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Whither dominance? An enduring evolutionary legacy of primate sociality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 January 2024

Drew M. Altschul*
The University of Edinburgh, UK Scottish Primate Research Group, UK
Corresponding author: Drew M. Altschul; Email:
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This article discusses dominance personality dimensions found in primates, particularly in the great apes, and how they compare to dominance in humans. Dominance traits are seen in virtually all primate species, and these dimensions reflect how adept an individual is at ascending within a social hierarchy. Among great apes, dominance is one of the most prominent personality factors but, in humans, dominance is usually modeled as a facet of extraversion. Social, cultural, and cognitive differences between humans and our closest ape relatives are explored, alongside humanity’s hierarchical and egalitarian heritage. The basic characteristics of dominance in humans and nonhuman great apes are then described, alongside the similarities and differences between great apes. African apes live in societies each with its own hierarchical organization. Humans were a possible exception for some of our history, but more recently, hierarchies have dominated. The general characteristics of high-dominance humans, particularly those living in industrialized nations, are described. Dominance itself can be subdivided into correlated subfactors: domineering, prestige, and leadership. Various explanations have been posed for why dominance has declined in prominence within human personality factor structures, and several possibilities are evaluated. The value of dominance in personality research is discussed: dominance has links to, for instance, age, sex, aggression, self-esteem, locus of control, stress, health, and multiple socioeconomic status indicators. The piece concludes with recommendations for researchers who wish to assess dominance in personality.

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Primates tend to live in hierarchically organized social groups, and personality dimensions capturing dominance, assertiveness, and confidence are found in most primate species, particularly in the great apes (Freeman & Gosling, Reference Freeman and Gosling2010). Much like humans, primates have a variety of major personality domains, such as extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotionality, and dominance. Dominance generally refers to a personality trait of striving to be in high-status positions within social hierarchies, capturing behavior that enables an individual to both rise and maintain position in hierarchies (Mast & Hall, Reference Mast, Hall, Vinciarelli, Burgoon, Pantic and Magnenat-Thalmann2017). Dominance is distinct from social rank, an individual’s position within a hierarchy. As a personality trait, dominance is stable across time, but rank is circumstantial and malleable.

Dominance personality dimensions are found in humans as well: dominance, assertiveness, social potency, and self-confidence, to name a few. A comparable domain can be tapped by most broad personality inventories, but these constructs are generally less prominent in humans, e.g. dominance is not one of the Big 5, though it is an aspect of extraversion (DeYoung, Quilty & Peterson, Reference DeYoung, Quilty and Peterson2007). This is not necessarily an impediment for measurement, and in contrast, the Abridged Big 5-Dimensional Circumplex (Hofstee, De Raad & Goldberg, Reference Hofstee, De Raad and Goldberg1992) presents dominance as a 2D rotation between agreeableness and extraversion, equivalent to the well-known Interpersonal Circumplex. See table/box 1 for key terms and definitions.

Ultimately, when one looks at human personality from the bottom up, one must go to some lengths to extract a dominance dimension. In nonhuman primates, the situation could hardly be more different. Among the great apes, for example, dominance is the first factor or component extracted by factor analysis or principal components analysis in all species (Eckardt et al., Reference Eckardt, Steklis, Steklis, Fletcher, Stoinski and Weiss2015; J. E. King & Figueredo, Reference King and Figueredo1997; Weiss et al., Reference Weiss, Staes, Pereboom, Inoue-Murayama, Stevens and Eens2015) with the exception of orangutans (Pongo spp.), where extraversion comes first and dominance comes second (Weiss, King & Perkins, Reference Weiss, King and Perkins2006). This piece asks whither dominance – what became of it? How is dominance in humans different, such that a once imposing, ubiquitous domain has been relegated to being a minor facet?

Box 1. Key dominance relevant constructs and their definitions.

1. The basics of rank-based societies

Dominance traits cannot be discussed without saying a bit more about the social systems in which they evolved. Rank-organized societies are found throughout the animal kingdom (Tibbetts, Pardo-Sanchez & Weise, Reference Tibbetts, Pardo-Sanchez and Weise2022), along with personality traits relating to social potency. I will focus here and throughout the rest of the piece on primates, and on our closest evolutionary relatives, in particular, great apes.

Hierarchies are typically perpetual: the structure exists beyond the lifespan of any member, and for this to work, hierarchies must be plastic. New groups and hierarchies can still spring up while others disperse, however. For these circumstances, there are mechanisms whereby a hierarchy can be established (Tibbetts et al., Reference Tibbetts, Pardo-Sanchez and Weise2022). Existing hierarchies must be entered by an individual at some point in their life, usually on the cusp of adulthood. The most common way for individuals to establish themselves in hierarchies and then maintain or even rise in rank is through competitive dyadic interactions.

Competitive dyadic interactions are the computational basis for dominance hierarchies (Bernstein & Blue, Reference Bernstein, Blue and Choe2019). Even solitary yet social species like orangutans exhibit asymmetrical dyadic relationships (Knott et al., Reference Knott, Beaudrot, Snaith, White, Tschauner and Planansky2008), in which one individual somehow demonstrates their power over another individual. When a competitive bout occurs, the individual with greater resource-holding power (RHP), akin to fighting prowess, and higher motivation is more likely to win the bout (Qu, Ligneul, Van der Henst & Dreher, Reference Qu, Ligneul, Van der Henst and Dreher2017). If the winner is lower ranked, it will gain status and may move up in rank; if the winner is higher ranked, its status will be further cemented. Hierarchies need to be malleable, but is generally beneficial for them to be stable across time; stable hierarchies help a group stay together and succeed (Tibbetts et al., Reference Tibbetts, Pardo-Sanchez and Weise2022). Stability is associated with less conflict (Forkman & Haskell, Reference Forkman and Haskell2004), better individual health (Sapolsky, Reference Sapolsky2004), and impaired group-level functioning (Maldonado-Chaparro, Alarcón-Nieto, Klarevas-Irby & Farine, Reference Maldonado-Chaparro, Alarcón-Nieto, Klarevas-Irby and Farine2018).

