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Our brains and repertoire of social behaviors
have expanded enormously over
the course of our evolution
and it is shame to ignore all that.
                     Richard Conniff

Respect, Props and Alpha

On this page:
Respect and the Monkey Brain | Respect: Why You Aren't Getting It | When Respect IS A Life-and-Death Issue

Generally speaking people who think they know something already tend to roll their eyes when you start talking about history. Then they proceed to go out and make the same mistakes over again ... because, after all, they're smarter than that. Here are two bits of history you might want to think about.

First, back with when I ran the correctional center I'd constantly get punk gangbangers who'd walk in and declare three things:

  1. I'm a man.
  2. Respect.
  3. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.

Every time I heard this, I knew I was dealing with a dysfunctional 'child' who had no idea what it meant to be a man. But worse, this was 'adult sized childishness.' Although legally adults, they were mentally immature children and they had about the same degree of impulse control.

Unfortunately, they also had guns ... which was often why they'd ended up in prison.

Standing before me declaring his manhood, was a dangerous and ignorant person who's definition of 'manhood' had been shaped by other, equally ignorant and dysfunctional children. As nine year old children, they'd listened to 18 year old gang members telling them what it meant to be a man. Now in their early twenties, they were busy trying to act out this dysfunctional definition. Oh yeah ... and most of them were also addicted to drugs. No matter how convinced they were about what being a man meant, being an addict really made you wonder about how functional their life's philosophy was.

Second history point, back in 1989 I was the first to apply the concept of Alpha and Beta behavior to a street context. I did this in my first book Cheap Shots, Ambushes and Other Lessons. ( This isn't just some internet claim. You can look up the registered copyright.) It was an attempt to explain an important social dynamic that has a lot to do with whether or not violence erupts.

Unfortunately an incident a few years earlier had required that I explain to my (now you know why she's an ex) girlfriend, that her behavior on Hollywood Blvd was ... shall we say ..."unwise." To the point that if she continued acting that way, I'd probably have to kill someone. Given the dangerous circumstances, that was not hyperbole. People were going to end up with more holes in them than they started the evening with.

Since that time the term "Alpha male" has been run with ... and abused ... by almost every Tom, Dick and Harry who styles himself as a 'reality based self-defense' expert. The instructors present the concept as a holy grail that they can bestow on you. For a hefty fee, they'll train you how to be an alpha male, able to swagger down dark alleys with confidence.

Criminals will recoil in fear...

Men will step aside...

and women will swoon at your manly physique.

All of these benefits will be yours ... if you learn < begin deep and resonating voice> how to be an alpha male </ voice> using their <begin celestial chorus> Undefeatable Fighting System </ chorus>.

Bullshit...

This is not functional self-defense training. In fact, odds are it will get you thrown into jail or killed if you ever find yourself in a violent situation. But that isn't what these guys (or in the case of some WSD training, women) are looking for. No matter how much they insist it is, it's not about self-defense. They are looking for that one thing that will make them ... an alpha male!!!(1)

And there's someone who will teach you how... whether by self-defense training or teaching you how to pick up any woman you want (speed seduction). Yep, you too can leave three sets of tracks when you walk through sand ... if you take their training.

The problem is, like so many other things, the people who are pandering these systems get it wrong. In fact, what they end up doing themselves and creating in others is a macho parody.

Respect and the Monkey Brain
Cesar Millan has a show called the Dog Whisperer. In this show he travels the country helping people with problem dogs. His basic premise is that dogs are pack animals and they are psychologically more comfortable when they know their 'place' in pack. He often encounters overly aggressive and territorial dogs running rampant in the owner's lives. He calls this kind of dog is 'an insecure alpha.' It's a dog that should be a beta, but because of circumstances has found itself in the role of an alpha.

Or at least what it thinks an alpha is.

Such dogs are bullying, aggressive and overly controlling ... to the point of dysfunction. By this we don't just mean the dog itself is over-the-top, but so too is the rest of the pack.

The sense of insecurity, nervousness, paranoia and hypersensitivity that motivates the insecure alpha infects those around it. Through it's unpredictable actions, the insecure alpha creates the same sense of dread and panic --that it feels -- among the other dogs members. And this unfortunately, also happens with the humans in its life (a.ka. the 'out of control dog').

The problem with the insecure alpha is that it doesn't have the sense of calm assuredness that real alphas have.

