The Psychology Of Dominance
Dominance hierarchies are formed by all primates and some other animals. A hierarchy is a way of ordering or grouping people in order to minimize the harsh effects of intense conflict. Higher up on the hierarchy the more you have access to resources and the more you can control or influence other’s behavior.
All humans instantiate dominance hierarchies, though some significantly more than others. See social dominance orientation (SDO) and trait disagreeableness. Dominance hierarchies can be based on anything, though it typically is built on competence, physical stature, resource control, or power.
You can try to avoid the game of dominance, but to some degree it pervades all aspects of life. Even the most fair hierarchies are still hierarchies. Based on your personality it is not a good idea suppress your desire for climbing a hierarchy.
Additionally you must have the ability to both establish and fight dominance attempts since inevitably you come in contact with a corrupt hierarchy. Below is a list of techniques organized in a strategic manner to make it easier to spot dominance attempts and respond successfully.
Keep in mind that small acts that seem simple can establish a subconscious belief that they are inferior to you. For example making someone always clean up after you or beg for your attention.
The Psychology Of Control
As far as control, the feeling of control is built on certainty and completion. Certainty can be attacked by randomly using blitzkrieg techniques and doing other unpredictable things. Completion can be attacked by starting tasks and never letting them stop them. See also social control where punishments and rewards establish control.
How Does One Person End Up More Dominant Or In Control Than Another?
Mental dominance happens when one person secedes power to another. There are a few things that cause one person to give up control to another. Weakness whether real or imagined, respect, desperation, naivete, or fear are all reasons one person ends up more dominant than another. A lack of experience fighting for status, a lack of desire to compete, or a recent loss of dominance can also play a role in which people secede what power.
Testosterone is strongly correlated to human dominance desire and behaviors.
Here is a list of articles that go more in depth on dominance.
How Do You Ensure Respect And Dominance In Your Social Group?
First, recognize that dominance disputes do happen and are important. If you aren’t willing to accept the fact that someone is playing dominance games with you, you won’t fight back. A simple way to know if a person has dominance over you is to think about whether they respect you or not. Look at the list of ways to establish dominance and see if the person is doing any of them on a regular basis. See this post if you want to fight back.
You might think that such disputes are petty. That is sometimes true but sometimes very much wrong. Small dominance maneuvers focused on establishing control of valuable resources over time will sap you of your ability to assert yourself if you don’t respond. Learn to determine if a specific fight is worth having by asking yourself this question. What happens if I never respond to this action and they keep doing it? What do I lose? Remember to always protect your reputation and ability to assert yourself.
Second, learn to spot resources that are important. Study personality theory, how to figure out what people want, and how to find a person’s weaknesses. By doing this you can then spot what will be the key battlegrounds and resources for when a dominance dispute happens. It will also help you spot the type of person who is likely to have such disputes with you.
Finally you need the willingness to exploit resources to maintain dominance, control, and respect. This can be as simple as setting boundaries to as complicated as having a full dominance dispute. Accept the fact that no one will put you first if you don’t learn to put yourself first. You need to help yourself before you can ever help others. Ultimately you can have all the resources and ability to establish dominance but you can only utilize it and turn it into power if you consciously know what to do. This article will teach you how. It might seem mean or cruel that you are refusing to give someone what they want unless they comply, but that is just sometimes how life works. Set your boundaries and what you want clearly. Hold the resources people want. Refuse to give them up if they don’t treat your boundaries and expectations with respect.
Steps For Dominance Or Control (Escalating Techniques)
The important thing to remember about dominance is that you must start small and escalate. Since part of the point of a hierarchy is that it minimizes the cost of physical disputes, outwardly jumping to the aggressive techniques will cause people to turn against you socially. Remember that most of the time you want to save these games for the disagreeable type of person who is inevitably going to play them with you. Some people are low on social dominance desire (see the section on agreeableness), and those are the people with which you probably won’t need to play any games at all. Save the techniques for breaking someone psychologically for those who are competing with you as it is a better use of resources.
