We Need to Use Alpha Instincts to Make Us Safe, Not Sorry

We are all creatures of instincts.

We have instincts to be territorial, hierarchical, maternal, paternal, and acquisitional — and those instincts tend to shape our cultures, guide our thinking, and activate and steer our emotions every day of our lives.

Those basic sets of instincts shape common patterns of behavior across the planet — and they can be seen everywhere once we know what they are and then look to find them in every setting.

We have very strong hierarchical instincts — so we create hierarchies in every group and setting. We have chiefs, mayors, CEOs, chairs, captains, Presidents, and Popes — and we feel instinctively uneasy and stressed when we find ourselves without an alpha leader for any setting. We tend to replace coaches and CEOs and even pastors and priests relatively quickly anytime we find ourselves in a setting where the relevant alpha position for the group or setting is clearly currently not being filled.

We also have territorial instincts   that can be extremely positive and beneficial for people until or unless two or more sets of people actually end up believing that they are each the rightful owners of the same piece of turf and believe that the other group of person is trying to steal or own something that we believe to be ours.

Those sets of problems can be extremely difficult to resolve in those settings because both sets of people can feel right at a deep instinctive level about their rightful ownership of that property or turf, can feel real anger towards the other group. That anger can cause our clearly embedded sets of warrior instincts to be activated in powerful and damaging ways, and people with those instincts in gear feel entirely legitimate in doing negative warrior things to the other group.

We have more than 130 ethnic wars going on in the world today — and every one of those 130 conflicts includes a disagreement about which group should be in control of which space.

People who are alpha in any setting tend to be the lead warrior for their group when those kinds of disagreements and conflicts happen.

Some of our most problematic sets of conflicts can come from our Alpha instincts, themselves and many conflicts are made more damaging because of the people with their Alpha instincts activated on each side of those situations and issues.

We need to understand clearly how that whole Alpha instinct process works, because it has major impact on a wide range of situations and settings.

We have very powerful instincts to be Alpha that can serve us well and that can also get us into very real trouble.

We are not alone with those sets of Alpha-linked instincts.

We actually share strong sets of alpha instincts with multiple other species on our planet. We can get strong instinctive programming neurochemical rewards from being alpha in a setting, and that set of rewards clearly exists for other sets of alpha instincts that we can see.

The behaviors that can result from those particular instincts fit an easily recognizable pattern that extends beyond just us.

Wolf packs tend to have alpha wolves. The alpha wolves run the pack, have sex more often than non-alpha wolves, and receive and even insist on getting strong and constant reinforcement from the other members of the pack for their alpha status.

Wolves like being alpha and alpha wolves will fight to the death to maintain that status for their pack.

Lion prides use the same model. There is an alpha male in every lion pride who gets more sexual activity, is constantly regarded and treated with obvious respect, admiration, subservience, sometimes even obedience and what seems to be a level of affection by other members of the pride, and the alpha lion even eats first when the lion pride makes a kill.

We now know that having the alpha male eating first after a kill is good for the survival of the lion pride because the females are much faster and do the actual hunting and then they stand back to let the male alpha lion be the first to eat part of the prey.

The functional reason for lions eating in that sequence is that there generally are hyenas and other scavengers in the area who come to every lioness kill and try to take whatever wall killed from the lions. The male lions are huge and fierce and have large manes that actually protect their heads and their throats from hyena attacks, so the alpha lions can usually eat first and then quickly create a level of protection against the hyenas that also allows the cubs and female lions to eat and safely consume their food.

Observers of lion behavior have seen that in the few lion prides that currently have no alpha males for some reason, the hyenas immediately attack and bite the legs of the female lions — potentially crippling them as hunters — and then simply steal and eat their food. Lion prides need the alpha male to attack the hyenas and the jackals and the wild dogs and the other relevant scavengers and predators so the cubs and their mothers can eat.

Like the wolf packs, the male lions tend to like being alpha and they also actually sometimes fight to the death or to significant levels of damage to maintain their alpha status.

