A pattern of social organization in which some individuals assert a higher rank than others.Dominance relationships are frequently observed in animals as well as human beings. A familiar example is the “pecking order” of barnyard hens. The top-ranking hen has the “right” to peck all the others, and each lower hen in the hierarchy can peck those below her but not those above her, with the bottom-ranking hen pecked by all the rest but unable to peck in return. A similar process occurs in groups of small children in a sandbox. The dominant child will direct the others in their work, keeping the most interesting tools and activities for himself. Occasionally the lower members of the group may attempt to usurp the place of the higher members or perhaps test their strength, but the general tendency among children—and among older people as well —is to accept their place in the scheme of things as “natural” and “right.”The drive for dominance takes many forms. Among animals it is primarily if not wholly a physical struggle for food, sex, mastery, or territory, or a combination of these drives. The same motives are basic in primitive human societies, but symbols of rank and prestige also come to play a major role. Among these symbols are special titles, forms of dress, and status in the tribe’s councils and ceremonials. Such symbols of power not only command respect in themselves, but are endowed with a special aura that helps the individual maintain his status. Prestige symbols continue to play an important role in more sophisticated societies. The titles, rites, and ceremonies of lodges and other secret societies are remarkably similar to those of the primitives, and many of the practices in industry are merely a further extension of the same tendency. In some companies certain individuals are given the title of vice- president solely for status purposes (only a v.p. can deal with a v.p.), but the “lower” v.p.’s may not be given the golden key to the washroom that signifies genuine rank. There is a story that a non-v.p. was to be moved to a v.p.’s office when this man was given new quarters—but before he was allowed to occupy the room a workman was sent in to cut a foot- wide strip from the periphery of the wall-to-wall carpeting.Dominance relationships are so prevalent that some psychologists have suggested that they may have an instinctual basis. The fact that physiological factors are usually involved, at least in animals, would seem to bolster this point of view. In the case of sex, this has been proven by both observation and experiment. Among chimps it has been found that a female in heat will become dominant in food-getting behavior, and an ordinarily dominant male who would usually grab most of the food will become submissive and wait impatiently until she finishes eating (Yerkes, 1940). Changes in the hierarchy have also been induced artificially. Low-ranking hens, for example, can be made more dominant through injection of male hormones (Allee, Collins, and Lutherman, 1939). But even though dominant behavior is under physiological control in animals, it is a highly variable quantity and not a fixed pattern of response like, for example, the nest-building instinct in wasps. Among human beings it is even more variable and it is also dependent on cultural factors. In certain societies, such as the Zuni Indians, there are practically no dominance relationships —but where they are highly developed, as among the Kwakiutl Indians or middle-class Americans, it can readily be shown that the tendency is not in herent or instinctive, but due to cultural influences.A strong argument against the instinct theory is that dominance relationships are the result of actual learning experiences rather than innate tendency. If a group of rats are placed in a pen, the larger and stronger animals soon learn that they can get a bigger share of the food by defeating the weaker ones, and the weaker animals learn to be submissive and take what they can get when the stronger ones have had their fill. Observations have also shown that the social hierarchy is perpetuated by other learning experiences—for example, if the offspring of the submissive rats wander into the territory of the dominant rats, the females teach them a lesson by drubbing them with their paws without inflicting actual injury. Moreover, the lesson is frequently reinforced since the dominant rats are constantly on the alert, and bare their teeth or move aggressively the moment other rats threaten to tread on their territory. Similar behavior can be found among other species such as baboons, chimpanzees, pigeons, and wolves. It is even present among certain species of fish. The strongest set up a territory of their own, while the weakest are chased from place to place in the tank like a man without a country.Human beings, too, learn that one way of getting what they want is to appropriate and defend a territory of their own. The strongest child captures the sandbox and claims it as his own (the right of “eminent domain”). The street gang may claim that an entire public block is its “turf,” and even fight to the death to defend it. Many children’s games, such as King of the Mountain, are based on territoriality. (For further examples, see The Territorial Imperative by Robert Ardrey, 1966.)Dominance relationships in human and animal societies, then, have much in common. Yet there are important differences. Animal dominance is based largely on physical strength, though in some cases cunning and alertness may also play a part. Among humans physical strength is rarely the major factor, except among school children, and even then many weaker children learn that they can successfully assert their supremacy by becoming cleverer or more skillful than their stronger playmates. As they grow up there is even more emphasis on abilities and personality characteristics; at the same time they learn that certain signs of status are recognized by the society in which they live. If their parents or companions put a premium on status symbols, they too may seek to attain them. This is no hard and fast rule, however, for many young people develop their own standards and remain relatively unconcerned about status and rank.Dominance, then, is a drive which some people develop and other people do not. It is not universal or instinctual. Yet how do we account for the fact that it is so prevalent, that so much of society is organized along hierarchical lines? Psychologists have no positive answer to this question, but three points appear to be highly relevant. First, many individuals and groups find that they can obtain a high degree of ego satisfaction as well as special rights and privileges by maintaining superiority over others. They therefore use every available means of asserting themselves. If they succeed, they remain dominant; if they do not, they lose “face” and status. Second, assertive tendencies are supported and reinforced by the fact that a great many people do not want to exert themselves, or have no confidence in their own ability, or feel more secure when they are in the hands of the strong or the elite. Third, it seems true that organized society usually functions more effectively and survives longer than unorganized society, and organization implies dominance relationships of some kind. The question, of course, is not whether these relationships exist, but what form they take —whether they are based on sheer force, divine right, status-striving, hereditary aristocracy, or, hopefully, on competence and concern for the group as a whole.

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "DOMINANCE RELATIONSHIP," in, November 28, 2018, (accessed September 26, 2022).


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