Remember some dominance maneuvers that are effective in one situation are irrelevant in another because they aren’t targeted on resources that have much value. Those actions only irritate people and expose your hand. Focus your acts on things that matter. For example, if you control food in an area where there isn’t much food, a person can perform almost any dominance maneuver on you that they want, but ultimately will never achieve dominance. As long as you maintain control of the food and are willing to leverage access to the food to get compliance, you will remain dominant. Since food is the most valuable resource, you can just remove access until they comply.
This applies to any situation where one person wants something that another has. It doesn’t have to be a life saving thing like food access. It could be as simple as friendship, social esteem, video games, money, or any other valued resource. Remember to focus your efforts on the dominance disputes that matter and ignore the irrelevant battles that only waste your resources.
First start with the friendly techniques as they will typically allow you to establish dominance with out any costs. They also leave room for plausible deniability if someone calls you out on it. An important part of dominance can be simply catching a person off guard and then getting them to explain away your behavior. By the time they are sure you have a certain goal psychologically they have already lost.
Jump to the assertive techniques when someone begins to respond to your first movements or the friendly techniques aren’t working. Finally use the aggressive techniques only when it is clear you are having a dominance dispute and things have escalated.
To establish dominance, control, or respect, people must feel one of three emotions. They must either be scared, fearful, or uncertain. When they feel these feelings, they will give up control to an authority.
To present yourself as an authority, have good posture, dress slightly better than the situation requires, remove ‘ums’ from your speech, slow down, and try to master the topic so you sound professional. Practice being assertive in social situations. For more techniques, see this article where we talk about creating an agentic shift.
Some of the more aggressive techniques will require you holding your leverage over people’s heads. You must be willing to risk the feeling of someone disliking you in order to maintain the reality of control or to keep the ability to establish dominance. It does however help to think about having control of intermediate things you can give and take away so you don’t just jump immediately to the most harsh techniques.
Also try thinking about different levels of rewards and punishments you can meet out on people when they do or don’t comply. This long term strategic thought will help you establish dominance and control more effectively.
This category of techniques allow you to gain control with out any negative side effects. The tricks are benign enough that you can always pretend you aren’t doing anything, yet powerful enough that they will help you gain control in most situations if you are good enough at them.
- Attention: People have boring lives. If you can grab their attention and hold it, people will temporarily give up control to you. Capture their attention frequently enough and they will give you control voluntarily because you have developed a pattern of being interesting. There are a few ways to do this. Do interesting things in life like go on unique vacations. Develop random hobbies that sound frightening. Become skilled at storytelling. Become an expert at a topic your social group cares about. Learn how to tell jokes and do comedy. Take the opposite side in a discussion so people think of you as someone who always has something unique to say. Remember, once you have their attention, only give them pieces of the answer so they keep listening to you. You can also try lowering the sound of your voice so people have to sit forward and listen carefully to you. Over time, people’s bodies and minds will become conditioned to pay attention and value what you have to say.
- Questions: Questions are extremely powerful and can be used to get you control or social dominance. Use questions to establish fear and uncertainty. First frame yourself as someone who is curious, open minded, and eager to learn. Presenting yourself this way will allow you to take the rest of the steps with out people thinking twice. Next ask clarifying and expository questions when people make a claim. For example if someone says construction is the best way to make money at your age ask why they think that. Then keep asking why and how questions. This does two things. First it exposes the strength of their argument and can show that they aren’t as sure as they thought they were. Second it gets them explaining themselves to you and puts you in the position to judge whether their information is valuable or not. If you get people explaining themselves to you regularly enough you won’t have a difficult time establishing control over them. Simply say that you aren’t convinced regardless of the strength of their argument. Offer other ways of interpreting what they are saying. Another useful way to use questions is for clarification. Anytime someone asks you a question, ask one or two questions in return before you answer. The questions should be focused on why the person is asking and what they are going to do with the information once you share it with them. This will show that you are in control of what information you do and don’t give out. Occasionally refuse to answer their question by saying that you don’t think that answer is important enough. Finally you can use the expert question strategy. This means asking people questions they don’t know the answer to. This works extremely well if you have experience in a topic or subject. Use it to remind people that they aren’t as experienced in an area as they think they are. This keeps them humble. Try also reminding people of their lack of certainty or the chance they could be wrong. Do this with questions like “is it possible you are wrong,” or “what happens if you aren’t right,” or “what kind of official skills do you have in this area?” See this article for more on how to undermine someone with questions. A final note you can also make people repeat themselves again.
