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Men: why it's better to be beta

17:00 Mon Feb 20 2012
Hugh Wilson
Men: why it's better to be beta
Alpha men are known to smile less, but women generally like a positive happy man

Think your alpha male has all the fun? Think again.

In the animal kingdom the alpha male is The Man. He gets first dibs at any food on offer. He gets his pick of the females (in some species, he gets ALL the females). He runs the herd, pack or pride.

Things are a bit more complex in human societies, but received opinion has it that it's still best to be the alpha male. Alpha males are confident, macho and aggressive. Whether they're good looking or not, their soaring self-esteem means they tend to have the pick of good-looking women.

By comparison, the beta male, a rung down in the social hierarchy, appears responsible, moderate and a little bit humdrum. But few men can attain top dog status, so most of us are betas by default.

And we're going to let you into a little secret: it's far better to be beta. Here's why.

It's tough at the top
There are certainly benefits to being top dog, but the pitfalls are many and deep. When you're top of the pile, somebody always wants to knock you off. You have to fight to maintain your position. In the animal kingdom, the alpha male doesn't often stay that way for long.

And research from Princeton University in the US confirms that you should be careful what you wish for. Among baboons — genetically a pretty close match — alpha males tend to have very high levels of damaging stress hormones swilling around their systems.

That's probably because of all the fighting they have to do to protect their access to the highest ranked females. The study also found that beta males, who didn't fight much, were much less stressed, but still got plenty of female attention.

"An important insight from our study is that the top position in some animal — and possibly human — societies has unique costs and benefits associated with it," said lead author Laurence Gesquiere, an associate research scholar in Princeton's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. "Baboons are not only genetically closely related to humans, but like humans they live in highly complex societies."

A is for Adrenalin
Many human alpha-male behaviours release adrenalin, the 'fight or flight' hormone that gets us ready to run or rumble.

Even though human alpha males don't have to physically fight for position, they do live in constant fear of being ousted — whether at work, on the squash court or in their personal lives — by a leaner, hungrier, more macho competitor. The result? A sense of threat is the alpha male's constant companion, leading to an endless drip feed of adrenalin.

And that's damaging. Too much adrenalin can lead to a weakened immune system, raised blood pressure and increased cholesterol. Quite simply, being an alpha male is stressful, and being too stressed for too long is bad for your health.

It's also true that some alpha males have what's called type-A personalities. Type-As are typically less patient and more angry than the rest of us. Recent research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that hostile people had twice the risk of cardiovascular problems as their calmer counterparts.

In other words, being an alpha male should come with a health warning.

Alpha dating
But the health costs of being an alpha male are more than made up for by the sex, right? That's what alphas tend to claim, and every seduction blog and website out there tells men to hide their beta traits and unleash their inner alpha.

But the evidence is just not that clear. For example, an international study by the University of Stirling found that large numbers of women did indeed favour manlier men. So far, so good for the alpha male.

The problem? Those women tended to live in poor countries where disease was rife. The researchers theorised that manly, alpha males tend to have plenty of testosterone swimming round, and testosterone is suggestive of good, hardy genes (for rather complex biological reasons). Women in poor countries fancied alpha males most because those tough genes would be passed on to any resulting children.

But the same results were not found in women from rich countries where everyone has plenty to eat and easy access to good healthcare. In those countries, the alphas had no mating advantage, the study found.

Other studies have shown that a woman may be especially attracted to more masculine faces when she's ovulating, because manly men may have the toughest genes. But for the rest of the month she fancies softer-faced men, who are more likely to make faithful partners and good dads. In a nutshell, she fancies betas.

Alpha relationships
Other research suggests that, even if alphas get the girl in the first place, they won't have her for long. Alpha-male life is often a lurch from one relationship crisis to another.

In an American study men with just slightly more testosterone than average were 43% more likely to get divorced than men with normal levels, 31% more likely to leave home after marital problems and 38% more likely to cheat on their wives.

And according to other studies, there's another reason why women in developed nations might be increasingly turning to beta men. They no longer stay at home while men go out to work.

A modern western woman earns her own money, making an alpha's earning potential less of a draw. She's free to choose what she really wants, which might still be a chiselled, proud alpha male, but is equally likely to be a loving, respectful beta.

Beta is better
Of course, many young women still fancy the alpha male stereotypes they see on TV or at the cinema. But in the real world excessive testosterone is no longer the draw it was when women stayed at home minding children all day and a testosterone-fuelled mate was the best path to safety and security.

Beta and alpha males are pretty much neck and neck in the dating stakes. A chiselled jawline and a bulging wallet are still attractive, but so are good listening skills and a nice way with the kids.

And if you take into account the stressed-out life of the alpha male there's only one conclusion. Betas of the world rejoice (that's most of us): beta really is better.

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