Part of the role of the alpha wolf and alpha lion is to guard and protect what is often clearly seen as the turf of that group. They don’t always attack other wolves or lions in the area, but they always end up attacking any trespassers into their turf.

Horses have somewhat similar alpha male patterns. Alpha stallions tend to be in charge of herds of wild horses and have disproportionate or even exclusive breeding access to the mares. They also seem to have a sense of group turf.

Elk and Moose have similar patterns, with the largest alpha males in each setting having a disproportional number of mating opportunities and often willing to fight to fairly extreme levels and sometimes even to the death to keep that alpha status.

The patterns and behaviors extend in fairly similar ways to multiple species, and anyone looking at our behavior can see easily that some elements of those instincts and their related hierarchical behaviors tend to extend fairly clearly to us as people as well.

The patterns are consistent and clear in a wide range of settings.

We have alpha leaders for every hierarchy and we have our own set of rewards and benefits that trigger various kinds of internal instinctive mechanisms that make it hard for people in some settings to give up Alpha status as well.

The patterns of maintaining alpha status in perpetuity as a goal are pretty clear — as instincts tend to be. Kings tend to serve for life.

Presidents even in our country would generally prefer to serve for life if we did not have term limits. Presidents in many other countries very often do serve for life. Many presidents in many countries have promised on their first election to serve for only one or two terms and then voluntarily leave. Most new leaders in most settings make that pledge. None honor it.

Once people run a country or any comparable setting, they tend to grow to believe with deep conviction that the best thing for them and for the country is for them to continue to run it forever.

Every kind of alpha leader tends to follow those patterns.

We see the same status for various kinds of group and clan chiefs, and we see it everywhere across almost all cultures for heads of families. Heads of families in just about every culture also tend to serve for life and very old heads of families generally tend to stay in power as long as they functionally can.

Most of the other species with alpha status roles have the most visible alpha instincts in the male members of the group. Males tend to be alpha for lions and wolves and mountain sheep and even flocks of chickens.

We humans are more flexible relative to gender — and we can and do have our basic alpha instinct internal rewards and aspirations triggered in either gender — and women in alpha positions in our settings tend to have the same tendency to retain them forever when that is possible.

Queen Elizabeth has been in no hurry to retire.

Interestingly, for other species that have alpha males, there is almost always also a female that serves as the alpha female of each group. Horse herds have clearly discernable alpha mares who tend to lead the herd in a number of areas of activity. Lion prides and wolf packs both have alpha females who are clearly regarded as leaders by the other members of the pack or pride. Hunting activities for lions, in particular, tend to have female leadership in a number of levels.

Chimpanzee groups have strong alpha male roles in the usual patterns — but also tend to have clearly visible alpha females who co-lead the group on some issues but who also seem to have the functional power in most settings to determine who gets to be the alpha male in each chimp setting. If the current alpha male is acting inappropriately relative to the baby chimpanzees, the observed pattern is that the alpha female aligns with the beta male or with one of the other lead males and they together drive the errant former alpha male from the group and thereby have a new alpha male in his place.

So being alpha seems to have both rewards, obligations and expectations in various settings.

Sexual activity is often one of the rewards of being alpha in many of our settings. For humans, the pattern has been in many settings and many cultures that the alpha male — the chief or sheik, or king or baron — is much more likely to have multiple wives. Lower ranking males in many human settings have one wife or no wives, and higher-ranking males tend to have more than one wife in many cultures.

The wife role is extremely important in most settings. That’s because the key cultural component that exists everywhere to keep groups of people alive is the family.

For us as a species, the family unit has been a key functional and foundational part of our survival tool kit. We organize in every setting in families. That’s clearly an instinct guided behavior because it happens everywhere, and the patterns are very similar from setting to setting.

Biology is extremely relevant to that process.

The females in every group have the babies for obvious reasons and then they usually raise the infants and children and also generally prepare the lodging and food.

