The social dominance paradox

Jennifer Cook, Hanneke E M Den Ouden, Cecilia M. Heyes, Roshan Cools

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)
217 Downloads (Pure)


Dominant individuals report high levels of self-sufficiency, self-esteem, and authoritarianism. The lay stereotype suggests that such individuals ignore information from others, preferring to make their own choices. However, the nonhuman animal literature presents a conflicting view, suggesting that dominant individuals are avid social learners, whereas subordinates focus on learning from private experience. Whether dominant humans are best characterized by the lay stereotype or the animal view is currently unknown. Here, we present a "social dominance paradox": using self-report scales and computerized tasks, we demonstrate that socially dominant people explicitly value independence, but, paradoxically, in a complex decision-making task, they show an enhanced reliance (relative to subordinate individuals) on social learning. More specifically, socially dominant people employed a strategy of copying other agents when the agents' responses had a history of being correct. However, in humans, two subtypes of dominance have been identified [1]: aggressive and social. Aggressively dominant individuals, who are as likely to "get their own way" as socially dominant individuals but who do so through the use of aggressive or Machiavellian tactics, did not use social information, even when it was beneficial to do so. This paper presents the first study of dominance and social learning in humans and challenges the lay stereotype in which all dominant individuals ignore others' views [2]. The more subtle perspective we offer could have important implications for decision making in both the boardroom and the classroom.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2812-2816
Number of pages5
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number23
Early online date20 Nov 2014
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)


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