- Be Unpredictable: This is an extremely powerful strategy if you can pull it off. The general strategy here is to keep the person reacting to you. Think of it as a polite blitzkrieg attack. You rush in quickly to a situation and capture attention using your momentum. If they are focused on trying to understand or interpret what you are doing you are in control and have established a form of dominance. Dress or act in a different way. Joke around randomly. Make loud noises when everyone is quite. Find simple ways to disrupt their daily routines (sit in their typical lunch spot). If you are outgoing, funny, and charismatic, this might be the best strategy for you if combined with technique #1 in this section. Learn to quickly enter a social situation and joke your way to the center stage. By keeping all eyes on you, you become the one who chooses when certain things happen and when they don’t. This can be as simple as when people end a party or when a negotiation or business meeting actually begins.
- Debate And Reason: One of the most powerful tools for establishing control and dominance is to simply know better than everyone else. Become skilled at winning arguments and you will often naturally become the leader of the group. The key here is sometimes pure and simple stubbornness. See this article for more. Practice using questions to destroy your opponent’s arguments. You also can set up debates or discussions that you are already prepared for or are the only expert present. Simply learn everyone’s interests and skills and find out where they have an interest but not qualifications. Become the expert in that and start a debate you know you can win. Randomly attack people’s weaker arguments to get them feeling uncertain. You can also nit pick which we will cover in the next section.
- Convey Certainty: We covered a few ways to establish certainty earlier. Basically you need to speak with a confident tone, dress well, and have good posture. Smile less, don’t move too quickly, and make a judging and skeptical face when people speak. See this article for more. You can also display badges of victory to ward off potential dominance challenges. This can be as simple as employee of the year awards, a nice car or house or clothes, or even randomly attacking people’s ideas with skepticism. You an also simply just tell stories of how you did something impressive.
- The Self Affirm Trick: People are most convinced when they reach a conclusion themselves. People also have a desire to remain consistent with how they have acted in the past. Harness these two psychological drives by getting people to compliment or affirm your position. Use social pressure by asking questions that have answers that build your status. If people are constantly complimenting and reaffirming your level of expertise or skill, they will believe you are more dominant. The main way to do this is to use leading questions. For example you might say “well tell them how long I’ve been working here, Josephine,” to your coworker when a new group of hires is meeting your team. Do people favors and then ask about them in public so they compliment you. You can even take the sarcastic approach, downplaying your contributions in public so people argue with you and start talking about how much you’ve actually contributed. Try getting people to tell stories of how you won or conquered or exceeded expectations. Another version of this trick is to simply get people doing things for you. Again, if people act like they are below you, then eventually they will self persuade and reach that conclusion themselves. Ask people to get you drinks, pick up things at the store, or do other small tasks that put them in an inferior position. This also has the added bonus that people feel connected to you since they get to ‘help out.’
- Win Token Battles: People avoid violent dominance challenges with verbal battles. But they also have smaller token battles that represent smaller dominance challenges. This can be sport events, video games, verbal debates, social parties, or any event the group values. Simply make sure you win these events to establish dominance. Eye contact also is a reflexive behavior for establishing dominance. Keep in mind that you can’t lose too many eye contact battles. In legal negotiations, dominance is often established in small ways by first controlling the procedural elements of the negotiation. This could mean anything from gaining small one sided concessions on points you know they don’t care about, to purposefully establishing unequal rules that you think they might not fight you one. These subtle tricks add up psychologically.