The male role in our early village-based hunter gatherer history has been for the male to be both the family lead hunter and the defender of the hut against enemies and threats of any kind. Cultures honor warriors everywhere because they have been needed to protect families in so many settings, and males in every early settings tended to have major hunting functions and roles that combined as a package to keep the group and family fed.

To keep men with their families and to have men providing food to the family setting on a regular basis over time, most cultures have evolved the pattern of having families be the place where men get to have sex and the place where men have alpha status.

Many cultures make sex outside of marriage illegal and forbidden for everyone in the group. Non-marital sex happened in some of those settings, but it was deliberately made hard to do outside of marriage and extremely easy inside of marriage in most cultures in order to give men an incentive to get married and to stay married and to continue to feed their children.

Our ancestors knew that families needed to be fed, so almost all settings made it the rule that men needed to be married in order to earn sex and some cultures even added the rule that women who had sex outside of marriage were damaged and even killed for having non-marital sex or even for seeming to be leaning towards non-marital sex in some cultures.

Sex isn’t enough, however, to keep men married in all of those settings. Sex is extremely positive and effective as an initial incentive for marriage and having that be the only pathway to sex for a young man who is instinctively motivated to have sexual encounters does clearly cause young men to want to be in a marriage, but sex over the long haul in any setting can hit bumps of various kinds — so the other incentive that pretty much every single culture in every setting evolved was to give men power when they got married.

Men got to be heads of families — alpha.

Being alpha in any context is power.

Pretty much every culture we have seen on the planet in any setting has men as heads of families.

Alpha.

Being head of the family is an extremely relevant power, and men will sometimes kill to maintain that particular alpha status as family head.

Men who are heads of families get to make a wide range of alpha decisions for their family and heads of families tend to get the constant reinforcing daily feedback of being alpha from their immediate family.

Sex is extremely motivating to initially trigger each marriage. But, being alpha in perpetuity is even more motivating over time as a reason for a man to stay with the family.

That isn’t ancient history or sociobiological theory. It’s observational reality. Happening now across the planet.

Almost every culture in the world is continuing that pattern. The Middle East. Africa. Much of Asia. Most of South America.

Men dominate those countries and men have almost godlike power over their families in many of those settings. Women still can’t vote in some settings, and women in many settings still automatically give all of their property to their husband when they marry.

That rule about giving up property at marriage was actually the law in this country until relatively recently.

We are much more enlightened here now. We believe in equality and we believe in equity and we believe in having sex only be consensual.

We do not and should not oppose sex. Sex is an very strongly instinctive behavior and it has its own extensive set of neurochemical and emotional rewards and benefits, and we should enable people in our settings who want those rewards to be able to achieve them in their lives.

But sex can also trigger abusive behavior for some people, if we don’t make it illegal to be abusive.

One unfortunate but real set of behaviors can involve non-consensual sex — and we need to use our cultures and our laws and our ethical guidance to keep that from happening.

We now insist in our best and more enlightened ways that sex in our country should only be with adults and it should always be consensual.

We don’t need other rules or guidelines in that area — but we do clearly need that particular rule because one of the down sides of alpha status in every setting — including here — is that men with power will sometimes turn that power into forced levels of sex. That happens in far too many settings — and we need to deal with it situationally here when it happens.

People grow to believe in and follow personally what are clear expectations.

People tend to internalize the clear expectations in any setting. That’s how cultures work.

When we make it absolutely clear that coerced sex and rape and related abusive behaviors will be punished and are wrong at many levels and then when we actually punish the offenders, the cultural expectations will steer behaviors in better directions and we will see better patterns in those areas going forward in our country.

Marriage is very good thing. We want to encourage people to marry and we want to support people who are married in being married. Children often benefit from having two parents. We should encourage that to happen when we can do that for both the parents and the children.

But we don’t need either party to be the head of any marriage and we definitely do not need to link either power or marriage to sex.