Depending on the species and particular society, individuals may leave their natal group and disperse to a new group, or they may stay in their natal group. For instance, in Pan, both chimpanzee and bonobo females disperse (Koenig & Borries, Reference Koenig and Borries2012). This then impacts how individuals navigate dominance hierarchies, e.g. chimpanzee females enter their own distinct hierarchy at a low rank, and queue to achieve higher status as higher ranking, usually older, females die (Foerster et al., Reference Foerster, Franz, Murray, Gilby, Feldblum, Walker and Pusey2016). Chimpanzee males enter their hierarchy around age 12, typically rise in rank before falling as they age, and lose the RHP necessary to win dyadic bouts (Weiss et al., Reference Weiss, Feldblum, Altschul, Collins, Kamenya, Mjungu, Foerster, Gilby, Wilson and Pusey2023). Bonobo males follow a similar pattern, but their status is deeply intertwined with that of their mother (Furuichi, Reference Furuichi1997; Surbeck, Mundry & Hohmann, Reference Surbeck, Mundry and Hohmann2010). Therefore, the bonobo male’s status depends on how effectively their mother integrated into the postnatal group after dispersing.

Rank societies, perhaps particularly in primates, are notable for their inclusion of coalitions. Coalitionary behavior is found across the primate order and usually refers to when two or more act together against a third party in a competitive context (Harcourt & de Waal, Reference Harcourt and de Waal1992). Alliances are essentially long-term coalition-based relationships, usually between two individuals, though human alliances can of course be much larger (Bissonnette et al., Reference Bissonnette, Perry, Barrett, Mitani, Flinn, Gavrilets and Waal2015). Coalitions can also occur opportunistically, seemingly in the moment. Coalitions play an important role in both intragroup and intergroup dynamics. Group-wide coalitions might come into play when there is conflict between groups, such as when male chimpanzees patrol the perimeter of their territory and sometimes fight males from other groups (Watts & Mitani, Reference Watts and Mitani2001). Within a group, a coalition of lower-ranking males might form in order to oust an alpha, or individuals might ally themselves with the alpha in order to benefit from the alpha’s status (Feldblum, Krupenye, Bray, Pusey & Gilby, Reference Feldblum, Krupenye, Bray, Pusey and Gilby2021). Females form coalitions as well, though more frequently among bonobos, as female chimpanzees are less gregarious by comparison (Mitani, Reference Mitani2009). Despite not being directly related, female bonobos readily form coalitions with other females, usually to attack males that have been aggressive to someone in the coalition (Tokuyama & Furuichi, Reference Tokuyama and Furuichi2016), which may theoretically prevent the rise of despotic male bonobos (Ronay, Maddux & von Hippel, Reference Ronay, Maddux and von Hippel2020). Male bonobos form coalitions in the context of within-group conflict as well, though they form most coalitions with females (Surbeck et al., Reference Surbeck, Boesch, Girard-Buttoz, Crockford, Hohmann and Wittig2017).

Coalitional social bonds are related to hierarchical rank as well. Male chimpanzees in coalition leverage their relationships in order to maintain or rise in rank (Bray, Feldblum & Gilby, Reference Bray, Feldblum and Gilby2021). It is male bonobos’ coalitions with their mothers that influence male rank in the group, despite bonobos having male-philopatric societies (Surbeck et al., Reference Surbeck, Mundry and Hohmann2010). For a more complete treatment of coalitions and alliances, see Bissonnette et al. (Reference Bissonnette, Perry, Barrett, Mitani, Flinn, Gavrilets and Waal2015).

Since personality is stable and rank changes over time, it can be difficult to relate trait dominance to transient rank. Moreover, both are assessed through entirely different techniques. A recent study that has grappled with this using long-term data from male chimpanzees found that trait dominance was significantly related to rank, throughout the individuals’ lifetimes, though this relationship was particularly strong during certain stages of the chimpanzees’ lives, specifically, early to middle adulthood (Weiss et al., Reference Weiss, Feldblum, Altschul, Collins, Kamenya, Mjungu, Foerster, Gilby, Wilson and Pusey2023).

2. The differing sociocognitive landscapes of primates

The African apes – chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), bonobos (Pan paniscus), and gorillas (Gorilla spp.) – all live in rank-based social groups, but the ways in which each species, and even each sex within species, operate their dominance hierarchies differ considerably. Chimpanzee males compete with each other for status and eventually lose rank status with age, whereas chimpanzee females, as noted earlier, enter low and rise in a queue (Foerster et al., Reference Foerster, Franz, Murray, Gilby, Feldblum, Walker and Pusey2016). Bonobo hierarchies are less distinct: females wield greater power in bonobo society, so much so that bonobo hierarchies appear to be sex-independent (Surbeck & Hohmann, Reference Surbeck and Hohmann2013). Bonobos are nepotistic and males are philopatric; as noted, a male’s status depends in significant part on the status of their female relatives (Surbeck et al., Reference Surbeck, Mundry and Hohmann2010). Bonobo males and females are best described as “co-dominant.” Gorilla groups can be multi-male (bachelor groups), multi-female single-male (silverback male dominating a harem), and multi-male multi-female. Within harems, some gorilla females seem to develop hierarchies (Robbins, Gerald-Steklis, Robbins & Steklis, Reference Robbins, Gerald-Steklis, Robbins and Steklis2005) whereas others may not (Stokes, Reference Stokes2004). Within multi-male multi-female groups, gorilla males were organized in a stable linear hierarchy, whereas in a bachelor group, there was no clear hierarchy, only a clear alpha male (Robbins, Reference Robbins1996).

