YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

November 18, 2010

Harvard’s “Alpha Dogs”

Amy Cuddy, “Alpha Dog”

One of America’s most significant founding principles was a product of the Enlightenment: that each citizen would be capable of rationality and independent judgment based on shared perceptions of facts or things as they are. We were supposedly educable, no matter how lowly our birth by traditional European standards. Such ideals were asserted against all prior forms of coercion, pomp and demagoguery of political establishments. (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2012/04/02/touch-me-touch-me-not/, also https://clarespark.com/2013/01/12/hate-hard-liberty-quick-fixes/.)

How far we have departed from that standard can be seen in the featured story for the latest issue of Harvard Magazine (Nov.-Dec.2010), “The Psyche on Automatic,” by Craig Lambert.  Although one might infer from the cover that the social psychologist Amy Cuddy (who teaches at the Harvard Business School in courses on “negotiation, power and influence”) would be directing the reader away from “snap judgments” or other instances of irrationality, the article delineates a scientific basis for manipulating audiences, potential employers, investors and other targets, taken to be not amenable to rational persuasion and naked displays of “competence.” Rather these potential patrons (suckers?) are bound to be impressed by body language, warmth, and an ineffable quality of connectivity, as opposed to the stark display of competence, for competence in conjunction with “coldness” can make others envious and hostile—to the point of genocide! There are tables of ideal types to demonstrate her thesis, one that is buttressed by her studies of testosterone and cortisol levels in “high-power or low-power poses.” And there are pictures of Cuddy and others demonstrating the effective postures of power and influence—influence that will ultimately correct pre-existent cruel cognitive patterns indicating contempt for “the homeless, welfare recipients, poor people” [OMG they must be Republicans] while at the same time boosting investor confidence in the projects of “venture capitalists.”

Harvard trains leaders, and wants them to increase “social cohesiveness”(i.e., solicitude for those less fortunate than themselves: noblesse oblige). Of course Cuddy does not advocate stupidity, it is just that successful people can beat out the other would-be alpha dogs* with her techniques. We alphas do not make ourselves physically little, we do not snarl, we do not brag by pretending to superior expertise or to knowledge of “the truth”—nor do we expose our necks as a sign of submission or “niceness.” [That last sentence was my reading, not quoted directly from the article.]

The long article on making friends and influencing people while overpowering them concludes, in my view, by subtly admonishing pushy, know-it-all [Jews?]:

“Leaders often see themselves as separate from their audiences… They want to stake out a position and then move audiences toward them. That’s not effective… ‘[Her students] overemphasize the importance of projecting high competence—they want to be the smartest guy in the room. They’re trying to be dominant. Clearly there are advantages to feeling and seeing yourself as powerful and competent—you’ll be more confident, more willing to take risks. And it’s important for others to perceive you as strong and competent. That said, you don’t have to prove that you’re the most dominant, the most competent person there. In fact, it’s rarely a good idea to strive to show everyone that you’re the smartest guy in the room: that person tends to be less creative, and less cognitively open to other ideas and people.’

[quote cont.] “Instead, says Cuddy, the goal should be connecting. When people give a speech or lead a meeting, for example, they tend to exaggerate the importance of words. They ‘care too much about content and delivering it with precision. That makes them sound scripted.’ Far better, she advises, to ‘come into a room, be trusting, connect with the audience wherever they are, and then move them with you.’”

In vino veritas.

*The expression “alpha dog” is used in the subtitle of the article: “Amy Cuddy probes snap judgments, warm feelings, and how to become an “alpha dog.”

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