The Alpha Male and Empathy

How often do we say the words alpha male and empathy in the same sentence? Chances are, we often think the two ideas are like oil and water.

However, according to premier primatologist and researcher, Frans De Waal, modern society has been misinformed about what an Alpha Male really is. Our current view of the alpha male seems rather myopic — it tends to highlight caricature-like strength, large stature, and bully-like behaviors.

It’s no surprise, then, that we normally reserve this social label for those that we deem juvenile, if not downright obnoxious or intimidating. Oddly enough, we readily accept that the top leaders of big companies are considered “alphas”.

De Waal has studied primate societies for decades, and discovered the true characteristics of the alpha male in primate societies. He found that alphas in chimpanzee tribes are caring leaders, and the ones kept in power for many years showed high levels of empathy, peacekeeping and generosity — hardly the traits that we might expect.

But even with this surprising change in perception, the term alpha male still conjures up the traditional ways masculinity is expressed in our culture. It speaks of an unmitigated thirst for power, the desire to be strong and competent, the ability to attract mates. Research suggests that people still perceive strong, physically imposing men to be better leaders. 

It’s redundant to remind ourselves what happens when a person has too much power. The age-old adage “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is not just a wise saying but is backed up by science. When a person is in a position of elevated social power, his brain often shows lower activity in specific areas of the prefrontal cortex that deals with empathy and compassion.

However, if this same person can maintain a sense of connection and responsibility towards those he serves, he may alter his brain chemistry to promote more empathy, generosity, and care, and ultimately counteract the dangerous effects that unmitigated power can have on the brain. 

The main interest is how true alpha males promote deeper levels of empathy, and use their power towards improving and protecting the tribe. What happens in our brain and blood chemistry when we act altruistically or empathically?

For starters, we have mirror neurons that fire in our brain to help reinforce mutual behavior. Oxytocin, the human connection catalyst, rushes through our blood to fuel our desire to bond and care for others. Feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine reward us with tiny bits of ecstasy.

From this standpoint, empathy is one of the primary qualities in what makes someone a true alpha. Our bodies are hardwired to feel good when we do good, as long as we haven’t damaged or numbed those areas in our brain. The genuine alpha knows this, and can help lead the charge back to our natural state of goodness. 

And no, the alpha does not have to be a particular gender. The alpha is a leader of society, regardless of where they stand on the sexual spectrum or any other human category. The alpha is responsible for leading the society towards diplomacy, increased connection, effective communication, and peace. They deeply feel what others feel, and through that ability they can better serve the community. 

Long live the empathic alpha.

2 thoughts on “The Alpha Male and Empathy”

  1. Dear P Jaspr Chang, what a refreshingly logical affirmation of our social species and empathic servant leadership. In “Primates and Philosophers; The Evolution of Morality” Frans de Waals draws on perspectives of various philosophers. Adam Smith posits why leaders seek worthiness and integrity in the eyes of their comrades.
    “Because we are social animals, sympathy leads us to consider how we ourselves appear from the point of view of others, and to enter into their feelings about us. Through the eyes of others we become the spectator of our own conduct, dividing internally as Smith described it, into an actor and a spectator and forming a judgment about the propriety of our own feelings and motives. The internal spectator transformed our natural desire to be thought well of and praised into something deeper, a desire to be worthy of praise.”—Christine M. Korsgaard on Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759),
    Ah to be worthy of praise !

    Reply
    • Delighted to be a mirror to all who you are. Glad you are also a witness of De Waal’s work. Our deserving of praise only reflects the Originsl Source of admiration itself. God bless you, Carol.

      Reply

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