Month: February 2012

Empathy, Capitalism and the myth of the ‘alpha male’.

Empathy, Capitalism and the myth of the ‘alpha male’.

 

The alpha male stereotype is widespread among, well, alpha males, and exists not as result of biologically determined characteristics but as a justification for aggressive, competitive, loud, selfish and (often sexually) dominant male behaviour. This justification is based on quasi pseudo-scientific principles largely drawing from evolutionary biology ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy and outdated political economic theory misapplied to social life. Not only is it a myth used by the erstwhile ‘masters of the universe’ in the City of London to justify their dominance, it is sexist (ignorant of social roles in matriarchal societies), unscientific without any grounding in empirical work and simplistically individualistic as it shifts the explanations for status and power differentials onto biological inevitability and individual characteristics, rather than unmasking unequal social relationships based on class, gender or ethnicity. Alpha male behaviour is a choice exercised by ‘those who can’ based on their privileged backgrounds and attributes (often white, male, educated and elite) over ‘those who have not been able to’, who have to overcome class, ethnic and gender barriers. The alpha male also misses our capacity for empathy, without which it truly is an alpha dog eat beta dog world. It is this last that is the most damning critique, as it assumes selfishness and self-interest are the only driving forces for successful (capitalist) societies.

 

What are alpha males? The term comes from studies of animal behaviour (ethology), e.g. in chimps (de Waal 1982) and Wolves (Mech 1999). It denotes the animal of the highest rank who achieves this status often through physical prowess. They often get to eat first and mate first, and in some species they are the only one allowed to mate. Sexual conquest is thus an important aspect of alpha behaviour. Animal behaviour in animals, for some, provides models and explanations for human behaviour on the basis that we are evolved animals only differing from, say, primates because of our higher cognitive functions. It is thus tempting to extrapolate from primate behaviour to human behaviour on the basis that behaviour in human social groups are affected by evolutionary, and genetic, processes. E.O Wilson’s ‘Sociobiology’ was term akin to ethology in that it was an attempt to explain social behaviour in humans (altruism, nurturance, aggression) by appealing to underlying evolutionary mechanisms and thus the theory has more than a whiff of biological determinism about it.

 

In humans, we label alpha behaviour often as that which is about ‘getting the girl’ due to confidence, charisma and competitiveness. Women are supposed to like this display and ‘swoon’ in the presence of an alpha. Whether this is true in sexual politics I leave to women to decide. However alpha characteristics, if seen as the basis for sexual success, can also be seen to be the basis of success in politics and economics. Silvio Berlusconi displayed, or thought he did, alpha traits bringing Italian politics into the bordello by treating Italian voters like paying customers being screwed by the puttana of politics. Those that consider themselves as alphas may earn more, compete more or attain higher social status than their beta brothers.

 

Alpha males may conceive of their actions as originating in and being determined by (and thus excused by) evolution, often implicitly invoking the reptilian brain and the force of genes upon behaviour and traits. Many alphas from the world of politics, business and economics are not steeped in ethology or would be aware of its origins. However an appeal to evolution is nonetheless often present. What is missed is that evolution has further acted upon the human brain and we now have the limbic brain and the neocortex which together, it is argued, constructs the ‘Triune Brain’ (MacLean 1990). In other words the reptilian territorial selfish brain has the empathic, communitarian brain and higher cognitive functioning brain to balance any primordial tendencies. Alpha also misses what epigenetics tells us, i.e. that it is the interplay between environment and genes (and cultural life) that influence behaviour. We are not as genetically predisposed to do anything, as much as we like to think we do.

 

Alpha theory suggests an ‘essential’ human nature based on genes and evolutionary biology.  The idea of an essential human nature has a long track record. However, an essentialist view of human nature (if it exists) does not necessarily mean that it includes a drive for naked self-interest, and aggressive competition.  The modern confusion can be traced to some Enlightenment philosophers overplaying the selfishness and utility maximising aspect of behaviour. The Hobbesian ‘nasty brutish and short state of nature’ and Adam Smith’s utility maximising rational actor merely reflected what was emerging under industrial capitalism rather than what could be in other more empathic civilizations (Rifkin 2009). Human nature was invoked to be naturally selfish. We were naturally rational actors seeking our own self-interest to maximise our utility in the market. This we now know to be nonsense. It is a fact that modern adherents to Smith’s views on the workings of the market forget that in his ‘theory of moral sentiments’ that Smith understood that men could still feel empathy for their less fortunate fellows. The actual selfishness of the capitalist was mistaken for inevitability based on an essentialist view of human nature and the invisible hand of the market rather than as a result of a particular form of social relationships, which had evolved at that point in history in that society (i.e. the industrial revolution of the West).