Human social systems are the most studied, but probably least understood, particularly in terms of their evolution. The pre-eminent theory of human social evolution argues that at some point between when we diverged from chimpanzees and bonobos to the end of prehistory, homininians (bipedal apes) adopted egalitarianism as the primary form of social organization (Gintis, van Schaik & Boehm, Reference Gintis, van Schaik and Boehm2015). Egalitarianism still exists today in some cultural groups outside of the industrialized world, like the Hadza people of Tanzania. From these groups, anthropologists have established that egalitarianism requires a reverse dominance hierarchy (Erdal, Whiten, Boehm & Knauft, Reference Erdal, Whiten, Boehm and Knauft1994), a culture in which economic equality is encouraged through resource sharing – the so-called “gift economy.”

In nonhumans, aggression, strength, and proxies for physical power (e.g. physical height) are used in fights to establish themselves in a rank hierarchy, though even among nonhumans, fights are often ritualized to an extent, enabling individuals to avoid the worst physical harm. With the advent of egalitarianism, social norms developed that enforced reverse dominance hierarchies, wherein no individual could gain status over another individual. Males and females typically inhabit separate hierarchies, so this does not imply that males, females, or children are inherently equal (Flanagan, Reference Flanagan1989). Hoarding, displays of authority, and aggression are discouraged among egalitarians. Unacceptable behavior is punished with shunning, exile, and lethal violence is reserved for putting down upstarts who might challenge egalitarian norms (Wrangham, Reference Wrangham2019). Ironically, a new role might have been created for “cooperative” dominant individuals (Chen, Zhang, Laustsen & Cheng, Reference Chen, Zhang, Laustsen and Cheng2021), such as police and executioners. For extended treatment on this topic, see Christopher Boehm’s “Hierarchy in the Forest” (Boehm, Reference Boehm1999).

Nevertheless, modern humans display a strong proclivity for hierarchical living. Virtually all post-industrial societies are organized hierarchically, on the basis of various indicators of social status, but especially income and wealth. While western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic humans may not represent our ancestral condition, living forager cultures are frequently used as proxies for early humans. In an ethnographic study of 60 societies, respecting superiors, that is, “being deferential, respectful, loyal, or obedient to those above you in a hierarchy” was viewed as a virtue in 133 attestations, and never viewed negatively (Curry, Mullins & Whitehouse, Reference Curry, Mullins and Whitehouse2019). Moreover, the same study found that traditional societies valued “hawkishness,” that is, one’s ability to contest with others using strength, boldness, skill, and intelligence; hawkishness, too, closely aligns with dominance traits.

Though many modern societies have grown increasingly unequal (Ronay et al., Reference Ronay, Maddux and von Hippel2020), which leads to more opportunities for hierarchical comparisons to others, this development does not necessarily imply that dominance traits have become more influential again. Aggression and warfare have steadily decreased over history (Pinker, Reference Pinker2011), violent acts of dominance are policed, and perpetrators are punished. The punishment is not the same as among egalitarians, but spending time in prison is an impactful sentence. Modern society leaves little room for ape-like manifestations of dominance.

3. What are the dominance traits in nonhuman primates?

Among the African apes, the dominance dimension shares many items in common, for example, “independent,” “persistent,” and again “dominant,” but not always “timid” or “submissive.” Though it is less prominent, dominance is found in orangutans, white-faced (Cebus spp.) and brown capuchins (Sapajus apella) (Robinson et al., Reference Robinson, Morton, Gartner, Widness, Paukner, Essler, Brosnan and Weiss2016), Tonkean, Japanese, black, and Barbary macaques (Macaca spp.) (Adams et al., Reference Adams, Majolo, Ostner, Schuelke, De Marco, Thierry, Engelhardt, Widdig, Gerald and Weiss2015; Baker, Lea & Melfi, Reference Baker, Lea and Melfi2015), squirrel monkeys (Saimiri spp.) (Baker et al., Reference Baker, Lea and Melfi2015), marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) (Koski et al., Reference Koski, Buchanan-Smith, Ash, Burkart, Bugnyar and Weiss2017), and Hanuman langurs (Semnopithicus spp.) (Konečná et al., Reference Konečná, Lhota, Weiss, Urbánek, Adamová and Pluháček2008). In rhesus macaques, there are two dimensions capturing social potency: a more traditional dominance dimension, and one labeled confidence, which describes individual monkeys who are neither “timid,” “vulnerable,” “submissive,” nor “dependent/follower(s)” (Adams et al., Reference Adams, Majolo, Ostner, Schuelke, De Marco, Thierry, Engelhardt, Widdig, Gerald and Weiss2015; Weiss, Adams, Widdig & Gerald, Reference Weiss, Adams, Widdig and Gerald2011), thus capturing aspects of emotional stability.

