’s decisions are followed immediately unless a large majority of the wolves clearly disagree with a decision. This may occur if the pack is being lead into an extremely dangerous area, or if many of the wolves are more tired than the leader may recognize. Then the leader will defer to the groups needs.

The typical pack has no more than eight animals. The largest pack ever seen was 36 animals. Several competing factors determine the pack size. Larger packs have the advantage of providing more hunters to cooperate in the kill. However as they grow larger packs encounter several social stresses. Eventually the competition for food, mates, leadership and dominance limits its size.

It is unusual for two packs to meet. If this happens, the two alpha males often fight each other until the weaker one is mortally wounded or killed.


  • Hummer advertisement: “Restore your manhood”.


Browse these Images of dominance from istockphoto.com


Beyond Dominance: the importance of leverage, Rebecca J. Lewis, The Quarterly Review of Biology, volume 77 (2002), pages 149–164. Published by the University of Chicago Press

Chapais B. 1991. Primates and the origins of aggression, power, and politics among humans. Pages 190-218 in Understanding Behavior: What Primate Studies Tell Us About Human Behavior, edited by J D Loy and C B Peters. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, by L. David Mech

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