 

An modern exponent of this determinist nonsense in the field of psychology is John Grey. His book ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ exaggerates the differences and lends credence to theories based solely on biology. He recently explained the behaviour of ‘alpha males’ as resulting from testosterone. Men, he suggests, are hard wired for violence and polygamy. This relates to the workings of the reptilian brain. However, as already noted we also have the capacity to be ‘soft wired’ to be empathic and communitarian. Susan Gerhardt (2011) argues it is culture and child rearing practices that results on changes in brain function towards or away from empathy, violence and selfishness. This is based on scientific neuro-scientific research, such as that carried out by Baron Cohen (2011). Hard wiring is a misleading term as it suggests a form of determinancy, reducing the possibilities for change.

 

Research now suggests that we are soft wired with ‘mirror neurons’, which results in our ability to experience another’s plight as if we were experiencing it ourselves (Rifkin 2009), we can then empathise with others. We are not hard wired for aggression, violence, utility maximisation and self-interest but soft wired for sociability, acceptance, affection and companionship. However, we have built up social institutions and economic structures as if the former were true. These selfish structures are going global. These structures are also designed and run by alpha males for alpha males and justified by appeals to human nature and the inevitability of violence, aggression, utility maximisation and self-interest as the engines for creative social development that capitalism has wrought.

 

Alpha males lack a sociological imagination. They are unable to link their personal stories to the structures of society at the time they live in. For them, continuing unemployment is simply a personal failure not a result of changing labour market structures; obesity is a personal and moral weakness unrelated to increasing fossil fuel dependence (car use) and the availability of cheap calorie rich foods and our ‘lock in’ to high carbon systems; the lack of female representation at the top is down to female unsuitability to leadership in market employment conditions rather than market conditions being designed by alpha males for alpha males; black people are poor because they lack a work ethic not because of institutional and cultural racism; countries are underdeveloped because they lack a capitalist ethic rather than as a result of past and current imperialism. Seek always to blame the individual, emphasise personal responsibility and ignore power relationships and structures, which are rigged in one’s favour. Once one accepts the notion that success may be down to a combination of individual effort and abilities, fortune and socio-economic structures, justifying huge disparities in reward as being based on one’s work ethic and abilities without addressing socio-political structures, becomes untenable. Empathy is a luxury for the weak in this context, for to empathise would mean examining the real reasons for success and failure in one’s ‘peers’ to gain an understanding of the hopes and ambitions and the barriers to fulfilling such in an unjust world.

 

 

Alpha males behave in that way because we let them do so and because they have the power to do so. It is not inevitable. It is often a self-justificatory myth for boorishness and exploitation of the weak members of society. It has no scientific basis. We are not ruled by our hormones, our genes or our reptilian brains. We have culture and society to civilise ourselves. Culture and society are human constructions and are therefore open to change.  Alpha males have big sticks and they make the rules, but they can be forced to put the sticks down and we can refashion society in a way that reflects more communitarian ethics and behaviour.

 

Now it may be that the alpha male is a straw man, that in reality powerful men do not exhibit traits of dog eat dog über competitive, devil take the hindmost, who dares wins mentality. Tony Soprano may have exhibited love and empathy for his children but everyone else became merely pawns in his acquisitive game but Tony Soprano is still a fictional character.

 

Do alphas exist in real life? If an alpha is a highly rewarded individual, at the top of the social stratum and who justifies that position by reference to their own individual endeavour then we may suggest that the erstwhile masters of the universe may qualify as alphas.  Toynbee and Walker (2008) interviewed City ‘High Fliers’ in an attempt to understand their justifications for their salaries and bonuses. Their responses certainly indicate their attitudes as alphas, they objectively are high status and they control the reward structure. No doubt their access to females is unlimited. Competition and charisma would be prized characteristics among this group. It was clear from their responses that they saw that their success was down to them and their individual effort. Initially the reasons given for success was globalisation (a structural reason) but as Toynbee and Walker continued it became clear that personal moral reasons were the basis for success. They thought of themselves as ‘better’: “we work harder and aspire the most”, fairness is not a valid question, “it’s a fact of modern life that there is a disparity…people say its unfair when they don’t do anything to change their circumstances”, “people don’t want to achieve”, “you won’t find a teacher who works as hard as we do” (p27).