The literature on primate personality is considerably smaller than the literature on human personality, so, to date, studies have not deconstructed the single dominance trait of apes into lower-order facets. Nevertheless, various more advanced, human-like manifestations of dominance have been observed in great apes. Higher-ranking individuals often lead group movements (A. J. King, Johnson & Van Vugt, Reference King, Johnson and Van Vugt2009). In bonobos, higher-ranking males and older, presumably more knowledgeable females were more likely to initiate group movements in a particular direction. (Tokuyama & Furuichi, Reference Tokuyama and Furuichi2017). Chimpanzee males follow a similar pattern, with the highest-ranking males more likely to lead group movements and patrols (Goodall, Reference Goodall1986). However, these leaders’ goals are usually highly self-serving, e.g. an alpha male chimpanzee may lead his group to a concentrated foraging site that he could monopolize in order to maximize his food consumption, whereas the group as a whole would benefit more from visiting a distributed foraging site (Ronay et al., Reference Ronay, Maddux and von Hippel2020).

Prestige as freely conferred deference is not a concept yet identified in apes, however, prestige bias is present: during social learning experiments, chimpanzees prefer to copy an individual who has a prior track record of success, is older, and higher ranking (Horner, Proctor, Bonnie, Whiten & Waal, Reference Horner, Proctor, Bonnie, Whiten and Waal2010). Moreover, when a new task is introduced and certain individuals display greater skill with the task, those individuals also tend to attract more attention and grooming from conspecifics (Lee & Yamamoto, Reference Lee and Yamamoto2023).

4. What are the dominance traits in humans?

On its face, dominance in humans is captured by adjectives such as “assertive,” “forceful,” “outspoken,” and of course “dominant.” It is often represented by items indicating that an individual wishes to have control and power over others. It is also represented by items indicating a desire for leadership, influence, and attention. Many classical inventories have assumed that dominance and leadership traits are distinct but overlap in content, and recent empirical work (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a) suggest that many scales labeled “dominance,” “leadership,” or “assertiveness” all measure the same thing. The opposite of dominance is “submissiveness,” which represents the opposite pole on the Interpersonal Circumplex, for instance. Submissiveness is negatively correlated with dominance to the same approximate degree as other positively related constructs, like social potency and leadership (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a).

In addition to being found across species, dominance, via NEO-PI-R assertiveness, is found across human cultures, too. Assertiveness is reliable in at least 24 cultures (De Fruyt, De Bolle, McCrae, Terracciano & Costa, Reference De Fruyt, De Bolle, McCrae, Terracciano and Costa2009), although across cultures in both adolescents and adults, assertiveness loaded comparably and significantly (and negatively) on agreeableness, as well as extraversion (De Fruyt et al., Reference De Fruyt, De Bolle, McCrae, Terracciano and Costa2009; McCrae & Terracciano, Reference McCrae and Terracciano2005), which aligns with the Abridged Big 5-Dimensional Circumplex perspective (Hofstee et al., Reference Hofstee, De Raad and Goldberg1992).

Human dominance can be broken down into smaller facets. Despite the fact that many inventories are not able to reliably capture lower-level subfactors of dominance, more recent, concerted efforts have been more successful. Cheng and colleagues demonstrated the distinct role of two strategies, dominance and prestige, in the attainment of high rank (Cheng, Tracy & Henrich, Reference Cheng, Tracy and Henrich2010; Cheng, Tracy, Foulsham, Kingstone & Henrich Reference Cheng, Tracy, Foulsham, Kingstone and Henrich2013; Redhead, Cheng, Driver, Foulsham & O’Gorman, Reference Redhead, Cheng, Driver, Foulsham and O’Gorman2019). For clarity, this piece will refer to what Cheng and colleagues term dominance as “domineering” in order to distinguish it from the broader dominance trait used throughout the personality literature. Suessenbach, Loughnan, Schönbrodt, and Moore et al. (Reference Suessenbach, Loughnan, Schönbrodt and Moore2019) linked trait dominance to the power motive and established that all-encompassing dominance or power motivation can be broken down into domineering, prestige, and leadership (DoPL) traits. Domineering is oriented around controlling others and getting them to do what you want through force and coercion. Prestige involves accomplishment and achievement, and status gained through prestige is freely given, not taken. Prestige is less closely related to the other traits and is arguably related to the achievement motive as well (Schönbrodt & Gerstenberg, Reference Schönbrodt and Gerstenberg2012). Nevertheless, an individual who tends to be prestige-motivated also tends to be domineering. Leadership captures how much an individual wants to be in charge and how often they lead, as well as how good they think they are at leadership. Power gained through this avenue is granted, by the group as a necessity, as well as claimed by the individual in order to achieve a group goal.

Domineering and leadership may seem like “bad” and “good” types of dominance, respectively, but this is not the case. Leaders tend to be physically stronger (though not aggressive), perceive themselves to be higher in status and have more social capital, and be ruthlessly self-advancing (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a) – this suggests a coercive style of leadership (von Rueden, Reference von Rueden2020). Rather than thinking of these traits as good or bad, one ought to think about the context in which each trait would be most useful. Being domineering is useful in one-on-one situations, when an individual can use intimidation and force to take what one likes, or even get another individual to follow orders. This might be termed “dyadic dominance,” which is in keeping with the dyadic interaction foundations of animal social hierarchies (Drews, Reference Drews1993). Leadership is most useful in a group. When an individual is outnumbered and force is not practical, charisma and coercion are much more effective at getting others to do what one wishes. This might be termed “group dominance.”

