Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Stop using the term "beta male" to mean "wimp"



"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
- Inigo Montoya

One of the most popular recent buzzwords in American pop culture is the term "beta male", which people use as a synonym for "wimp". Urban Dictionary defines a "beta male" as:
An unremarkable, careful man who avoids risk and confrontation. Beta males lack the physical presence, charisma and confidence of the Alpha male.
I see this term everywhere: pop literature, the internet, TV. There's even an Amazon show called "Betas" (which at least is a pun). The popular conception is of men being divided into two groups: "Alphas", i.e. tough dominant manly-men who enjoy pumping iron and hauling women back to their meat-caves, and "betas", i.e. skinny wimpy emo dudes who would rather stay home cooking a souffle and crying along to Death Cab for Cutie.

This terminology annoys me. It annoys me because of a class I took in college, called "Human Behavioral Biology" (taught by the great Robert Sapolsky), in which I learned a little bit about primate societies. Because I took Sapolsky's class, I know that our culture is using the term "beta male" completely wrong.

Here's how primate biologists actually use Greek letters to describe male primates:
In social animals, the alpha is the individual in the community with the highest rank...In hierarchal social animals, alphas usually gain preferential access to food and other desirable items or activities, though the extent of this social effect varies widely by species...Alphas may achieve their status by means of superior physical prowess and/or through social efforts and building alliances within the group... 
Beta animals often act as second-in-command to the reigning alpha or alphas and will act as new alpha animals if an alpha dies or is otherwise no longer considered an alpha...
Omega (usually rendered ω) is an antonym used to refer to the lowest caste of the hierarchical society. Omega animals are subordinate to all others in the community, and are expected by others in the group to remain submissive to everyone. Omega animals may also be used as communal scapegoats or outlets for frustration, or given the lowest priority when distributing food. (emphasis mine)
So as it turns out, we're using the term "alpha male" correctly, but we're using the term "beta male" all wrong. The beta male is the alpha male's lieutenant. He's the #2. In other words, he's more like a wingman.

The omega male is the wimpy loser, not the beta. Everybody, please adjust your slang accordingly.

Of course, our society being as goofy as it is, I don't really expect people to stop using "beta" when they actually mean "omega". But there's another interesting question here. Are wimpy emo dudes actually omega males? Do they cook souffles and listen to Death Cab for Cutie because they have been kicked to the lowest rung of the male power hierarchy? Or are some of them...something else entirely?

Those male power hierarchies exist among primates that are called "tournament species". But humans are a strange case, about halfway between a tournament species and a "pair-bonding species". In other words, it's highly probable that some of those wimpy emo guys are emo by choice, not because it was the only social option open to them. Their brains are just full of vasopressin receptors or whatever.

So some of the guys who we call "beta" don't fall anywhere on the Greek letter spectrum at all.

39 comments:

  1. C'mon. "Omega Male" sounds AWESOME.

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  2. I think this is just another example of people superimposing their politics on nature, and then appealing to that superimposition to justify their politics.

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  3. Anonymous1:29 PM

    Epsilon-minus semi-moron.
    (Brave New World, Huxley)

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  4. Also, next time I hear someone refer to himself as an alpha male, I'm going to look him in the eye as I stuff my face with figs and ask, "whatcha gonna do about it?"

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  5. Anonymous1:55 PM

    I have not seen the term Beta male used outside of the discussions by stupid trolls at EJMR. You mean, it's more pervasive? And there I was hoping that EJMR typified the cesspool of human civilization.

    This ruins my day.

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    1. There are places that make EJMR look like Sesame Street.

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  6. Anonymous2:20 PM

    Alpha males are also murdered pretty routinely in the wild, usually by the betas, but doesn't happen much in human societies any more unfortunately.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Those betas murder because they wish to be alphas. And it's usually not murder. It's just a fight and the loser loses his place in the pack.

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  7. Interesting...

    I hate to break this to you, but you share this view with... the neo-reactionaries: http://alphagameplan.blogspot.in/2011/03/socio-sexual-hierarchy.html

    This division is pretty much accepted as realistic among neo-reactionaries, although "sigma" is clearly some sort of wish-fulfillment. They still use "beta" in conversation because it's seeped into culture so deeply. Omega is pretty widely used though.

    As for the notion that "everyone else is getting it wrong"... has it occurred to you that the words "alpha" and "beta" have now been divorced from their primate society origins? Metaphors whose metaphorical nature is being forgotten (if it hasn't already been forgotten?) Like how "idiot" used to mean mentally retarded, but now is just used to mean someone who is stupid. I always thought the terms were from wolf packs.

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  8. RAstudent3:02 PM

    Being a manly man that enjoys pumping iron and taking women back to his meat cave seems to have little bearing on their preferential access to food or other desirable items. Look at the worlds 10 richest people. Maybe Carlos Slim or David Koch would be alpha males but I am guessing I none of them would be at the top as a gorilla or chimp.

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  9. So I guess Noah approves of how the TV show "Teen Wolf" utilizes the terminology....

    Using words whose actual meaning in context are unknown is a popular pastime.

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  10. Don't search for the term "manosphere" if you know what's good for you.

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    1. Oh...I know the manosphere. ;-)

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  11. Inigo Montoya5:23 PM

    My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!

    P.S. Kudos on the quote Noah, it made me smile! (CA)

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    1. You'd make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts!

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    2. Ha ha, my wife agrees!

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  12. Anonymous5:53 PM

    "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
    Humpty Dumpty

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  13. Theta male, cause I am good looking at all angles.

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  14. Noah, I've got to give you credit-- just from this post of yours alone I can tell you actually know so much more about primate biology than you do about economics!!

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  15. Robert Sapolsky is fantastic. His Teaching Company course "Biology and Human Behavior" changed the way I think. I think he also has some free courses available on itunesu.

    But you're wrong about betas. I'm a descriptivist, and if people have used the word that way and it is now understood that way, then it is correct.

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  16. Anonymous5:25 AM

    You have it all wrong. Charlton Heston is the "Omega man". He was definitely alpha.

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  17. Anonymous6:07 AM

    Sticking with autism as the slang of choice seems to work. This blog post was full of it.

    sanambot seems to be defeating your captcha fyi

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  18. Anonymous10:44 AM

    Example: Roissy is beta,Aaron Sleezy is beta,Roosh is omega

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  19. Another Noah2:22 PM

    I read the title and expected a different article than what I read.

    As an aside, I read this blog in part because I'm interested in economics and rationality and cool things like that, but also because I happened to be named Noah and this blog has a great name.

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    1. There is only one Noah, and We are legion.

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  20. Call me crazy, and maybe this is because I live in Portland, OR, but the "Omega male" you describe is actually considered a prime catch around these parts. Of course, those dudes will break your heart when it turns out they are more interested in indie bands and finding themselves than they are in Not Being A Jerk About Feelings And Stuff. The "beta" dudes are the relationship material, and the "alpha" guys exist in a weird shadow dimension that is technically in the same physical space as the city I love, and yet so far away that I never have to interact with them so long as I'm not on a date at the Cheesecake Factory. Note to self: do not consent to dates at the Cheesecake Factory.

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    1. marcel11:07 AM

      A generation or 2 ago in your region of the country, these guys were known as SNAGs, and Christy Lavin wrote a whole song about the phenotype.

      40 years ago, my wife lived in eastern Washington for almost a decade, and after moving back east, became close to another woman she'd known there (and who also lived in W. Washington briefly). Both women grew up in the NE corridor, and I recall a discussion between them comparing west coast and east coast men; they agreed that there were distinct differences, and likely because both grew up in the NE, their preference was for that type.

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    2. :-)

      Yep, human sexuality and social behavior is infinitely more complex than internet memes and fads would suggest...

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    3. Anonymous5:21 AM

      As for dragging women back to their man cave ... the omega or beta men often "snag" women by pretending to Care About Feelings And Stuff and sometimes bed aforesaid women in the the alpha males's bed.

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  21. Anonymous7:14 PM

    And the award for Most Random Post of the Year goes to...

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  22. Sort of like "A Christmas Story". There's Scut Farkas, alpha male. His toady Grover Dill, beta male. And then the rest of the nameless rabble.

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  23. No. We're using it correctly. Betas get women, albeit poorly. These guys fit the second in command. There's another level of man who is barely visible and is almost completely celibate. Homeless men, for example. These are omegas.

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  24. Anonymous7:40 PM

    "betas", i.e. skinny wimpy emo dudes who would rather stay home cooking a souffle and crying along to Death Cab for Cutie.

    This made me laugh. One, because I have cooked a soufflé but it was to Megadeth and two, they were tears of joy.

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  25. The use of "Alpha" is completely wrong, too. The way it's used now it means "wimp trying to cover up his inferiority with grandiosity." It came from canines more than anything else, and for them it really means "parent wolves." Those who studied wolves and other canines realized years later their concepts were utterly wrong...because they only applied to imprisoned wolves. Those in zoos. Not free animals

    Trying to use concepts that apply to animals - and often those turned out to be wrong - doesn't apply to humans. Most especially since those who use the concepts don't even know what they mean.

    Anyone who thinks that "Beta" isn't going to mean anything but wimp has no understanding of human nature at all.

    "Alpha"is a comic book and B movie concept. James Bond, anyone?





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  26. Nathanael10:27 PM

    I learned my "alpha", "beta" and "gamma" from studies of some fish species, where they described three reproductive strategies. I'm probably forgetting the details but IIRC...

    Alphas fought all the time to try to "win" mates.
    Betas pretended to be submissive to the alphas, but then snuck behind the back of the alphas and inseminated the females while the alphas were fighting with each other.
    Gammas pretended to be female and then inseminated the "other" females while the alphas and betas were watching, without them noticing.

    All three strategies appeared to be about equally effective for reproduction. Alphas, however, died a lot younger than betas or gammas due to all the fighting.

    I think it's common in biology to number reproductive strategies with greek letters, but they probably don't mean the same things from species to species.

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