- Control Time: Controlling time means you are more dominant. Do this with the question techniques listed above or by making them explain themselves. You can also try to control when a business meeting starts while you are small talking. Simply carry the small talk and when the person brings up business, say you don’t feel like you know the person well enough to get into business. This can extend to other techniques we will list later but basically you make excuses to force a person to comply with your time schedule. Consider rushing people’s decision making so they don’t have time to realistically think about all the pros and cons. This will force people to rely on your wisdom since they haven’t had time to think it out. Finally you can ask people to be brief. Either make up something you have to do or pretend to get confused every time they launch into a long explanation. Don’t be available whenever they try to get a hold of you. This means waiting to text back, waiting to respond to a call, or refusing social events when they are sprung on you last minute. You can also then demand that they be available whenever you want on a whim. Be careful though with the last part since it probably belongs in the more assertive or aggressive sections.
- Use The Availability Heuristic: This is more of an advanced trick but it can be useful if you can pull it off. Availability heuristic is a cognitive bias where the brain gives more weight to what it is able to recall. You can twist this technique to make it undermine someone’s feeling of certainty, establishing control or dominance in the process. Simply ask people to list all the reasons they have for thinking they have a certain characteristic. The studies asked people for ten examples of why they thought they had a certain personality trait. For example, responsibility. Since ten is quite a few examples, most people can’t come up with that many examples, even if they are quite responsible. This leads people to doubt that they are responsible because of the struggling feeling they felt while trying to think up that many examples. Simply ask people for lots of examples of a characteristic they think is valuable. But be ready with your own examples since they will probably ask you the same thing. This technique is a great way to chip away at someone’s confidence and establish dominance.
- Get them to complain. If you get someone to complain you learn new things about what bothers them but you also have a chance to correct or teach them. Taking care of them also is a sign of dominance under certain circumstances.
Assertive techniques are useful if you want to go out of your way to establish dominance, and being caught would be less costly than not having control. Some overlap with earlier techniques but still bear mentioning because they have slightly different methods of application.
- Establish Problems: This technique is core to many low level sales and collections situations. If the person doesn’t believe they have a problem, why would they secede control to another person? The easiest way to establish problems is to use questions to point out limitations, mistakes, and mismatches with reality. For example you might ask someone if they are prepared for what would happen if their plan fails. Questions and comments should target making people feel scared, fearful, or uncertain. This deserves a second mention because using questions to point out problems and weaknesses can be interpreted as less than friendly depending on how it is done. You can also focus on just catastrophizing all their actions and focusing them on their imminent failure. Also try tracking how often they are wrong about things. It helps to keep track of 3 instances of them saying something then being wrong. Then when they make an assertion, ask why anyone should believe them when they were wrong in these situations (list the three examples). Finally you can poke fun at a weakness they have and then claim it is a joke. This allows you to notify someone that you have teeth (or the ability to attack them back) while brushing it off. This works best if you generally have a nice demeanor so people will think you really were joking. You can also correct things that aren’t always relevant to the task at hand (do you have your badge, your shirt is dirty). Establishing problems can also be as simple as bringing up topics that make a person uncomfortable. Then you can start arguing how their opponent is justified in their behavior.
- Reframe: You can also reframe the person’s actions as them serving you. Make comments about how the person helps you out or works really hard for you. See this article for more on reframing. Another version of framing takes place in your mind and then carries out through your actions. Simply take a demanding parent’s view of the person. Act like you own the place. Pretend they are your child. This means looking critically at everything they do. This means making a skeptical face when they speak. This means scolding them when they fall short. Sometimes you see this in healthcare situations where nurses condescendingly ask how a patient feels, inferring that they are probably weak enough that they need help. Body language and tone is important to conveying this message correctly. Finally you can compliment them on how far they have come in a certain category. This can be a sport, job, or other skill based task. This is a great trick because it implicitly establishes you as dominant and it infers they aren’t. But it also appears like a compliment which makes it hard to respond to.
