A bullshit concept from the incel world has been leaking into mainstream culture, so it’s time we explain. I’m talking about the idea of a “sigma male,” who supposedly exists in relation to “alpha” and “beta” males.
These greek-letter categories are supposed to describe a place in a hierarchy as well as a personality type. That should already clue you in to the fact that they don’t make any sense. The positions in hierarchies are jobs, not inbuilt biological traits. Nobody is born a general or a quarterback or a CEO (except, of course, the Boss Baby.)
We often like to believe that a person’s character destines them for greatness. That’s a cute idea, but it doesn’t have much to do with psychology or even reality; it’s a fantasy trope. Cinderella gets to marry the prince because she’s just good and sweet and pretty. The trope is appealing because we can imagine ourselves as the chosen one. So if none of this makes sense, where did it come from?
“Alpha male” is a debunked concept from animal behaviour studies
Before we talk about sigma males, we have to talk about alphas. In 1947, Rudolph Schenkel wrote a paper about wolf behaviour based on observations at a Swiss zoo. He wrote that there seemed to be a hierarchy, with the “alpha” pair at the top. Another wildlife biologist, David Mech, popularised the “alpha” term in a book, but after studying wild wolves, he changed his mind. Actual wolf packs don’t have that kind of multi-tiered hierarchy at all.
This post on Gizmodo goes into the history of the “alpha wolf” idea and why it’s wrong. In short: wolf packs are families, with parents and children. The parents hunt, and they feed their pups. They’re the boss of the pack in the same way that human parents take charge of their families: making sure that the littlest ones get enough to eat, for example. Some packs have a more complex structure, but they’re all family-based and not the result of cutthroat competition.
The idea of a hierarchical structure also bled over into dog training, where there was a decades-long fad of trainers attempting to punish dogs into believing that they (the trainer or owner) were “dominant” in a pack hierarchy. This didn’t turn out to be a useful metaphor for dog training, either.
Animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell explains that owners were taught to roll their pup over to show they were dominant, but wolves don’t typically do that. Instead, in wolf packs, the younger or “submissive” animal rolls themselves over. Wolves and dogs do have a sense of hierarchy in their relationships, but it’s not based around the guys at the top being jerks to everybody around them.
“Alphas” make even less sense for humans
Now let’s talk about how this all got rolled into toxic masculinity. The original “alpha” wolves were understood to be male-female pairs, but that quickly fell by the wayside when people scrambled to describe human society in terms of this supposedly natural law.
If you think human society is necessarily organised into a hierarchy with “alphas” at the top, you’ll want to be an alpha, right? And by misunderstanding a bunch of outdated wolf studies, you’ll conclude that this means you need to be a dominant arsehole to everybody around you.
Like wolves, humans do have a sense of status, but also like wolves, it’s complicated. You might fit into one place in your workplace’s social structure, for example, while at the same time you have a totally different status in a friend group or in a community organisation you’re part of. You also don’t need to be acutely aware of every gradation in social status. If you want to date somebody who is way above or below you on some hierarchy (they make a lot more money than you, for example), that could get awkward. But you can also live a normal and happy life without obsessing over everybody’s exact place in a hierarchy that not everyone would be able to agree on, anyway.
Where “sigma” comes in
The idea of “sigma males” is newer than the alpha trope. Basically, a bunch of guys had convinced themselves that all men are in a hierarchy with alphas at the top (already wrong), and then they realised that it was exhausting to have to constantly provoke conflicts with other people just so you could win those conflicts and prove yourself to be the alpha.
This isn’t even what chimpanzees, our closest wild relatives, do. Primatologist Frans deWaal gave a talk on “alpha” chimpanzees, highlighting the way that they care for others and are cared for in turn. He said:
I think the term alpha male, if you look it up on the Internet, you will find all these business books that tell you how to be an alpha male, and what they mean is how to beat up others and beat them over the head, and let them know that you’re boss and don’t mess with me and so on. Basically, alpha male for them is a bully. I really don’t like that kind of description … It’s used in a very superficial way that doesn’t relate to what a real [chimpanzee] alpha male is.
But the idea of alpha males became so entrenched in circles defined by toxic masculinity that the people who clung to it weren’t able to give it up. In other words, they looked up to alphas but also defined alphas in a way that made them horrible people; you wouldn’t want to be that kind of alpha and you wouldn’t want to be friends with them either. So, time to throw out the trope, right?
Well, you would think. If you’ve already committed to the idea of a hierarchy of men as the absolute natural order of things, it would be hard to just stop doing that and live like a normal person. But these guys had already defined their subculture by their strange beliefs about masculinity (of which alphas were only one part — we’re into pickup artist/redpill/incel/MGTOW territory now). Time for an alternative to the alpha: a guy who stands outside the hierarchy but is still better than everybody in it.
That’s what a “sigma male” is supposed to be, and it’s even more bullshit than the alpha/beta/omega business, because instead of being based on an outdated theory of animal behaviour, it’s simply made up. (Beta is simply the second in a hierarchy; omega, being the last letter of the Greek alphabet, is the tier at the bottom. Sigma is, well, another Greek letter.)
You can read a brief history of the term’s rise to popularity in a variety of explainer pieces, such as this one at Mel. The author, Miles Klee, nails the appeal with this quote:
Fundamentally, [identifying as a sigma male is] no different than trying to understand oneself through the organising filters of zodiac signs, Myers-Briggs types, Enneagram numbers or Hogwarts houses. We want to know ourselves better, and, guided by our prejudices, we seek that knowledge through a select framework of assigning (and in this case grading) personality. Of course, this process tends to result in attaching to the archetype you find most favourable, which explains why there’s a lot of weird gatekeeping around the sigma title: It has to be uncommon if it is to hold any power, yet every dork will want to claim he belongs to this group.
At least with horoscopes, the people who read charts and share astrology memes know that it’s bullshit (well, most of them do.) This makes it easier to set the personality types aside when they don’t serve you, or if you simply don’t care to think about them anymore. Maybe you used to really think of yourself as a Ravenclaw, but now that you know a little more about J. K. Rowling, you’d rather move on and share memes about being an Enneagram 7.
That kind of shift is harder to do when your chosen personality type relates to strong beliefs about gender and social status and their supposed roots in biology. Or in short: if you think of yourself as (or want to be) a sigma, you’ve already seen through some of the bullshit. Do yourself a favour and extract yourself all the way.