5. What are the characteristics of dominant humans?

Dominance, assertiveness, leadership, and other social potency constructs in humans all typically measure a general disposition to be exactly what these labels suggest, with considerable overlap between the constructs (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a), thus raising the possibility of a “jangle” fallacy. For instance, with an adjectival approach, a dominance construct might be defined by “dominant,” “assertive,” “outspoken,” and “forceful,” whereas a leadership construct defined by statements might include “I want to be in charge,” “I try to lead others,” and “I can talk others into doing things.” In this way, the traits have decent face validity, even though many measures lack specificity for, say, leadership abilities. But does a dominant human act like a dominant chimpanzee? Or bonobo, or gorilla?

Cross-species evidence in this area is lacking, particularly on the DoPL lower-order factors. One study suggests that “fearless dominance,” a broad trait derived from the psychopathic personality inventory, captures the character of general primate dominance in humans (Weiss, Reference Weiss2022). Extraversion’s facet/aspect of assertiveness is another strong contender for capturing a general dominance factor (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a).

The wider network of associations with dominance is beginning to be revealed in humans. Connections are apparent between dominance, hubristic pride, narcissism, and Machiavellianism (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a; Cheng et al., Reference Cheng, Tracy and Henrich2010), as well as with aggression and anger (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023b). Dominant individuals are immodest, exhibitionist, self-deceiving, and less concerned about harming others or fairness, but more concerned about favoring their in-group (Suessenbach et al., Reference Suessenbach, Loughnan, Schönbrodt and Moore2019).

On the positive side, higher dominance is also associated with more internalized locus of control, higher self-esteem (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a), and higher affect (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023b). Assertive individuals are charismatic (House & Howell, Reference House and Howell1992), speak more charismatically (Michalsky, Niebuhr & Penke, Reference Michalsky, Niebuhr and Penke2020), and domineering individuals utilize distinct patterns of nonverbal communication (Witkower, Tracy, Cheng & Henrich, Reference Witkower, Tracy, Cheng and Henrich2020). Dominant leaders appear to instill more cooperation in their followers (Chen et al., Reference Chen, Zhang, Laustsen and Cheng2021). Dominant individuals also showed faster reaction times, but poorer reasoning in one study (Graham & Lachman, Reference Graham and Lachman2014), but better executive functioning in another (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023b).

Dominance is also associated with physiological traits. More dominant individuals have wider faces (Lefevre, Etchells, Howell, Clark & Penton-Voak, Reference Lefevre, Etchells, Howell, Clark and Penton-Voak2014), a result consistent with, but stronger in primates (Altschul, Robinson, Coleman, Capitanio & Wilson, Reference Altschul, Robinson, Coleman, Capitanio and Wilson2019; Martin, Staes, Weiss, Stevens & Jaeggi, Reference Martin, Staes, Weiss, Stevens and Jaeggi2019; Wilson et al., Reference Wilson, Weiss, Lefevre, Ochiai, Matsuzawa, Inoue-Murayama, Freeman, Herrelko and Altschul2020). Assertiveness is associated with higher body mass index (Sutin, Ferrucci, Zonderman & Terracciano, Reference Sutin, Ferrucci, Zonderman and Terracciano2011) and leptin, the major hormone controlling hunger (Sutin et al., Reference Sutin, Zonderman, Uda, Deiana, Taub, Longo, Ferrucci, Schlessinger, Cucca and Terracciano2013), as well as higher basal metabolic rate (Arumäe, Mõttus & Vainik, Reference Arumäe, Mõttus and Vainik2022).

Altogether, this collection of associations converges well along key lines. Dominants are physically larger and stronger, more socially powerful and influential – both coercively and charismatically. More dominant individuals have higher RHP (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a). Dominance in humans thus seems highly reminiscent of dominance in nonhuman primates.

6. How dominance traits are the same in humans and nonhuman primates

Above, I identified a host of dominance traits in nonhuman primate species. But just because traits have been labeled the same way does not make them the same thing – the so-called “jingle fallacy” – particularly when one is crossing species boundaries (Zuckerman, Reference Zuckerman1992). Fortunately, there are many similarities in dominance between humans and nonhumans; I will focus on comparisons with our closest ape relatives.

Dominance is often associated with masculinity. Males are widely known to be more aggressive, particularly with direct, physical aggression (Archer, Reference Archer2004); this difference is reflected further downstream with the advent of “male dominated” violent crime (Steffensmeier, Reference Steffensmeier1980). In trait terms, dominance is higher in men than women (Del Giudice, Booth & Irwing, Reference Del Giudice, Booth and Irwing2012). The same holds true for chimpanzees and orangutans: males rate higher on dominance than females (Weiss & King, Reference Weiss and King2015). It is notable, however, that in bonobos, males rate lower on assertiveness than females (Staes, Eens, Weiss & Stevens, Reference Staes, Eens, Weiss, Stevens, Hare and Yamamoto2017). This is in keeping with bonobo socioecology, where females occupy higher ranks than males (Furuichi, Reference Furuichi2011), and goes to show that structural differences in society can have major impacts on social behavior and associated norms.