- The Topic Trick: If you are skilled socially you can also lead people or groups to bringing up topics that make a person feel uncomfortable, fearful, nervous, or less in control. When people feel this way they are more likely to differ to someone who is doing a good job of conveying certainty.
- Gift Giving: Giving gifts can be seen as friendly and helpful but sometimes they carry a negative after effect. Caldini talked about how humans feel obligated via reciprocity. You can use this as a double sword. Give people gifts to buy yourself good will, but make it clear those gifts are conditional upon them behaving as you like. Find what they like or want and then offer it to them. Spread out access to the gifts so they don’t get all they want at once. Note, you must be willing to use the leverage you have to gain respect. Expect people to kick back a bit with this technique.
- Petty Rules: Petty rules are often a way of establishing and reinforcing dominance. For example you might tell people they have to take their shoes off when they enter your house. This is a good way to screen for people who do and don’t respect you. You can also make other petty rules and red tape that people must cross if they want to speak to you. Paradoxically people often think meeting with you is more valuable if you have lots of hoops to jump through to speak to you. For example, you can use your tricks to wast their time, force them to focus on what you want, attend events, only talk about certain topics, and more. Simply tell them that it isn’t respectful or ‘cool’ to act a certain way when they are in your territory (workplace, home, property). You can also make people wait for what they want or do more silly performances to get something you have.
- Tasking: When people comply with your demands and work for you, they self teach that you are in control. Give people small and simple tasks to do that reaffirm your dominance. The best tasks are those that are socially difficult to disrespect or refuse. For example you might ask someone to get you a glass of water if they are standing in the kitchen. This technique can be even more broad and stretch to include things like helping someone find their life purpose and then following up with them on whether they are fulfilling it. Discuss what they are struggling to achieve in life and then stay on them achieving it. Tell them what they shouldn’t and should do in life. Telling people what they should be doing in life is particularly effective since everyone could be doing some aspect of their life better. Anther version of tasking is to check up on how people are doing. This could be emotionally or task wise.
- Disagreeing: similar to the debate and reasoning trick, this trick uses verbal jousting to establish control or dominance. The difference is this technique involves simply disagreeing regardless of what comes out of their mouths. Eventually they will start to question why you disagree. If you can think up a good argument, great. But if you can’t just say “that just isn’t the right way to look at the situation.” Stubbornness is key here. This is one of the most effective techniques if employed with the right type of personality that is more agreeable and open. This is closely related to the nit picking technique where you pounce on small inaccuracies that everyone has in speech. For example, if someone says they have lived in an area for 1 year, correct them by saying the specific amount of time, 11 months. If nit picking is done successfully people will start to hesitate when they speak around you and it will make you seem more dominant. You can also correct things like word usage, pronunciation, grammar, and other linguistic actions. This works extremely well because speech is closely related to a person’s self expression of identity. It is the most creative thing you do as a human and correcting speech makes you question your core. Do all of the above with an air of skepticism.
- Aesthetic Attack: Aesthetics are largely a matter of subjectivity. While humans agree on certain matters of art and taste, you can probably disagree at almost any moment when someone makes an aesthetic judgement. Lure people into saying what their favorite things are and then use the disagree trick. This is very helpful when you first meet people as disagreeing about taste makes you seem more formidable.
- Earn Everything: One way to establish or remind people of how much control you have is to make them earn everything you give them. This works extremely well in the workplace. Simply set restrictions on things you know people will want. Then set high expectations for receiving those things. This not only portrays you as the person in control but it also allows you to create an in group that you can leverage for even more control. This does work outside the workplace but needs to be more subtle. Try figuring out what your group wants or values and then only invite certain people. Text or remind people they are invited each time. If they act the way you want then they get an invitation. If they don’t then you just forget that you didn’t invite them.
Aggressive techniques are best used when someone is having an open dominance dispute with you and there is something important to be gained by winning. Also consider that sometimes it is useful to pick a fight just to practice fighting, though you need to make sure you have a strong social network before you do this. Attacking the ‘big dog’ can also help you rise out of obscurity whether you win or not, and that can help you establish dominance, fear, and respect. Keep challenging the ‘big dog’ until they fight back. If they attack you win, if they ignore you they also give you a chance to cause them irreparable damage. Regardless, fighting always has costs, so make sure you factor those costs in.
- You Are Insignificant: Acting like someone is insignificant lowers their status. You can do this by either hurrying up their speech with rushed facial expressions, cleaning your nails, giving the silent treatment, or ignoring what they say and making them repeat themselves. Signify with your body, speech, and overall behavior that the person isn’t important. This works well in a group where everyone has a problem with the person you are attacking. Keep in mind that some people are so entitled that simply ignoring them will frustrate them and establish a measure of control over their behavior because they will become emotional. One way to make people feel insignificant is to one up them with a greater accomplishment.
- Just Take It: Taking things people have sends the signal that they are lower on the dominance hierarchy. This can be simply taking their food that they like, taking their typical seat, taking up their space with your stuff, and speaking over them. This can even be as subtle as being overly friendly with their partner.
- Minimizing Or Gaslighting: Minimizing erodes a person’s accomplishments. Gaslighting denies a person’s reality. Both techniques assert a sort of powerlessness within the target. Try minimizing first as it is more logical and has lower costs. Try asking “why is X wrong with you,” where X is an imperfection or flaw. One particularly effective minimization technique is to make guesses that underplay or overplay what they have accomplished. For example if they say they have an exciting announcement about work, you can guess that they are being promoted to CEO. Since that is an impressive and unlikely circumstance, anything they say after that will be less than. Additionally you can under guess their accolades. For example you might say “oh you learned that from your bachelor’s degree right” when they have a PHD.
- The Set And Break Trick: This trick sends a strong message that someone is below you on the dominance hierarchy. Set a rule for them and then don’t follow that rule in front of them. When they don’t follow the rule, punish them. When they protest, simply ask why they think they are entitled to fairness. Tell them life isn’t fair.
- Intimidation Tactics: Intimidation tactics can be as simple as physically standing over people, pointing at them, or yelling, to as simple as a stare down or a passive threat. The goal is to instantiate the feeling of fear. Try telling people what happened to the last person who didn’t get in line. Occupy their territory, keep them from doing things that portray them as equal. This is similar to the second trick just take it. Create rules that are slightly overbearing, then trigger a person to break the rule, then punish them for breaking it. This can literally be saying not to touch the AC in the car, then making the car hot, and then when they turn the AC down, punishing them or kicking them out. This can be as benign or extreme as you want. The key here is to think about the result of your action. Do you want them to be walking on egg shells around you? Will you lose social leverage if you act this way?
- Insults: Insults can take many forms but they all serve to say I can attack you and you can’t do anything about it. There are things wrong with you so you shouldn’t be in charge. Insults disguised as jokes, shaming, and compliment insults are effective here. Target these at someone’s psychological weaknesses. Try reminding people of their failures and weaknesses when you are one on one with them or when you are in public. This feeling of shame will lower their status. This can be done by poking fun at how they display a weak sign like a thick jacket on a cold day or a unkempt look at a work meeting. Another way to do this is to secret guess, which involves figuring out their deep dark secrets and then guessing them publicly.
- Isolation: Isolating people strips them of their power. Dig up old beefs that people have. Find what resentment is buried behind the smiles. Misinterpret comments and prey on people’s insecurities. What do you think about what Z said about you? Or, you probably don’t think much about how X said Y about you? Isolation can be physical, social, or intellectual. If people think different things from their surroundings they will often isolate themselves.
- Hurt and rescue technique: Sometimes people don’t need you to control or dominate their lives, so you have to draw out or create a pain. The hurt and rescue technique involves doing this. Companies often use this trick. For example one competitor might buy all the trucks in the area and then rent them out to their competitor at really high prices. Thus they establish control by hurting the competition and then rescuing them in such a way that they will never regain control again.