 

Empathy at the socio-political or corporate level is hard to find. Aspects of neoliberal capitalism and globalisation is pitting all against all as nations try to out compete each other in a race to the bottom in terms of wage reductions, pension reductions, flexible working (i.e. rotational unemployment) and extensions of working lives. Somehow we have accepted that working longer for less in a less certain world is a good thing because not to do so risks losing jobs to India and China (Jones 2011). The structures of globalisation are such that competition not cooperation rules social lives. We are now working for the economy rather than for the community. It is not the alpha males in Greece who have to bend the knee to austerity, they still have their yachts and villas. The existence of the odd rich alpha victim to globalised capitalism only serves to show that the system they operate takes no prisoners. Many of those who go down keep the riches they earned when in power.

 

 

The lack of an empathic civilisation and the rule by global elites is not natural or inevitable but we somehow believe it to be so. Meanwhile the alpha looks on, secure on his yacht or in his gated community in ‘Richistan’ (Frank 2007), laughing at the poor people while justifying his ‘right’ by ‘might’. Because he can. Because he’s ‘worth it’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. New York: Basic Books.

 

de Waal, F. (1982) Chimpanzee politics: power and sex among Apes. John Hopkins University Press. Baltimore

 

Frank, R. (2007) Richistan, A journey through the wealth boom and the lives of the new rich. Random House.

 

Gerhardt. S. (2011) The Selfish Society. Simon and Shuster. York .

 

Grey, J. in McVeigh, T. (2011) What drives alpha males to keep on having affairs? http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/22/alpha-males-sex-scandals

 

Jones. D. (2011) Fixing Britain. The business of reshaping our nation. Wiley. Chichester.

 

Kryznaric. R. (2012) Six habits of highly empathic people. RSA Events. http://www.rsablogs.org.uk/2012/socialbrain/habits-highly-empathic-people/

 

MacLean, P. (1990) The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role of Paleocerebral Functions, Springer.

 

Mech, L. D. (1999). Alpha status, dominance, and division of Labour in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77: 1196-1203.

 

Rifkin. J. (2009) The Empathic Civilisation. The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. Polity Cambridge.    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Empathic_Civilization  and at RSA events    http://www.thersa.org/events/video/animate/rsa-animate-the-empathic-civilisation

 

Toynbee, P. ad Walker, D. (2008) Unjust rewards. Granta, Cambridge.

 

Wilson. E.O. (1975) Sociobiology, the new synthesis. Harvard University Press.

  

one reason why social change for sustainability may be difficult

Sustainability and Social change.

 

When considering social change we need to think about who are the ‘communities’ who will be involved. The Transition Towns ‘movement’ is an example of a community who are already committed to some differing vision of the future (based on building resilience to issues around peak oil). Whatever ‘community’ we work with, a principle has to be facilitating self-organising systems and not being proscriptive in offering sustainability solutions. Rather we could aim to facilitate social networking whereby the community helps to connect and offer their own solutions. Grid-group culture theory and the locking in of communities to high carbon systems both suggest that top down, education and clearer explanation do not work. Another perspective is that of Baumann’s (2001) idea of ‘liquid modernity’ in which society is characterised by atomism, individualism, fragmented social bonds and consumerism. Community movements such as ‘Transition towns’ are trying to work against this social tide. What follows is a brief discussion around high carbon systems and social lock in (Urry 2011) and grid-group culture theory. We need to understand that human behaviour change around sustainability means accepting that that this is a ‘wicked problem’ (Rittel and Webber 1973) requiring ‘fuzzy’ solutions.

 

Climate Change and Society and Social Change.

I found the following analysis helpful in getting my head around the issues of community behaviour and attitudinal change.