Age is a highly relevant factor for dominance as well. As noted above, male chimpanzees compete for high rank, whereas female chimpanzees enter their hierarchy low and work their way up (Foerster et al., Reference Foerster, Franz, Murray, Gilby, Feldblum, Walker and Pusey2016). In terms of traits, both male and female chimpanzees exhibit positive relationships between dominance and age, and the same is true for orangutans (Weiss & King, Reference Weiss and King2015). However, bonobos buck the trend once again, for there appears to be no association between age and assertiveness in bonobos (Staes et al., Reference Staes, Eens, Weiss, Stevens, Hare and Yamamoto2017), although higher assertiveness bonobos do appear to be higher ranked (Franz, Reference Franz1999; Furuichi, Thompson & Fruth, Reference Furuichi, Thompson and Fruth2008). Age is not as relevant factor for human dominance traits. Considerable evidence suggests that dominance increases with age (Roberts, Walton & Viechtbauer, Reference Roberts, Walton and Viechtbauer2006), while other evidence suggests that it is flat across adulthood (Soto, John, Gosling & Potter, Reference Soto, John, Gosling and Potter2011).

Dominance is also heritable. Evidence from human twin studies (Figueredo, Vasquez, Brumbach & Schneider, Reference Figueredo, Vasquez, Brumbach and Schneider2004; Jang, McCrae, Angleitner, Riemann & Livesley, Reference Jang, McCrae, Angleitner, Riemann and Livesley1998), and chimpanzee (Weiss, King & Figueredo, Reference Weiss, King and Figueredo2000), bonobo (Staes et al., Reference Staes, Weiss, Helsen, Korody, Eens and Stevens2016), and orangutan (Adams et al., Reference Adams, King and Weiss2012) pedigree analyzes suggests at least moderate heritability (h = 0.22 – 0.63). Although these metrics should assess genetic contribution, since dominance and hierarchy are strongly driven by complex familial social relationships, this should not be taken as the final word on the nature of heritability.

7. Where did dominance “go” and why?

Although this, like other adaptive, teleonomic questions, is essentially impossible to answer, it is important to spell out why. Behavior does not fossilize, apart from indirect, fragmentary evidence like marks on bone or footprints. We can know nothing certain about the behavior of our recent and more distant hominoid ancestors, thus we cannot trace the trajectory of human behavior through recent human biological, as well as cultural, evolution. However, relevant evidence exists that can nevertheless inform us on this topic.

7.1 The traditional account: egalitarianism subverted dominance

The traditional take on hunter-gatherer egalitarianism suggests that dominance became less relevant to humans because for hundreds of thousands of years we lived in reverse dominance hierarchies. No individual could attain a rank above another (Boehm, Reference Boehm1999). Our psychology and cultural niches have been shaped by egalitarian conditions.

This perspective has several problems, however. First among them is that the egalitarian hypothesis has been increasingly criticized (Flannery & Marcus, Reference Flannery and Marcus2012; Singh & Glowacki, Reference Singh and Glowacki2022). Singh and Glowacki (Reference Singh and Glowacki2022) argue that the recent prehistory of hominoids was filled with diverse social structures. Habitat variability, such as temporal shifts in climate and environment, was a circumstance to be adapted to, not borne through under the same, rigid social structure. Ethnographic evidence from modern and historic cultures demonstrates that spatiotemporal resource distribution is linked to greater and lesser inequality (Ronay et al., Reference Ronay, Maddux and von Hippel2020; Smith & Codding, Reference Smith and Codding2021). When resources are concentrated they can be monopolized, and in humans, monopolizability seems to lead to a wholesale shift in the balance of a social system, from egalitarian to hierarchical and despotic. Further, in the archaeological record, material signs of hierarchy, such as richly adorned, lavishly buried human remains, are found in some of the earliest known remnants left by anatomically modern humans (Flannery & Marcus, Reference Flannery and Marcus2012). Throughout human history, a wide variety of more and less unequal societies have existed and are possible.

There are psychological objections to this account as well. Even if egalitarianism dominated human social structure for hundreds of thousands of years, hierarchy was not out of mind. Egalitarians participated and still participate in supernatural hierarchies consisting of divinities at the top, ancestor spirits beneath them, and living humans at the bottom (Flannery & Marcus, Reference Flannery and Marcus2012). This belief was continuous with later chiefdoms and kingdoms, where the leaders were often speaking on behalf of divinity, or related to divinity through descent. These individuals drew their power from their relationships with the “true alphas” – the gods (Graeber & Sahlins, Reference Graeber and Sahlins2017). Moreover, these examples do not speak to within-family hierarchies – grandparents above adults, adults above children, men above women – and as was noted earlier, a prime virtue among traditional societies is to respect one’s elders (Curry et al., Reference Curry, Mullins and Whitehouse2019).

7.2 Dispersing dominance across factors

Weiss (Reference Weiss2022) argues that the great ape dominance factors dissipated during human evolution and can now be found spread across different facets of different domains of the Big 5. Fearless dominance, which is a broad construct drawing on, in particular, facets of extraversion, neuroticism, and openness, is, for this reason, a good fit as a human analog of great ape dominance. Fearless dominance converges with a general factor of dominance or power-seeking, as well as any other general construct of dominance or assertiveness (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a). Fearless dominance itself is strongly associated with low behavioral inhibition, high sensation and fun-seeking, low anxiety and internalizing, and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) diagnosis.

Why might dominance be dispersed across facets? The lexical method for deriving personality, i.e. using language and questions to tap into traits, is impacted by norms and morals inherent to the culture of the individual, and the language(s) of that culture (Saucier, Reference Saucier2018). Our norms against dominance and the lack of objective language may be getting in the way of our ability to capture this trait with the lexical method. For instance, I would say that when chimpanzee makes an act of their physical prowess that individual is “displaying,” but if a human makes a similar act, I might say that the individual is “making a scene,” which coveys a clear judgmental stance on the normative acceptability of the act. One might also describe a human acting in such a manner as having a “fit” or “tantrum,” both of which evoke immaturity and mental instability, which are also normatively undesirable. The core of what it could mean to be dominant might thus be broken up and attached to different normative, moral distinctions that align with different facets under the Big 5.

