Resolving Dominance Contests
—The Classic Showdown
A dominance contest is the classic showdown between two people fighting for the top. If the challenge succeeds it will reorder the dominance hierarchy. If it fails, it will affirm the dominance hierarchy. Because the stakes are high, bystanders are fascinated with dominance contests and they make for great and enduring gossip. Winning a dominance contest leads to pride, while losing leads to shame and humiliation. A dominance contest seizes an asymmetry to demonstrate superiority. Agreeing to a duel is a decision to value pride more than life and to choose death over shame. However, men extensively use conflict to negotiate status and actually enjoy sparring, even with friends.
The objectives of this course are to help you to:
- Notice dominance hierarchies,
- Analyze dominance hierarchy dynamics,
- Normalize relative status,
- Negotiate roles,
- Relate constructively.
A dominance contest can be characterized as:
- A public test, generally of fighting ability or some other form of power, to determine the relative ranking of the two contestants.
- A test or challenge to the present order of the dominance hierarchy
- Disputing your present rank in the dominance hierarchy.
Dominance contests have evolved throughout history, and even longer. They are common among many animal species, especially when competing for a mate. The favored format has changed over the years.
Here are some examples:
- Fist fights, wrestling matches, arm wrestling, or an unruly brawl.
- Duels with swords, daggers, or pistols,
- “Chicken” and other games of daring and recklessness, including deadly “road rage” and drag racing,
- Poker and other games of skill or chance,
- Chess Matches and other strategy games,
- Endurance contests, stare downs, handshakes,
- Interruptions, refusing to be interrupted, and insisting on getting the last word,
- Talking very slowly or very softly,
- Debate, delegation, and dogma,
- Refusing to dialogue, or deflecting inquiries with a joke, insult, change of topic, or preemptive dismissal,
- Rudeness or insults intended to humiliate,
- Failure to apologize for an offense,
- Bullying, including demeaning delegation,
- Declining to share information, resources, or materials held in common,
- Declining to yield,
- Ignoring a reasonable request,
- Choosing not to return phone calls or reply to emails from certain people,
- Having the busier appointment calendar when trying to agree on a meeting date,
- Insisting on paying for dinner,
- Adultery or other trespass of romantic or sexual interests, and
- Upstaging the boss or other authority figure by walking in late to a meeting, challenging his knowledge or authority in public, ignoring or disobeying his directions, making him wait for you, publicly working at cross purposes to his, making jokes at her expense, and other acts of insubordination, disobedience, or sabotage.
While a dominance contest often provides for good theater, it is rarely a reliable test of overall worth. Dominance contests are typically one dimensional—the outcome of a duel depends almost entirely on who has the fastest trigger finger. But humans are multidimensional—we think, decide, feel, act, help, care, grow, work, play, and much more. Do we know or even care if Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Gutenberg, Confucius, Isaac Newton, Aristotle, William Shakespeare, Mother Teresa, Euclid, Elvis Presley, or other great people have fast trigger fingers? Would you be proud of winning a duel against any of them? Extending the result of a dominance contest to evaluate the overall worth of a person is a fallacy of overgeneralization. Don't take the bait.
Military uniforms typically display insignia that quickly communicate rank, roles, and achievements to anyone familiar with the insignias. This rapidly establishes the relative rank of the people within any military gathering. This quickly and accurately resolves any dominance contest and establishes the hierarchy.
Entering a dominance contest is often costly, certainly for the loser, but often even for the winner. The loser suffers a loss in image, hurt pride, and perhaps humiliation. The winner may get a short-term gain, but probably also created resentment in the loser and reduced the number and type of people willing to work cooperatively with him. Rather than enter into a dominance contest, create alternatives that defuse the issue, reshape the issue, provide time for reconsidering, or provide a more constructive point of view for moving forward. Reject dichotomous thinking and generate more options for a constructive resolution. Choose to focus and comprehend rather than fight or flee. Calm down, take a deep breath, relax, and disarm the threat. Create a positive atmosphere and take time to think. If you feel you are the target, then move your physical location. Connect with the challenger as a person, highlighting the intrinsic similarities you both share. You can always defuse the situation and postpone a decision to allow time to explore alternatives, cool down, and resume talks another day.
“It is often better not to see an insult than to avenge it.” ~ Lucius Anneaus Seneca
Students wishing to learn more about resolving dominance contests may be interested in reading the following books:
- Dawkins, Richard (August 1, 2016). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press. pp. 544. ISBN 978-0198788607.
- Lazarus, Richard S. (April 11, 1996). Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions. Oxford University Press. pp. 336. ISBN 978-0195104615.
- de Waal, Frans (January 1, 2006). Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. Riverhead Books. pp. 288. ISBN 978-1573223126.
- This material is adapted from the EmotionalCompetency.com website with permission from the author.