Sociologically, we can make the following observations about our current high carbon ‘economy-society’ (Urry 2011):

The starting point for an analysis of why a society (and hence communities within that society) engages in particular practices and habits is the observation that energy is the base commodity upon which all other commodities exist (Urry 2011). Why start with commodity? Commodity production, distribution and exchange forms the basis for the current ‘economy-society’ which has been dominated by neo-liberal economic theory since about the 1980’s and the processes of economic globalization. It is this economic infrastructure that determines in the last instance culture and behaviours.  I don’t mean to be too marxist-determinist about this but any understanding of why we do what we do has to take this into account. Thus, in the 21st century following on from the industrial revolution our community behaviours are implicitly locked into a series of interlocking clusters of high carbon systems that are taken for granted: 1) coal/gas/electric grid power 2) petrol, steel and cars 3) the carbon military-industrial complex 4) suburban housing and domestic technologies, 5) airlines/foreign tourism and 6) food/supermarkets/agribusiness. These are all high carbon systems with which we have become enchanted, entranced and encapsulated, made manifest in and by our everyday attitudes and behaviours. Some of these have become very fashionable and have become embedded into everyday practice.

 

To date we have to accept that much of social science has been ‘carbon blind’ and has analysed social practices without regard to the resource base and energy production that we now know are crucial in forming particular social practices.

 

Economics as a discipline tries to explain human behaviour, but has limits as it has an overly ‘instrumentally orientated, rational planning, utility maximizing’ model of human behaviour (‘homo economicus’). John Urry critiques modern economics for failing to address the fundamental relationship between people and the material physical world:

 

most of the time people do not behave as individually rational separate economic consumers maximising their individual utility from the basket of goods and services they purchase and use given fixed unchanging preferences…(we are) creatures of social routine and habit…fashion and fad…(we are) locked into and reproduce different social practices and institutions, including families, households, social classes, genders, work groups, schools, ethnicities, generations, nations…. (Urry 2011 p4).

 

This really muddies the waters, it requires understanding that behavior change results from myriad inputs raging from the ideological and analytical to the pragmatic availability of material resources at hand. Therefore any web 2.0 technologies will operate in this ‘economy-society’ space. 

 

So how do new habits form? What is fashion and what are the effects of this? Do we need ‘the fashionable imagination’ – is there a quality of mind that spots and encourages low carbon fashions which are supported by technologies and commodities that use less carbon based energy? The task facing us is assisting in some small way the unlocking of communities from some aspects of these high carbon systems. To do that, we also have to acknowledge, from cultural theory, the actualities of resistance and then plan accordingly. One positive about web 2.0 is that it may bypass the fatalists and allow engagement by those who seek resistance to current practices (Mason 2012).

 

 

Resistance to Change:

 

Despite ‘sustainability’ seeming to be main stream (vis the Climate Change Act 2008 and various initiatives and policies such as those of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit), the continuing existence of and adherence to the high carbon systems are implicated in the lack of progress towards a low carbon future. This will not change until enough individuals and organisations can free themselves. To do this we will need to encourage the development of perceptions that do not encourage social threat. For something (sustainability) to become fashionable is has to be non-threatening. Appealing to rationality, explaining the science, does not work because we are not rational and we have different ways of understanding the world. Social groups form around various orientations to social cohesion and the locations of solutions to social problems (Grid-Group or Cultural theory).

 

‘Grid-Group’ Culture Theory (Douglas 1992) describes individual perceptions of societal dangers and then the response to them. Individuals tend to associate societal harms with conduct that transgresses societal norms. Sustainability practices may seem to many to be just such a transgression of norms. For example, the social norm of, say car ownership, is transgressed by those advocating active transport (walking, cycling) in a rural community. A social harm may be perceived to be lack of communication with needed services in the countryside poorly served by public transport. This tendency to equate social harm, Douglas argued, plays an indispensable role in promoting certain social structures, both by imbuing a society’s members with aversions to subversive behavior (such as ‘Transition Behaviour’) and by focusing resentment and blame on those (e.g. sustainability advocates) who defy such institutions (such as the petrol/steel/car transport system).

The second important feature of Douglas’s work is a particular account of the forms that competing structures of social organization assume. Douglas maintained that cultural ways of life and affiliated outlooks can be characterized (within and across all societies at all times) along two dimensions, which she called “group” and “grid.” A “high group” way of life exhibits a high degree of collective control, whereas a “low group” one exhibits a much lower one and a resulting emphasis on individual self-sufficiency. A “high grid” way of life is characterized by conspicuous and durable forms of stratification in roles and authority, whereas a “low grid” one reflects a more egalitarian ordering.

