An alpha male is the dominant male in a community or group. Zoologists and related scientists typically use the term to describe top-ranking male animals, but people also apply it to human beings, typically referring to adult men rather than boys. In either case, an animal or person with this label usually is an excellent leader who is well-respected or feared, and who receives social privileges, such as better access to food or more attention from potential mates.
In general, an alpha male is physically strong or well built, and he has some traits that others — especially females — find beautiful or attractive. He is not mean, per se, but he is willing to fight aggressively, physically if need be, for what he has and wants, and to maintain his status. Most of the time, he is confident and is very capable of protecting the others in the group.
Some additional characteristics apply for people. Many individuals associate being the dominant male with money, because a solid financial status usually lets a person engage in more activities, meet more people or acquire things others want and admire. Potential partners also usually like to see that a man is in a good financial position before they commit to a relationship with him. Men with this title typically are very well groomed, like being the center of attention, act both suave and cocky, excel at sports and are able to get along with many different types of people. Traditionally, others might usually describe him as a "lady's man" or a "man's man," indicating how most women are attracted to him, and how most men want to be like him and look to him for behavioral cues.
Rise to Status
Much of the time, alpha males achieve their status as a result of using their physical strength to overpower weaker competitors. They also sometimes use superior intelligence to outwit others, which is very common with men due to the fact that many cultures do not promote open violence — sometimes this manifests as verbal threats or psychological manipulation. A male may also fall into a position of leadership and authority by default, such as if the other males in the group die.
In many species, becoming a leading male does not guarantee that an animal can keep that position. Young, strong or ambitious challengers often try to take over the role, usually by physically fighting for it. These confrontations can take an enormous toll on the alpha, who must constantly be on the defense, and in nature, injuries gained can be fatal. Death usually doesn't occur with men, but it can if a fight severely escalates, and many individuals simply are not willing to take on the risks and stress associated with the role, despite the benefits that are possible.
When one of these males gets older, he might willingly step down as the official leader of the group. A good example is an aging businessman who resigns so that his top executive or main apprentice can take over, but this behavior happens in the wild, as well. It usually occurs because, on some level, he knows that someone else can do a better job or because he no longer wants the responsibility of leadership due to health or personal reasons.
Sexual behavior for a dominant male depends to a great extent on the social behavior of the exact species to which he belongs. Some animals, such as wolves and gibbons, form pair relationships that can be lifelong, and those in a pair generally do not mate with anyone else. Other animals, such as bonobo monkeys and elephant seals, are known for their promiscuity. Many other species fall somewhere in the middle, with an animal having more than one partner but choosing one that he prefers over the others.
With great physical stature, attractiveness and leadership abilities, these males are in a perfect position to take their pick of the available partners, who tend to be more willing to mate with them than with other members in the group. They also usually are able to control the ability of other males to mate, which makes a larger number of potential partners available, and which makes it easier for them to form several sexual relationships at a time.
Some zoologists see the genetically-influenced desire to mate as a major reason why males in a group exhibit alpha characteristics, and it is certainly true that being able to be selective about or have multiple partners directly affects the number of offspring and the genetic traits that get passed on. Even so, this concept gets a little muddy with people, because the reasons why being the “top dog” makes someone happy are often psychologically and culturally complex. Men often have other reasons for trying to be dominant, such as wanting to impress others or climb the corporate ladder.
In many societies, it is not acceptable to have more than one sexual partner at a time, usually for moral, religious or economic reasons. Additionally, many women prefer sensitive partners who are willing to discuss their feelings, traits not usually associated with dominance. As a result, alpha men who “sleep around” aren’t always free from criticism. Experts have questioned whether these individuals can retain mates because of the way their natural drive conflicts with other social constructs.
The majority of species feature beta males, who essentially are second in command. They help the dominant male do whatever it is he wants or needs to do, and in some species, the beta takes over if the leader dies or can no longer fulfill his duties. In this sense, they can be considered “in training,” but there is no guarantee that they will become the new alpha.
The term “beta” does not have quite the same connotation for men as it does for other animals. People often use it to describe someone who is the exact opposite of an alpha — that is, a man who is whiny, gives up easily, is emotionally very sensitive and who lacks physical attractiveness or strength. It is sometimes used as a euphemism for the stereotypical “nerd,” who generally is socially inept and who is overpowered easily.
Dominant females in a group are alpha females. They often pair and mate with the dominant males, usually leading alongside them. Sometimes, however, they assume complete leadership for the group, depending on the species and whether there are any males available who could assert a degree of authority. Although they can rise to this position through physical, emotional or verbal force, they sometimes do so simply because an alpha male has selected them as a mate, developing leadership by association. A powerful man, for example, might have a “trophy wife,” whom others respect and follow just because she is married to the alpha.