We also all need to understand what alpha instincts do to and for people when they are activated. We want good and great leaders, and we want people who lead to get us to good places in all of the things we need to do in our various settings.

We definitely all do need to understand, however, how extremely attractive, dangerous, seductive, and then too often actually addictive alpha status is and can be once those instincts are activated.

We just had a major political conflict in our country because one of the people who had achieved major alpha status absolutely hated giving it up and was willing to go to extreme levels to maintain it. That felt right to some people, because those patterns of behavior and beliefs are so strong.

We have been very fortunate as a country to have been able to turn over alpha status and power at the highest level in peaceful ways — even though each of the several last top leaders in our country would have been easy to persuade to stay in that position longer because alpha status feels so very right at so many levels when it is in place.

Other countries face that problem all of the time — and many do not succeed in getting the top leader to change. The leaders in Russia and China are declaring themselves the equivalent of leaders for life — and their clear and direct personal alignment with the addictive power of that status is plain to see.

We actually see people in power all over the world who are staying in power forever — when they can stay in power. We just need to keep that from happening here, but it’s easy to see how tempting that aspiration can be.

It is actually very seductive to have that level of alpha power even at lower levels in our country, and it can be painful to give it up. Many people who have been the CEO of significant organizations in our country actually go through emotional pain and even withdrawal when their time as being the CEO of something real is over. That can be extremely disconcerting and even painful and it can be very surprising when people don’t expect it to happen.

One of the most painful experiences on the planet is to be the alpha in a real setting at one moment and then to have someone else in that job tomorrow — making you irrelevant and making you pure history as the former alpha in that setting.

All of the people in that particular setting who were saluting you and smiling at you and laughing at your jokes yesterday are saluting him or her and laughing at their jokes and figuring out now how to make them happy today and again tomorrow.

Being a CEO in an American company is one of the most alpha jobs on the planet. That’s both our culture and our laws. The leaders of companies have almost absolute power to run most companies — and they get to decide on the hierarchy and hire and fire the people, and commit the company assets. Many banks and government agencies require a CEO signature on a document to make it legal.

Being a CEO of a business tends to confer extreme direct power on the person in the job — and that happens with almost absolute consistency in our settings. People who have never been a CEO before are often amazed at how different it is to be the CEO compared to any other job in that organization or setting.

Many former CEOs did not expect or know how painful the change from that status can be when it happens, and some former CEOs go through almost a period of clinical depression after that kind of change occurs.

Many current CEOs clearly do tend to believe that they might not want to lose that status and the basic highly usual behavior pattern is that people in alpha jobs tend to keep them as long as they can. But the obvious truth is that many current CEOs and many current Alpha leaders in many political settings suspect that it might be painful to lose alpha status — and they often do what they can do to stay in power forever.

That creates very predictable patterns of behavior for people in those alpha jobs.

The second biggest pressure to current alpha leaders in a setting for staying in power forever can come from the people who are in beta and theta positions in their organization today.

We are extremely hierarchical in our set of instincts. We not only have very powerful instincts to be Alpha — we have equivalently strong sets of instincts to be Beta and even Theta in each setting.

We all love our relative status. Chicken have pecking orders in their hierarchies and we have them in ours and tend to like having them. The thing we need to understand is that we love our relative status and we get great satisfaction from our relative rank in each setting. Captains love being captains. Captains also are very happy to salute Generals and Captains expect to be saluted by privates in their military force.

Captains are deeply offended if their sergeant does not salute them and Captains aspire to be saluted by Colonels in their own right some day after being promoted.

We love promotions.

People in companies are very aware of their relative status — as supervisors or managers or directors or vice presidents and people both take pride in their own hierarchical achievement and are fearful of any possible merger or reorganization or change of the chain of command that might jeopardize their relative position.

Those levels of hierarchical awareness are particularly important and relevant in many political settings because when political change happens, many levels of people can have their hierarchical positioning upset and damaged and sometimes destroyed.