Since it doesn't believe that it can 'back it up' the insecure alpha is hyper-sensitive (and yes to the point of paranoia) about challenges. This creates a complex cocktail of problems because the insecure alpha's insecurity and hypersensitivity not only detects challenges that aren't there, but its overly aggressive actions creates more conflict than is necessary. In short, it becomes both a bully and hyper-insecure

We took this trip into dog behavior because although a lot has been written about adrenal stress reactions in the SD world, there hasn't been much consideration into how primate behavioral patterns affect our behaviors. And this especially applies to our status in the troop. (A group of monkeys is called a troop).

In short, how much of our behavior, pride and fear about 'respect' is based in our Monkey Brain? And with that in mind, how much can we learn about OUR behavior, by looking at pack behavior and insecure alphas?

We are big fans of the works of Desmond Morris (Author of Naked Ape). In fact, we have an entire section in our bibliography dedicated just to him. Dr. Morris is a zoologist who turned around one day and realized much human behavior is unconsciously based on what we think of as ' animal behavior.' He saw the same patterns of behavior, but with more brain cells. It's not anthropomorphizing animals by saying 'they are exhibiting human behavior.' It's humans exhibiting more complex versions of primate behavior, but the basic patterns are the same (2).

In short, ask yourself how much of what you do is based on psychology vs. how much is based on primate behavior -- but being filtered through your psychology and rationalized?

We think the answer is: A lot.

This is why it is important to look at the idea of respect, status, perceived challenges, insults and the fear of being disrespected from the perspective of the monkey brain. Because with most people who are concerned about it, it is NOT coming from the rational part of the brain, but rather the emotional parts. In short, the monkey brain is driving the car.

Moreover, with most people who are obsessed with the issue, you're looking at a beta who's trying to 'ape' what he considers alpha behavior. And usually he's doing a very poor job of it. So what you're seeing very closely resembles Cesar Millan's 'insecure alpha,' but in a monkey troop instead of a dog pack.

Unfortunately, while most people will simply choose ignore this kind of behavior, other insecure alphas will react negatively to it. Thereby bringing about the very conflict the first person hoped to avoid with his threat display.

Respect: Why You Aren't Getting It
The quote at the top of the page is Marc's summation of the people who were most insecure about getting their proper respects and status. They were also the ones most likely to cause trouble.

Like clockwork these people would bring up these issues in the intake interview (in fact, this was the primary indicator of this kind of insecurity). In time Marc developed a counter for their three points.

1) Being a man is a whole lot more than what you have between your legs. It's about what you do. If you're claiming to be a man, you'll be held to a higher standard.

2) Respect is a one winged airplane. It doesn't fly without the other wing. That other wing is duty. Duty is that person holding up his end of the bargain. It is him doing what is expected of him. Respect is earned by how well you uphold your duty. "You do your duty and you'll get respect from me (Marc)."

3) What a man has got to do is his duty. Your duty is to follow the rules. You break that and it's 'hammer time,' because hammering people who break the rules is MY duty (Marc's). That's how this man does what I gotta do( 3).

The one winged airplane analogy is an important one. Most people who are pathological about getting respect, have no idea that there is more to being a man than just being macho. Nor is it about THEIR feelings. Those motivations are not only selfish, but also short sighted.

More importantly, they lack the understanding that respect comes not from fear, but from trust. Trust that the person who wants respect KNOWS the rules and will abide by them. Fear, because you are a loose cannon on deck, is NOT respect. (In fact, it's a pretty good way to get shot in the back).

In short, a big part of it is people knowing that while you have 'the power,' you won't go off on other people without a good reason. One of the most obvious examples of a 'good reason' is the difference between a real challenge and a perceived one (imagined).

An important factor on that last point is that ' emotions are contagious.' If you take and put two 'betas who want to be alphas' in a room they'll infect each other. BOTH of their monkey brains will kick in and imagined challenge will escalate into real ones.

Your monkey brain doesn't recognize duty. Nor is it particularly adept at recognizing the difference between reality and actuality. What it's real good at is getting all excited, jumping around, screaming and throwing feces (in this case words) when you get emotionally upset.

In short, when you are running on emotions and perceptions, you have a monkey driving your car.

Your monkey brain is terrified that if you don't get the 'respect' that you will be victimized. That's because YOU don't know what being an alpha really is. An insecure alpha doesn't understand the reasons for using force. As such, an insecure alpha doesn't know when to back off. The reason people are afraid that if they back down they will be thought of as a punk and picked on is 'projection.'

Putting it bluntly, they're afraid of being bullied because THAT is what they would do to someone else.

Because they don't know how to behave, they assume that nobody else does. What often happens is they engage in behaviors that provoke an attack-- in a situation where violence could have been avoided. In short, their fear of conflict and losing face makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When Respect IS A Life-and-Death Issue
There ARE cultural, socio-economic and ethnic circles where 'respect' IS a life and death issue.

White, middle class America is not one of them. And believe it or not, neither is most of blue collar America -- no matter what color it is. The same goes for most schools. And yet, these are the people who worry most about it. If you find yourself operating within these circles, but still worrying about being disrespected or that 'if you don't stand up to people you'll be continuously bullied,' then odds are your monkey brain is driving the bus.

Realistically if you're in a place where people live or die over 'respect' you won't have to be imagining these guys lurking in the shadows. They're right there and in plain sight. And there's going to be a lot of them.

Thing is, if you find yourself in a place where these guys are common, then odds are you grew up there. That means you KNOW THE RULES!

Rules? You might ask.

Yes. ANY social level, cultural group -- and in many cases, location -- has rules of conduct that allow everyone to get along with the minimum amount of violence. It is in fact, it is usually the violation of these rules of conduct that results in most violence.

This is why if you find yourself in a situation surrounded by people who are willing to use violence to enforce the rules of behavior then you really have one of two choices 1) Leave 2) Learn the rules.

The absolute WORST thing you can do is to try and prove how ' tough' you are so no one will bother you. 99% of the time, you'll be acting blindly. If you do that you're going to end up violating these standards with your actions. By not knowing the rules, signals, signs, nor having the level of commitment necessary all you are going to do is provoke an attack.

In short, while you may believe you're sending the message of "Ooooh see how scary I am?You better leave me alone.' It usually get comes across as a beta aping what it thinks is alpha behavior.

The problem with this is it is going to trigger other insecure alphas to move against you. You're going to cause what you are afraid of!!!

The situation isn't about what YOU think people will think of you (if you don't stand up), fear, your self-esteem, anger, imagination or fantasies about violence. It is a complex interplay between people to establish boundaries so the situation DOESN'T become violent. On his part so he doesn't think it would be easier for him to get what he wants by becoming violent. On your part so you don't cause him a) a loss of face b) grievous insult c) hurt feelings or d) reason to believe that you will do so in the future those will provoke him into attacking you.

So IF you're really looking to avoid violence then we really recommend you check out the Alpha Behavior Hub, the Bullies Page and the Kinds of Violence Hub, because you'll learn a lot about respect and being an alpha. If your more interested in letting your monkey brain run your behavior as you try to gain 'respect' then keep on reading those internet forums about how 'a tough guy' acts.

In closing, we'd like to point out that when it comes to avoiding violence, respect is as much about what you give to ALL others as what you do to earn it.

Return to top

1) Unfortunately, the problem of dysfunctional children telling other dysfunctional children what it means to be a man is not solely limited to gang-bangers. It is rampant among reality based self-defense, combatives and deadly fighting arts organizations and forums. Return to Text

2) While at the San Diego Wildlife park I witnessed in the gorilla pen a set of behaviors that I'd seen countless times in high schools, bars and at parties. Four silverback gorillas were in an enclosure. A female with an infant, an immature male and the bull silverback male. All the female wanted to do was to eat, but the young male continued to crowd her into the corner with his not-so-subtle advances. The female was becoming more and more agitated as she lost room to move. In the meantime, the alpha male was in another part of the enclosure, but watching this interplay. Finally the bull silverback got up and very casually sauntered over to that part of the enclosure (bringing his food). The young male flopped on his back (a submissive sign) and started 'casually' playing with a small tree. A classical 'la-la-la, I'm not doing anything' behavior. The female escaped from the corner she'd been pinned into and ran to a position behind the senior male. The bull silverback, now positioned between the young male and the female, simply sat down and continued eating as though nothing had happened. As I was with another bouncer (Tim Toohey) we both started laughing at this interplay that we'd seen among humans so many times before. Return to Text

3) Then came the speech regarding 'You want out of here. I want to get you out of here. You do your duty of follow the rules and that will happen. You go thinking that something's more important than your responsibility and I'll roll you up (remand him back to higher custody).' With the older, more experience convicts, they understood this. Unfortunately, the younger -- more insecure ones -- often found reasons to let their monkey brains drive their behavior and crossed the line. They were 'violated' and sent back to higher custody. Return to Text


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