7.3 The dark triad

Much of modern personality science examines morality through the lens of dark personality traits. As noted earlier, the wider nomological net of dominance includes narcissism and Machiavellianism (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a), and fearless dominance is drawn from the psychopathic personality inventory (Lilienfeld, Gershon, Duke, Marino & de Waal, Reference Lilienfeld, Gershon, Duke, Marino and de Waal1999). However, fearless dominance may actually capture the aspects of the psychopathic personality inventory that are not due to clinical psychopathy, which is captured by antisocial impulsivity (Miller & Lynam, Reference Miller and Lynam2012). Machiavellianism appears to have a particularly high association with the domineering facet, a smaller association with prestige, and no notable relationship with leadership (Schattke & Marion-Jetten, Reference Schattke and Marion-Jetten2021; Semenyna & Honey, Reference Semenyna and Honey2015).

Narcissism stands out. NPD is described as “pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013); its correlation with general dominance is high (ρ = 0.5; Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a). Narcissism can be broken down into three facets: leadership/authority, grandiose exhibitionism, and entitlement/exploitativeness. Fearless dominance is highly correlated with leadership/authority and grandiose exhibitionism, but not entitlement/exploitativeness (McDonald, Donnellan & Navarrete, Reference McDonald, Donnellan and Navarrete2012). Furthermore, narcissists’ popularity starts strong and grows, but declines after some time (Leckelt, Küfner, Nestler & Back, Reference Leckelt, Küfner, Nestler and Back2015), resembling the relationship between dominance and rank in male chimpanzees (Weiss et al., Reference Weiss, Feldblum, Altschul, Collins, Kamenya, Mjungu, Foerster, Gilby, Wilson and Pusey2023). The dominants of the past may have found a place in society as the less entitled narcissists of today.

7.4 The role of language

It might be more beneficial to look not at what our ancestors lost – rigid hierarchy – but at what they gained – language. Language bears directly on aspects of extraversion (Goldberg, Reference Goldberg1992; Hofstee et al., Reference Hofstee, De Raad and Goldberg1992; Trapnell & Wiggins, Reference Trapnell and Wiggins1990) that dominance has less to do with: “talkative,” “gregarious,” “sociable,” “verbal,” “wordy,” “communicative,” and (not) “quiet.” While it is difficult to scientifically say whether we are less hierarchical than our ancestors, we are certainly less aggressive (Wrangham, Reference Wrangham2019), and lowered aggression plus faculty with language could have led to fighting, posing, and jockeying being replaced with all manner of conversation.

Moreover, with the advent of language came a move away from grooming. Being able to have more conversational partners meant that groups could become larger (Dunbar, Reference Dunbar2017). Larger groups and being able to have more interaction partners at one time would have alleviated pressure on the individual because there would have been more real available interaction time to go around. Under these conditions, dominance relationships would become complex and possibly multidimensional. Individuals would likely become more specialized; some might become talented at skill-based activities and gain prestige, while others might excel at group organization, negotiation, and leadership. Rank relationships might become so complex that most individuals would be unable to keep track of the entire hierarchy or hierarchies.

Crucially, language moved conspecific interaction away from the dyad. An individual can only groom one other individual, but they can speak with two, three, four, or more individuals (Dunbar, Reference Dunbar2017). The majority of interactions would be with groups. Nonhuman primate dominance is largely oriented around behaviors that are useful in competitive dyadic interactions, so these behaviors may have become less adaptive. Speaking involves less physical contact with one’s conspecifics than grooming. Being at a distance and less physically involved with members of one’s community might accompany a reduction in the inherent drive to display physically. Rather, displays of power would come to rely on language-based performance, which brings together physicality (domineering), skill, and respect (prestige), as well as charisma and persuasion (leadership).

It is possible, and likely, that more than one explanation for “whither dominance” is required. None of the above mechanisms are mutually exclusive, and none are definitive. Thus, the historical impact of egalitarianism and the development of language may have dispersed dominance across various facets, though clear dominant types, like narcissists, still exist and are easily visible in today’s societies.

8. Why study dominance?

One can argue about whether or not dominance has declined and how to even measure personality change over evolutionary time; regardless, dominance remains, and it remains relevant, perhaps more so today in what appears to be a burgeoning era of authoritarianism (Chen et al., Reference Chen, Zhang, Laustsen and Cheng2021). Dominance exists in humans, and as presented in this review and elsewhere (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a, Reference Altschul and Moore2023b), it is valid, reliable, and has unique associations with meaningful criterion variables.

Dominance is distinctive. A layperson can identify how dominant or submissive a peer is in a particular context; dominance has good face validity. Though there is overlap with extraversion and openness, dominance distinguishes itself through distinct associations with constructs like anger (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023b). Moreover, dominance may be more strongly related to constructs like self-esteem, locus of control, and achievement than broader extraversion (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a).

