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Joanna Weiss

Alpha males have more fun

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / September 20, 2011

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SO HERE’S the question, gentlemen: Alpha male, or beta male?

On one hand, new research suggests that the betas have it better. As reported in the Wall Street Journal last week, a study of baboons in the Kenyan wild showed that the alpha males were actually kind of miserable, fighting all the time for the food and the females, stress hormones constantly coursing through their veins. The beta males - the second-in-commands, the wingmen, the family guys - were more content. Or, at least, had less stress juice in their poop.

On the other hand, in the human world, those sturdy betas face the same old stigma: The more you drop the manly act, the more you get attacked for going soft.

Another study that was widely publicized last week showed that the more hands-on time men spend with their kids, the more their testosterone drops. (This news led women everywhere to slap their foreheads in frustration: So much for seeking parity in diaper changes.)

In truth, the study shows that men have little to fear; their beards aren’t going to fizzle into peach fuzz the instant they play peek-a-boo. It’s just that nature has conspired, over the eons, to make men a little less like cavemen once their children come along.

Yet the study connects with some heavy-duty handwringing over what we want in a modern man. The new NBC sitcom “Up All Night’’ pokes fun at a frazzled beta, a lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-dad, who whimpers on the phone to his wife when he can’t find the cheese in the supermarket.

And while women now outnumber men in the workforce, psychotherapist Gilda Carle, who advises major companies on work-life issues, has found that old standards persist. She recently surveyed her male college students in Yonkers, N.Y., who said they wouldn’t mind if their wives earned as much as they did - but they would mind if their wives earned more.

So how much beta is our culture willing to accept, and how much will that change over time? According to stereotype and the occasional survey, GenXer and Millennial dads want to work less and spend more time with their families. Fatherhood-rights groups are loudly fighting what they see as unfair custody rulings in divorce decrees. And as the definition of fatherhood expands, some unlikely men are logging beta-style playtime; a Globe story last week featured a sperm donor who learned he had more than 100 biological children - and was willing to meet some of them, while reality TV cameras rolled.

Yet en masse, we’re still attracted to the alpha-male features: The competitive drive, the urge to fight. President Obama’s onetime legions have long complained that he’s played beta to the GOP. I’m not the first to notice that Rick Perry soared to GOP front-runner status in part because he plays the alpha in extremis. He’s out there executing prisoners and shooting coyotes and, to a portion of the public, this seems very presidential.

In the workplace, too, alpha characteristics will still get you far - in terms of spoils, but also personal satisfaction. The Chelmsford-based company Captivate, which produces entertainment for elevators and corporate lobbies, commissioned a recent survey of white-collar professionals in major metropolitan areas. It found some stark gender disparities: Men spent more time at the office than women, and worked more when they were home. Yet men were 25 percent happier at work, and more likely to report a good work-life balance. And only 35 percent of men were helping their kids with homework. Which must mean their testosterone was basically intact.

The happiest type of man at work, the survey found, had a household income of $150,000 to 200,000, a senior management job, and a wife who worked part-time, the better to pick up the household slack. In our society, it turns out, it’s still not bad to be an alpha. It’s apparently even better when you have a beta wife.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss