Today we are going to discuss the psychology of social dominance, using a clip from the TV show Jack Reacher. We’ll cover two key components at the heart of every dominance attempt. You need to understand both if you want to know how to be more socially dominant.
In this scene a man named Jack Reacher has been unjustly locked up in jail with an accountant. We’ll see a man enter the jail cell who starts establishing dominance on the accountant. If you want to understand dominance in this scene, ownership is important.
How To Be More Socially Dominant
Step 1: The Mindset of Social Dominance Orientation
Psychologists created a questionnaire to measure something called Social Dominance Orientation (SDO). Social dominance orientation is a type of personality trait. People with this trait believe some are inferior. They believe situations where some are on top, and others are on the bottom, are inevitable. Trying to change this won’t really work. Those high on SDO will often use aggression, violence, intimidation, and threats to increase the perceived social gap between themselves and others.
We see this immediately in this clip where the inmates are “bartering” for access to the accountant. They see him as lesser. He is a product to be traded for and owned.
This mental separation is the foundation of social dominance. Instead of looking at someone as an equal, dominant people often look at others as lesser. The other people “work for them,” or “exist to serve their needs.” They own everyone. To get this frame of mind, practice looking at people’s weaknesses and insufficiencies. What are their goals and how do they fail to achieve those goals? Picture them working for you.
This mental mindset of ownership leads into the next two behaviors we see. They are verbal aggression and physical positioning.
Step 2: Verbal Aggression
Verbal aggression plays many roles in dominance. Some studies have found that those who were more verbally aggressive were seen as popular. They were also perceived as leaders. Studies also found there were certain ways of typically expressing verbal aggression in leadership contexts. They include comments on the mood in the room, comments about a person’s appearance, mockery, threats, and criticism. Successful aggression and dominance are so connected that many places in the literature use the terms interchangeably. Verbal aggression is often a precursor for actual violence.
The inmate expresses this verbal aggression in a few ways. He says “isn’t she pretty,” a clearly demeaning comment. The man doesn’t respond and instead keeps cowering. So the prisoner keeps taking and demonstrating his ownership. “Give me those shoes baby, little bitch.” This string of insults and requests is meant as a further test. Will the accountant respond when someone is clearly taking something that is his? Even the “rewarding” comment at the end is an insult. He says “good girl.”
Remember to keep reading to learn the key to social dominance.
Verbal aggression doesn’t have to be confined to insults. It can also take place in a more mild and socially acceptable forms in debate. Consider using the “devil’s advocate” approach in conversations. Figure out what the other person is arguing, disagree, critique what they are saying, and argue the other side.
This establishes you as someone who is willing to call out mistakes. It gives you a sort of social “threat.” If they don’t think about what they are saying around you, you’ll make them look dumb.
Step 3: Space and Ownership
We also see the man take up more physical space as the scene goes on. He moves from the doorway of the cell to the center. Since the cell is a sort of “home” for prisoners, the man is displaying ownership as he moves to the center place of the room.
Studies show that subtle things like seating arrangement in meetings can effect perceptions of who is in charge. One study found that when a person sat at the head of the table, others perceived them as more dominant. Furthermore, when no leader was clearly defined in the group, the members attributed leadership to the person sitting at the head of the table.
When you enter a room, consider standing in the middle and taking up space. This might just tip the cards in your favor.
The inmate finishes off by requesting the accountant’s glasses. He spits on the glasses and then crushes them. This is a message showing that he is going to take whatever he wants, even if he doesn’t value it at all. “You need this badly. I took it from you and I don’t even need it. That is how much more power I have.” This reinforces the sense of ownership and the power imbalance. He is gaining power by demonstrating his existing power.
In the final part, watch how Jack Reacher responds. How many of the inmate’s techniques does Reacher use?
Reacting to Dominance Attempts
Step 1: Counter Claim the Space
We see Reacher immediately do two things. First, he counter claims the space. Then he insults the man and tells him to get out. This is one of the keys to breaking someone’s frame. He perpetrates a small act of defiance. This defiance sends the signal that he is willing to fight over the disagreement.
Above, we advised playing devil’s advocate. Disagreeing with someone at least once in a conversation is an excellent way to perpetrate a small act of defiance. This is especially true if you can find a legitimate weakness in their line of thought.
Step 2: Be Competent and Criticize Other’s Competence
Moreover, his insult is a specific form of criticism. The study we referenced earlier spoke about the different ways leaders are verbally aggressive. One of them is criticism. Leaders are often symbols of the fight against mediocrity. They stand for progress and don’t tolerate anything less than perfection.
By calling the man fatso, Reacher is pointing out how the man falls short of the masculine ideal. His physical appearance implies he isn’t competent. Competence often leads to power and status. In contrast, Reacher’s stature implies discipline and competence. Why listen to someone who is so clearly unskilled in a relevant area? Why respect someone like that?
Step 3: Stubbornly Keep Your Frame
Next the man tries to respond by using a question to take control of the conversation. But Reacher ignores the question, maintaining his frame, and starts counting down. We won’t go into frames as much in this video, but know that whoever is responding isn’t in control. Reacher isn’t responding. Keep frame by ignoring the other person’s questions and instead stubbornly carrying on.
Click here if you want to know more about frames in conversation.
Also notable is the fact that he doesn’t even finish counting down, and just mashes the man’s head.
The Key to Dominance
This physical altercation tips us off to the heart of any dominance situation. Punishment.
Every attempt at dominance must possess a realistic threat of punishment, even if it is unspoken. People listen to their bosses because the boss can fire them. Children listen to their parents because parents can take things away. Social Dominance requires someone willing and able to punish.
If you want to know how to most effectively punish people, check out this article.
Finally after demonstrating his physical prowess, he makes the side kick give him a pair of glasses, and dismisses them. This completes the dominance exchange. Reacher is marked as the person who is in charge. He “owns” the area. More importantly he has the willingness and ability to punish in order to maintain that ownership.
There are two categories for achieving social status in the literature. We just spoke about dominance, which is using force and intimidation to climb the ladder. If you want to know more about how to be more dominant by making good insults, check out our page on the psychology of insults.
The second type is the “prestige method.” This method relies on developing useful skills and then sharing those skills with others. If you want to learn more about that technique, which increases influence even more than dominance in certain situations, see our article here, where we discuss helpful techniques.