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Monday, January 5, 2015

Understanding Social Dominance Theory


If you are in hurry or read my previous post and The Dictator behind/in front of the mob skip to the next title.

Social Dominance Theory is a line of inquiry that started with some horrifying things we learned about the Nazis. In my previous post on the subject; Right Wing Authoritarians and Totalitarians" I talked about what I learned from reading Bob Altemeyer's writings, and specifically his book; The Authoritarians. It turns out that the horrifying things we learned from Nazis were followed on by almost as horrible things we learned about ourselves and our own societies. Ironically this subject was first popularized by John Dean, who became famous as the penitent Legal Advisor of Richard Nixon who wrote some books based on Robert Altemeyer's work.

But of course when I talk about Right Wing (RW) authoritarian types and the ambitious and tricky folks who support them, their reaction is usually "see left and right are the same" but Robert Altemeyer wasn't making that point:

"We found that in both countries the high RWAs believed their government’s version of the Cold War more than most people did. Their officials wore the white hats, the authoritarian followers believed, and the other guys were dirty rotten warmongers. And that’s most interesting, because it means the most cock-sure belligerents in the populations on each side of the Cold War, the ones who hated and blamed each other the most, were in fact the same people, psychologically."

For those who came late. RWA is not about Left and Right so much as authoritarianism. Which is a matter of an extreme conventionality. A conservative mindset that reifies and rationalizes authority:

the behavior he describes is:

  1. highly submissive to established authority,
  2. aggressive in the name of that authority,
  3. and
  4. conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide.

Bob Altemeyer also presented a list of RWA associated traits later in his book (chapter 3) that are produced by drawing beliefs from authority:

  1. Illogical Thinking, which makes sense if you are told to believe 2 + 2 = 5 if your authority figure says it is.
  2. Highly Compartmentalized Minds, this too could be a reaction to trauma and cognitive dissonance.
  3. Double Standards -- which comes from having to rationalize real world decisions.
  4. Hypocrisy
  5. Blindness To Themselves
  6. A Profound Ethnocentrism [chapter 3]
  7. Dogmatism: The Authoritarian’s Last Ditch Defense

All well and good, but these are the followers, not the dominators. It was easy to follow the relationship between social dominators and Right Wing Followers. The followers sought safety (and a recreation of Mommy/Daddy Dearest relationships) in the Dominators. But what gives with this "Social Dominance" Thing?

Social Dominance Theory

If in the USA most RWA authority types are currently Right Wing. The same thing is not always true of the machiavellian leaders who dominate Authoritarian Followers so easily. People who score high on the "Social Dominators Test" are probably found where-ever there is power and money. More importantly they emerge where-ever groups have resources to allocate.

If the Con phenomena were only a phenomena of a tiny far right fringe it would be easier to combat. The Right Wing Authoritarian follower syndrome and associated sociopathy that the RW base has is often over-matched by the brazen and reckless sociopathy of the people his studies identified as "High Social Dominators". As examples like John Edwards show, High Dominance ruthless behavior is not confined the the far right. Rather what he described is an illustration of a larger phenomena.
Altemeyer's pioneering work is illustrating a more general principle, which is lumped under the term "Social Dominance Theory." That theory was developed by Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto based on Altemeyer's and other's work and generalizes the observations into a broader theory. It's also based on the work of a guy named McFarland.

Social Dominance Theory Translated; and Bullies

Social Dominators exist because most Social groups are places where folks allocate resources. And the allocation of resources is a source of power. Some people crave power. They use other people's prejudices and weaknesses to get and maintain that power. What that is normally called is "bullying" and bullying establishes social dominance hierarchy. The social scientists call folks who seek to dominate societies "High Social Dominators." They even have cool and fancy tests to measure the attributes. It looks like bullies grow up to be politicians and bosses.

"High Social Dominators" have a massive and corrupting influence out of proportion to numbers because Social Groups use prejudice coupled with power to allocate resources.

Social Dominance theory:

It gets a little wonky from here. So for the wonks out there (I'm an amateur) I'll try to translate the wonk-talk to concepts easier to understand.

"Social dominance theory notes that chronic group-based oppression is driven by systematic institutional and individual discrimination. That is, many social institutions (e.g.,schools, organized religions, marriage practices, financial houses) and many powerful individuals disproportionately allocate desired goods—such as prestige, wealth, power,food, and health care—to members of dominant and privileged groups, while directingundesirable things — such as dangerous work, disdain, imprisonment, and prematuredeath—toward members of less powerful groups” (Sidanius and Pratto 2004,847).[Social Dominance in Children]"

Sounds to me like this is a theory of bullying both on a collective level (by groups against sub-groups or individuals) or by "Social Dominators." Yep Bullies.

