A Sixth Trait – Social Dominance
Let’s now engage in a bit of speculation on the future of the Big Five model. In 1997, King and Figueredo discovered a sixth basic trait, the dominance or submissiveness of one’s will in relation to others, in different social contexts. Dominance isn’t the opposite of agreeableness, which is disagreeableness and uncooperativeness. It is the imposition of will, a desire to win relative to others, sometimes even at great cost. Like all the traits, there is an ideal level in relation to the other five traits, and the social context. If you are too dominant folks will fight you or stop associating with you if they can. Be too submissive, and you may be disrespected and exploited by opportunists.
So why isn’t it now, and perhaps not for a long time, going to be called the Big Six? Here is the rub: they found the trait in Chimpanzee personalities, where dominance is cruder and more obvious than in their human cousins. But as you may know, we humans share 97% of our genes with chimps, and we diverged from them just 4-6 million years ago. Thus it makes a lot of sense to look for this trait in humans too. But there’s a social research problem with such a strategy: political correctness. It’s not politically correct to talk about dominance differences among people.
Like race differences in IQ, which probably exist but are much less marked than folks like to claim, dominance differences among people probably also exist. We’d like to make both of these differences go away, but for now, we’re stuck with them. Consider books like Herrnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, 1996 made a ruckus discussing small IQ differences between races, and overgeneralizing those to explain class structure. Such differences are likely real, but they are minor, and we’ll do our best to eliminate them as society develops. More importantly, IQ is just one form of intelligence, and not the most important, as we’ve discussed. It’s very easy to use it to overexplain unpleasant social realities, like the plight of minorities. The other forms of intelligence, like our EQ, our and our social, technical, and environmental opportunities and intelligences, are often more important to determining life outcomes. In the USA, blacks and several other racial, ethnic, and social minorities are still widely discriminated against, and their social, environmental, and technological disadvantages are what we should pay attention to, to improve their outcomes.
Dominance differences have the same problem as IQ differences, in that we often don’t want to discuss them. They make us uncomfortable. Unlike IQ however, these differences have a strong effect on relationships and life outcomes. Having observed people for over half a century now, and seeing the calculated aggressiveness that we commonly find in some of the more successful–and generally bossier–folks in this world, I’m sure it has a real effect.
As primatologist Frans de Waal observes in Our Inner Ape, 2006 (see the lovely UK cover right), human personalities can be characterized as a blend of the aggressive, secretive, patriarchal, and dominance-seeking chimpanzee, and the cooperative, open, matriarchal, egalitarian bonobo. A little chimp in us makes us more Type A, and is a good thing. But when go too far toward it, we get folks with borderline personality disorders and sociopathies (1-4% of humans, in various estimates). Move in the direction of the bonobo, and become more like Type B, another very productive life strategy. (Forget for a moment that Types A and B aren’t deeply evidence based constructs). Go too far toward the bonobo, and we are too conflict-avoidant, without any social drive.
Primatologist Richard Wrangham has also persuasively argued that humans have been steadily pushing ourselves toward the bonobo-style personality increasingly since the invention of fire, two million years ago, which required communal fire-tending and cooking of food. See his excellent Catching Fire (2010). We’ve also been becoming more bonobo-like via a process called self-domestication. Human civilization has had 40,000 years of killing or ostracizing the most irrationally violent and sociopathic among us, thus selecting for more docile humans that can live in groups. In fact, self-domestication looks like the best leading theory for the growth in juvenile features and the 10% loss in average human brain size seen over the last 40,000 years. In many ways, we’ve gotten more juvenile and docile individually, in order to make progress socially.
Nevertheless, we still have much chimplike dominance, aggressiveness, and deviousness in our psyches, and it seems a truism that people who act more dominantly and aggressively and opportunistically at critical times in society (in situations of scarcity, chaos, uncertainty, decision points), and who are well-behaved at other times, often get more stuff and status in life. Dominance still has a significant social payoff. It also seems a law of society that as wealth and power grow, personalities that must win at all costs are increasingly likely to be found. As the late futurist Joe Coates often said, “Many of our rich are rogues or rogue’s heirs.”
If dominance-submissiveness persists as a fundamental human personality trait, why has it been overlooked by the Big Five model to date? First, models are never perfect. All have room to be improved. Second, dominance traits in humans are much subtler and more intermittent than in chimps. Third, as we’ve said, we unfortunately are socially uncomfortable talking about dominance and submission in modern society, and the continuing payoff from these traits in various environments. But when we give ourselves permission to talk about them, we can be on the look out for the bad effects of too much of this trait, manage them much better toward social good.
A few recommended books on the prevalence and occasional value of selective dominance, violence, deviance, and rulebreaking in human nature are Howard Bloom’s The Lucifer Principle (1997), and Adrian Raine’s The Anatomy of Violence (2014). These and other works on human deviance and dominance are good antidotes to thinking too nobly too soon about human nature.
Good books on identifying and managing the more extreme versions of these folks in the workplace are George Simon’s In Sheep’s Clothing (2010), and Babiak and Hare’s Snakes in Suits (2007). Such folks are often compelled to seek personal victories over others by any means they can. As these are personality traits, they can’t easily change, it helps greatly to find the hidden bullies and dominants in your organization, and steer clear of them. Managers must have zero tolerance for bullying, disrespectful, and abusive behavior in the modern workplace. If you are working under an abusive manager, it’s usually best to just vote with your feet, and get out of the toxic environment. If others follow suit, eventually the other leaders get the message that such people need to go.
So keep your eye out for this trait in yourself and others. See its value, but know when it goes too far, and how to effectively counteract it.