Douglas and Wildavsky (1982) previously had focused largely on political conflict over air pollution and nuclear power in the United States. Theyattributed political conflict over environmental and technological risks to a struggle between adherents of competing ways of life associated with the group-grid scheme: an egalitarian, collectivist (“low grid,” “high group”) one, which gravitates toward fear of environmental disaster as a justification for restricting commercial behavior productive of inequality; and individualistic (“low group”) and hierarchical (“high grid”) ones, which resist claims of environmental risk in order to shield private orderings from interference, and to defend established commercial and governmental elites from subversive rebuke.

Later works in Cultural Theory systematized this argument (see below). In these accounts, group-grid gives rise to either four or five discrete ways of life, each of which is associated with a view of nature (as robust, as fragile, as capricious, and so forth) that is congenial to its advancement in competition with the others.

 

 

The Collectivist

The Individualist

The Egalitarianist

The Fatalist

 

The Hermit

 

 

The model is a two-by-two table, though it must be emphasized that the lines are arbitrary — the two dimensions are spectra, not binary divisions.

 

 

Grid-group cultural model

Group

Weak bonds between people

Strong bonds between people

Grid

Many and varied interpersonal differences

Significant similarity between people

 

Fatalism

 

Collectivism

 

Individualism

 

Egalitarianism

(source: http://changingminds.org/explanations/culture/grid-group_culture.htm)

 

Let’s be realistic, in communities such as North Prospect in Plymouth where cultural shifts are being forced through on the back of austerity programmes many are locked into clusters of systems that will be almost impossible to break out of. This may lead to feelings of Fatalism. The fatalist culture has differences between yet limited bonding between people. A result of this is that those ‘who have’ feel little obligation towards the ‘have nots’. Individuals are left to their own fates, which may be positive or negative for them. They thus may become apathetic, neither helping others nor themselves. Those that succeed, however, feel they have done so on their own merits and effectively need those who are less successful as a contrast that proves this point.  How many ‘fatalists’ are there in North Prospect?

Neoliberalism encourages low group-high grid cultural forms manifest in the perversity of the unemployed blaming themselves for being out of work during a time of austerity and recession! In an individualistic culture, people are relatively similar yet have little obligation to one another. People enjoy their differences more than their similarities and seek to avoid central authority.Self-regulation is a critical principle here, as if one person takes advantage of others then power differences arise and a fatalistic culture would develop. Individualistic cultures favour market solutions, who accept competition, laissez faire, pragmatic materialism as answers to social and economic issues

 

In developing technologies for cultural change we will have to acknowledge the possibility of individualistic and fatalist culture which will sabotage or fear the changes. What this means for this project is the obvious point that we will not reach everybody, that social networking to address community problems will appeal to ‘high group, low grid individuals’ and that we may need to identify and target this group in the first instance to identify a quick win? Maybe this is a ‘statement of the obvious?’

 

However, as part of argument to explain global political unrest and cultural change, Mason (2011) suggests it is the coming together of ‘the graduate with no future’ and technology, e.g. web 2.0. Guy Standing’s ‘precariat’ are another group, fearful of change and riddled with insecurities (Standing 2011). These are the social realities we have to deal with. I think we just have to be realistic about who we are dealing with when designing interventions for social change.

The attraction of web 2.0 is that it gets ‘out there’, bypassing those who are just not interested and is readily available for those who wish to use it. However we may need social marketing techniques and skills in getting the message out and engagement up.

 

 

 

Refs:

Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge. Polity

Douglas, M., Wildavsky, A.B. (1982) Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers. Berkley, University of California Press.

Douglas, M. (1992). Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory. London: New York: Routledge

Mason, P. (2012) Why its kicking off everywhere. The New Global Revolutions. London. Verso.

Urry, J. (2011) Climate Change and Society. Cambridge. Polity Press.

Rittel, H, and Webber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning  pp. 155–169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Inc., Amsterdam [Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 135–144

Standing, G. (2012). The Precariat: The new dangerous class. Bloomsbury. London.

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