The scientists have devised cool diagrams to illustrate them:

First Chart:

The Chart describes 3 levels of behavior

System Wide Level
At the System level groups differentiate into different roles and functions, with the allocation of power and resources dominated by the establishment of a hierarchy. Someone acts "top dog" and the rest form a pyramid.
Legitimizing Myths
Guiding the formation of such hierarchies are narratives, some of which are referred to as myths because they don't have to be in fact true but they do have to be normative or provide guidance for the hierarchy developing. The word principle can fit in here as well.
Hierarchy Enhancing/Attenuating Myths
The authors describe these as hierarchy enhancing or hierarchy attenuating myths.
Hierarchy Enhancing
Hierarchy enhancing myths tend to setup some actors as top dogs and justify oppression (often non-violent bullying) of other actors.
Hierarchy attenuating myths
are things like the principles of equality or fairness. When people apply those myths during their struggles for power and authority (Hierarchy) some myths make it easier for some actors to dominate the society developing.
Social Institutions
Contributing to the assignment of roles are institutions. Some of which enable hierarchy establishment and bullying. And of course some of them attenuate bullying.
Intergroup Level
Various social habitual patterns of behavior, referred processes drive discrimination.
For example; "Unequal contexts readily dredge up stereotypes and remembered histories of past conflicts, perceived intergroup threat, and belief in separate identities, all of which provoke discrimination and stereotyping (see Pratto, 1999, for a review).[Surrey Study]
likewise re-contextualizing relationships can mitigate the effects of past conflicts and break stereotypes.
Auto Discrimination or "behavioral asymmetry"[Surrey Study]
"members of subordinate groups tend to behave in ways that are less beneficial to themselves and their ingroups than dominant group members do with reference to their ingroups. "
Essentially people internalize narratives that sometimes enable their own oppression. [Chains on the Brains].
Person Level
Social Dominance Orientation
Each person has a set of beliefs, propensities, roles and prejudices which drive his or her behavior and his or her propensity to dominate others, be dominated, or let or even help others dominate others.
Aggregated behavior;
Coordinated and Systemic Person on person actions (Bullying)
"the roles, prejudices, social beliefs that contribute to discrimination are coordinated, often in the same directions, so that thousands of aggregated individual acts of cruelty, oppression and discrimination help sustain group-based hierarchy political ideologies, and temperaments, including openness, conservatism, authoritarianism, and empathy make certain people more or less likely to be prejudiced or to discriminate against subordinates (Akrami and Ekehammar, 2006; Altemeyer, 1998; Pratto et al., 1994; Stephan and Finlay, 1999)
This is called "Social Dominance Orientation

The Following Chart summarizes what was just said:

The Researcher McFarland came up with a schema that describes how bullying, systematic oppression and even warfare are produced via the interaction of social interactions driven by Social Dominance behavior interacting with Right Wing Authoritarian behavior. The idealized schema below includes the alternative paths to authoritarian decision making providing the alternative (and Right wing attenuating) inputs of Principled Moral Reasoning and Dispositional Empathy. Each line shows numbers indicating how strong the related influence was in a particular (or in this case generalized) decision path.

I realize this was a bit Wonky. But I think that activists need to understand what is going on in order to intelligently deal with bullying and Social dominating individuals and the Right Wing Authoritarian movements they lead. To do that we have to translate the jargon language used by the social scientists to something the rest of us can understand.

Measuring Social Dominance - Exploitive Manipulative Amoral Dishonesty scale (EMAD)

One of the best ways to measure Social Dominance is the Exploitive Manipulative Amoral Dishonesty scale (EMAD) scale which measures exploitiveness, manipulativeness, Amoral orientation, and dishonesty. Surprisingly people answer these questions honestly when they think the questions are asked anonymously. And researchers ask witnesses (family, friends, teachers) corroborating questions.

Further discussion

It has these "basic assumptions" (See Links at bottom of page):
First, "human social systems are dynamically tenacious."
"Thus, even as they adapt and change, societies that are group-based dominance hierarchies will tend to continually reorganize themselves, and even other societies, as such."
Second, "various forms of group based oppression" [are specific instantiations]
(e.g., sexism, racism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, classism) should be seen as specific instantiations of group based social hierarchies."
Third, social hierarchy is multi-level reflecting interacting forces
"the degree of group-based social hierarchy within any society at any given time will be the net result of the interaction of multileveled hierarchy enhancing and hierarchy-attenuating forces within that society at any given time."

Further reading

On Sociopathy
Some Alarming Experiments:,%20in%20press.pdf
Related to Jodi Arias:
Social Dominance Theory:
A Proposed Measure of Social Dominance Orientation in Children:
Social Dominance Theory, Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto,%20in%20press.pdf
Altemeyer's Test:
Are you a Social Dominator?
Related Articles and Issues:
Broken Windows Theory
Broken Windows Theory:
Why Broken Windows Theory was corrupted
Bullying and What to do about it:

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