The main organizing principle of social hierarchies is social dominance, which allows dominant individuals to have priority access to resources. A large behavioral study found that men with high social dominance make faster decisions than men with low social dominance, even when they are not in a social context. Individuals who are socially dominant consistently exhibit elevated motivation and directed behaviors to control others. In social situations, dominant individuals talk more, interrupt others more frequently, and are more likely to initiate social interactions, a behavior that dominant children already exhibit.
Hierarchies exist in all human and animal societies, and they are organized by what behavioral scientists call dominance. Dominant individuals tend to rise higher up the social hierarchy ladder, gaining priority access to resources.
However, dominance is based in part on the ability to make decisions faster than others. This allows the individual to take the initiative in social situations, which may provide an evolutionary advantage. However, behavioral scientists are unsure whether dominant individuals make such quick decisions outside of social contexts.
Dominant individuals tend to climb higher up the hierarchy ladder of their particular society, earning priority access to resources. This allows the individual to act first in social situations, which might confer an evolutionary advantage.
Now, the EPFL labs of Carmen Sandi and Michael Herzog have conducted a large behavioral study on men to investigate this question. Outside of a social competition context, the study found a clear correlation between higher social dominance and faster decision-making.
240 male students from EPFL and the University of Lausanne participated in the study (UNIL). A standard “dominance scoring” questionnaire that has been validated in numerous previous studies was used to categorize the men into high or low dominance groups. Five experiments (“tasks”) were used to assess participants’ memory, recognition, ability to distinguish emotions, route-learning, and responsiveness.
The first task required distinguishing between emotions depicted on various pictures of faces. They were then asked to remember and recognize a series of faces in a memory and recognition task. The third experiment required participants to learn and remember a route, while the fourth, a control experiment, required participants to hit the spacebar on a keyboard as soon as they saw a grey square appear on a screen. Neither group appeared to be faster than the other in this section of the study.
The researchers then conducted a fifth experiment to identify neural signals that might indicate differences in response promptness between high- and low-dominance participants. The researchers used a high-density electroencephalogram to measure brain signals (EEG). The participants were asked to distinguish between happy and sad faces, followed by angry and neutral faces, while the EEG recorded how their brains’ electrical signals changed in relation to how quickly or slowly they performed each task.
This section of the study discovered that promptness to respond in high-dominance men was accompanied by a noticeably amplified brain signal around 240 milliseconds after seeing the faces. Furthermore, when the researchers analyzed the EEG images of the high-dominance participants, they discovered increased activity in areas of the brain associated with emotion and behavior when compared to the low-dominance participants.
According to the findings, high-dominant men respond faster in situations requiring a decision, regardless of social context. This quick decision-making can serve as a “biomarker” for social disposition.
“It will be important in the future to determine whether even stronger brain signals are observed in particularly dominant individuals, such as CEOs,” Carmen Sandi says. “It will also be interesting to see if these differences in response time and brain signals are observed in women who differ in dominance and if they are already present in children. Our findings could pave the way for a new research approach that uses EEG signatures as a measure of social dominance.”
The majority of what we know about dominant people comes from their behavior in social, particularly competitive, contexts; little is known about their individual characteristics. Perhaps dominant people exhibit specific traits that help them gather the referred social influence, which is not necessarily dependent on social contexts but is also manifested in them.