As stated earlier, dominance is not rank. Rank is not class, either, though social classes (such as the British class system or Indian caste system) can incorporate rank (Pandit, Pradhan & van Schaik, Reference Pandit, Pradhan and van Schaik2020). If rank exists in humans, it is subtle and probably multifaceted. Distinct hierarchies may exist for the prestigious, domineering, and leaders, though since someone who is likely to be high in leadership is also likely to be high in prestige, that individual is likely to do well in multiple types of hierarchy (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a; Suessenbach et al., Reference Suessenbach, Loughnan, Schönbrodt and Moore2019). In some social groups, certain traits may not be as influential – for example, there is probably little scope to get ahead by being domineering if you are an ascetic living in a monastic community. Nevertheless, nearly all humans live in hierarchically organized societies, and dominance is extraordinarily relevant to life in such societies. Humans may or may not have ranks the way nonhumans do, but we make frequent implicit status assessments from a young age (Heck, Shutts & Kinzler, Reference Heck, Shutts and Kinzler2022). When a human behaves dominantly, dyadically, or in a group, that individually is leveraging existing sociocultural structures and neural representations (Chiao, Reference Chiao2010; Cloutier, Cardenas-Iniguez, Gyurovski, Barakzai & Li, Reference Cloutier, Cardenas-Iniguez, Gyurovski, Barakzai, Li, Absher and Cloutier2016; Ligneul, Obeso, Ruff & Dreher, Reference Ligneul, Obeso, Ruff and Dreher2016; Qu et al., Reference Qu, Ligneul, Van der Henst and Dreher2017). As such, dominance is associated with key human socioeconomic status (SES) indicators, such as education and high income (Gensowski, Gørtz & Schurer, Reference Gensowski, Gørtz and Schurer2021). Moreover, the entire field of leadership studies is arguably wrapped up in dominance, so strong is the relationship among the constructs (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a; Suessenbach et al., Reference Suessenbach, Loughnan, Schönbrodt and Moore2019).

In the nonhuman primate literature, dominance and rank have been studied extensively from a stress and health perspective (Sapolsky, Reference Sapolsky2005). Subordinate primates in particular appear to have higher cortisol when exposed to more stressors, and when they have less social support (Abbott et al., Reference Abbott, Keverne, Bercovitch, Shively, Mendoza, Saltzman, Snowdon, Ziegler, Banjevic and Garland2003). Personality’s relationship with health has been extensively studied in humans, although the best-known associations come from, for instance, neuroticism (Strickhouser, Zell & Krizan, Reference Strickhouser, Zell and Krizan2017). However, dominance is, again, not often studied in this context apart from extraversion, and some studies suggest that submissiveness is associated with less risk of cardiovascular disease (Newton, Reference Newton2009; Whiteman, Deary, Lee & Fowkes, Reference Whiteman, Deary, Lee and Fowkes1997) and less stress (Altschul, Reference Altschul2018).

9. Recommendations and concluding thoughts

Dominance is not difficult to measure: a psychometric instrument using Likert scales that inquires about an individual’s dominance, assertiveness, outspokenness, timidity, and desire to lead will work. Many purported measures of dominance, assertiveness, etc suffice – see Altschul and Moore (Reference Altschul and Moore2023a) for a comparison of many common measures. If you have access to NEO, Big 5, or HEXACO data, the facet or aspect structure of all these models (and others besides) will measure something akin to dominance. Standard recommendations regarding personality assessment apply, e.g. more items yield better measurement than fewer items. If you wish to assess a broader construct, i.e. fearless dominance, NEO, HEXACO, IPIP, and others inventories can also be specially scored up to construct this domain (Witt, Donnellan & Blonigen, Reference Witt, Donnellan and Blonigen2009).

For the most comprehensive measure of dominance and its facets, the DoPL framework and questionnaires appear to be the best currently available (Suessenbach et al., Reference Suessenbach, Loughnan, Schönbrodt and Moore2019). These inventories measure general dominance as well as three subfactors: domineering, leadership, and prestige. The scales were developed in order to capture affective, behavioral, cognitive, and desire aspects, and among many recently developed instruments, these measures had the best psychometric properties; DoPL was the only dominance inventory readily useable in confirmatory factor analysis and structural equation modeling (Altschul & Moore, Reference Altschul and Moore2023a).

Together, broad fearless dominance and narrower assertiveness aspects and facets raise a question of what it means for the “importance” of a construct if it is easily identifiable, measurable, and found across multiple levels, but is not obviously present at the level revealed by the most convenient statistical model. On the other hand, more recent developments in the “nuance” oriented approach (Mõttus, Kandler, Bleidorn, Riemann & McCrae, Reference Mõttus, Kandler, Bleidorn, Riemann and McCrae2017) and causal modeling (Deffner, Rohrer & McElreath, Reference Deffner, Rohrer and McElreath2022) suggest that researchers ought to focus on the variables that are pertinent to their research question and think carefully about what covariates to include.

In conclusion, dominance is a widespread, meaningful personality construct. Even egalitarians possess differing amounts of a tendency to seek power, over others and themselves. All primates are, ultimately, hierarchical beings and dominance traits only make sense in the context of hierarchies and the individual’s pursuit of power and status. To understand our existence in the hierarchies we navigate, it is necessary to understand human, and nonhuman, primates’ individual psychological differences in dominance and submissiveness.


Adam Moore, Alexander Weiss, Felix Suessenbach, Aurelio José Figueredo, Mateo Peñaherrera-Aguirre, Neil McNaughton, Yury Lages, and one anonymous reviewer for their helpful discussion on this topic.

Financial support

The British Academy (PF20/100086).

Competing interests



This is part of the special issue on Animal Personality.


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Figure 0

Box 1. Key dominance relevant constructs and their definitions.