Alpha Revisited – Marc MacYoung

Let me start that if there is one thing I am embarrassed about in my past works it is bringing the concept of alpha/beta into the self-defense world. At the time it was widely accepted science. But theory, like fame is fickle and fleeting. So let’s update this circle jerk.

I liken it to that because every wanna be tough guy is now claiming to be an alpha. Fact is, they’re behaving like the betas… and doing a bad job of that too. Mostly though they’re jerking off to fantasy.

Yes the original study was wrong. Way, way wrong. More modern research has proven wolfpack dynamics are far more complex and multi-roled for functionality and long term sustainability than people realize. It turns out participation is a much, much bigger and constant factor than hierarchy. But having said that, there is a great deal still to be understood by pack behavior– especially by looking at the actual role of the beta.

See what wannabe don’t realize is they aren’t aping alpha behavior, they’re aping beta behavior. There are several problems with this. First is they’re doing hash job of it. Second is not having what it takes even to be a beta. Third having absolutely NO idea about what leadership, power or even dominance is. Fourth, basically taking a sociopathic approach based on their complete misunderstanding of the third point and how things work in groups.

But let’s look at what they’re aping.

In a negative context, the beta is the thug. In a more positive context, the beta is the Sgt of arms for the group. In a positive spin, the beta protects the pack. In a more neutral perspective, the beta is both the muscle OF THE group and expendable. (While the role is not expendable, the individual is.)

I liken the beta to a spear. Something that is thrown at a target, but you don’t mind losing. Yes the beta is the biggest, strongest and most aggressive. It’s also the enforcer of the rules (but not the maker of the rules). The beta is out in front when taking down large prey and it is also running at danger to the pack. As such, the beta is the first to get injured or killed. When that happens (or the beta gets old), the role is taken over by another, often younger wolf.

In human terms, the beta is who I call Thongor the Learning Impaired. For the group’s survival he doesn’t do the ‘smart thing’ like everyone else — instead of running from danger, he runs towards it. Thing is if everyone did the smart thing we’d have died out as a species. Face it, men are bigger, stronger and faster than women. Women are bigger, stronger and faster than children. So if we all did the smart thing and ran from a predator the kids and women would die first. Yeah, that’s not a good species survival strategy.

The key point of this is that as the alpha leads the pack (because it has resources and abilities others don’t) that’s a different set of skill sets. The beta protects the pack and keeps other wolves in line. That’s where the misunderstanding of power and dominance really comes home to roost.

Many I’m-such-an-alpha-stud-look-at-how-big-of-a-dick-I-can-be -uhh-how -big-of-a-dick-I-have don’t get ‘it’s not about them.’ It’s about the group surviving and… if not thriving…then at least functioning on a day to day manner. In other words, it’s not about what they want or for their selfish benefit, it’s taking care of others. Yeah, there’s a selfish spin to it, but it’s one step removed. While it is true you get those bennies, it’s because of the services you provide to others. The role isn’t about the bennies, it’s about the work. The bennies are what you get for doing it. But far more important is the group and its shared resources keep your ass alive.

Now there is an interesting thing that tracks back to the difference between studying wolves in the zoo (which is where I heard Mech did the study) and wolves in the wild — it also tracks to dogs And in a round about way, humans. In the wild, if you have an out of control member of a pack, the pack will either abandon it or collectively drive it away. This seriously increases the chances of the ‘lone wolf’ dying. You can think of this as the pack voting with its feet. Or chasing you out with fang.

Consider this from the aggressive one’s perspective. First you’re screwing up by being too aggressive to your own pack. Screw up too much and you get abandoned and die. (Also, there’s always a danger to the bully of triggering a survival response while trying to chase an individual away and that individual injuring or crippling the bully.)

The option of leaving does not exist in captivity. That TOTALLY changes the dynamics and increases stress among the animals. This especially if the beta decides it’s alpha. Look at Caesar Millan’s ‘insecure alpha’ That’s what happens when you have a beta trying to be alpha in captivity. You end up with thuggish, aggressive behavior.

Oh and as an aside, in the wild the pack’s survival depends on the savvy and knowledge of the leaders. It’s not just wolf packs, it’s pretty much all animals that live in packs, herds and social groups. Leadership is about knowing where to find food, water, shelter, etc. This is a missing component in captivity where needs are provided. Simple concept, profound implications on behavior.

NOW, let’s add in some other stuff –starting with people. If people can’t ‘leave’ or vote the aggressor out you have some screwed up dynamics. This especially when you have a bigger stronger ‘overlord’ that isn’t looking out for them, but the overlords interest’s. An example of what I’m talking about bullying in schools. (Conversely, you end up with a different set of problems when leaving [and finding another group] is too easy. But that’s not the point of this.) But being trapped with a bully is a significant issue to this subject.

Oh and another issue with schools. In ye olde days, you had mixed age groups. (One room school house.) Not only did this allow for modeling of behaviors (this is how older kids act) but you also had the protection/limiting of abuse BY the older kids. Yeah, Joey may be the biggest baddest and terror of the ten year olds but the 17 year old who just leaned over and smacked him on the back of the head for being an asshole is bigger, stronger and not scared of Joey. Think of that as checks and balances to Joey’s ‘power.’ Now take those away — by age segregating and forcing the kids to be in the classroom.

As someone recently pointed out, it’s going to be the most aggressive and misbehaving kids who will become ‘dominant’ (at least in the way that people typically misuse the term) in those kinds of situations. This has significant influence on people mistaking beta ‘behavior’ for being alpha. Now here’s where you need to start being concerned. In the same way the abused typically grow up to become abusers, that’s what they think power and being an alpha is.

They’ve literally not seen true alpha behavior and are aping selfish and abusive behavior and calling it alpha. They are, in fact, serving neither the role or purpose of either an alpha or a beta. You basically end up with a pushy, selfish asshole who thinks being selfish is characteristic of being an alpha.

Now having said all this, like it or not the term ‘alpha’ is here to stay.

So as instructors we’re going to have to suck it up and deal with the fact that this is what people think they know. Yes, it’s a lie to children. No it’s not accurate. But it’s both a starting point and what people know. Now we have to guide them to a more fuller understanding of why what they think they know is a little more complicated than that.


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