People who are deputy mayors, for example, often live in a world where everyone around them salutes them and flatters them and compliments them, and the reality is that all of that positive reinforcement that feels very right when it is happening is actually just an echo and a reflection and a consequence of their boss the Mayor — and that echo status that feels so good is extremely vulnerable if the Major leaves office for some reason.

The same person who walks into the government building and is saluted by everyone can have the mayor or the committee chair or even the member of congress resign and the positive reinforcement immediately disappears.

Committee chairs for Congress have members of their staffs who have great power for years and who love having that status and warm respectful ambience, and they can become absolutely nobody instantly when that person who they work for actually leaves that job.

That’s one of the reasons why the people in the beta and theta jobs in both businesses and government settings often tell the Alpha how wonderful they are and how badly they are needed in that position. It’s also why members of a Governors cabinet tend to think governors should run for re-election instead of retiring.

The same set of realities happens all the time in corporations and businesses. New CEOs tend to make personnel changes in multiple jobs, and each change can upset hierarchical apple carts of various kinds that people enjoy being part of.

So when we look at the motivations of the various Alpha leaders, it’s easy to see why their staff is often in favor of them continuing in the job. One Middle Eastern King told his closest and best friends that he really wanted to retire, and his deputies talked him out of it multiple times because they knew the Crown Prince would not keep them in their current key jobs.

Alpha instincts have huge impact on our lives at multiple levels, and we will understand a number of things more clearly if we understand what they are and what they are doing to our lives in both direct and indirect ways.

Alpha political leaders who want to stay in power can try to inflame us and divide us so that we continue to support their alpha status and role as our champion. The Hierarchy of Alignment instincts shown below is used in part and in whole by leaders in groups and organizations of every kind to create support for their group — with danger, common enemy, team behaviors, group identity, collective gain, and then either loyalty to a belief or personal loyalty to them as a trigger for people in each group setting to align and provide that support.

We just experienced an alpha leader for the country who used every step on the pyramid in clearly intentional ways. He said we were in danger, that we had common enemies who wanted to hurt us, and he did team behaviors, chants and even team uniforms to create team behavior, and he created a clear sense of group identity as a subset of who we are, and then said that we would have jobs if we followed his lead, and then called on our strong instincts to be loyal to our group leader to get people to try to continue to keep him in his alpha position. He did each step on the alignment pyramid extremely well and almost succeeded.

We all need to understand what just happened. We need to understand how powerful alpha instincts can be when they are activated. Alpha lions and wolves and even horses are sometimes willing to die to maintain their alpha role and status and that behavior feels entirely right to the lions because it is so instinctive at its core.

We all need to understand those instincts and also each know the alignment triggers so well that we can see that they are being used to gain our support. — We should also know that they can and should be used for the good of the group — should also know them well enough to so that we can actually decide to use them in various settings to help bring us together to be an Us in ways that give us all win-win outcomes in the long and short run together.

That’s all part of the context of instinctive factors that we need to understand about our instinctive thoughts, values, emotions and behaviors.

We can know the patterns, understand the instincts, and we can make enlightened decisions about our values and our core beliefs, and then we can choose alpha leaders who are servant leaders who serve us all well and bring us together instead of driving us apart.

We need to know, understand, and teach each other why it is so hard for people to give up alpha status — and then we need to allow people who create Peace and Understanding and Truth and Ethical Behavior to be Alpha for us because their success in those areas means that they should be Alpha because they deserve to be in that position.

Minimally.

Let’s understand what’s actually going on when people are addicted to being alpha and try to make sure that their instinct reinforced need to be alpha does not somehow do damage to the rest of us.

We need to commit to our best, most enlightened, most inclusive, and most mutually reinforcing values, behaviors, and beliefs — and then we need make that our path going forward into these challenging days ahead.

Knowledge is power.

Let’s know what we are doing and do it well.

Peace. The alternative isn’t good.

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This post was written by Institute for InterGroup Understanding

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