A bullshit concept from the incel world has invaded mainstream culture so it’s time we explained it. I am talking about the idea of a “sigma male” that supposedly exists in relation to “alpha” and “beta” males.
These categories with Greek letters are intended to describe a place in a hierarchy as well as a personality type. That should already indicate to you that they don’t make sense. The positions in hierarchies are jobs, not built-in biological characteristics. 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 determines their size. It’s a cute idea, but it doesn’t have much to do with psychology or even reality; it’s a fantasy trope. Cinderella is allowed to marry the prince because she is just good and sweet and pretty. The trope is appealing because we can imagine ourselves as the chosen one. If none of this makes sense, then where does it come from?
“Alpha male” is an exposed concept from animal behavior studies
Before we talk about sigma males, we need to talk about alphas. In 1947 Rudolph Schenkel a Paper on wolf behavior based on observations in a Swiss zoo. He wrote that there appeared to be a hierarchy with the “alpha” couple at the top. Another wildlife biologist, David Mech, popularized the term “alpha” in a book, but changed his mind after studying wild wolves. Actual wolf packs don’t have this tiered hierarchy at all.
This post on Gizmodo goes into the story of the “alpha wolf” idea and why it is wrong. In short: wolf packs are families with parents and children. The parents hunt and feed their puppies. You are the boss of the pack, just like human parents take their families into their own hands: make sure that the little ones get enough to eat, for example. Some packages are more complex in structure, but they are all family-based and not the result of cut-throat competition.
The idea of a hierarchical structure also found its way into dog training, where there was a decade-long fad of trainers trying to punish dogs into believing that they (the trainer or owner) were “dominant” in a pack hierarchy. This also didn’t prove to be a useful metaphor for dog training.
Animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell explained that owners were taught to turn their pups over to show they were dominant, but wolves usually don’t. Instead, the younger or “submissive” animal rolls over in wolf packs. Wolves and dogs have a sense of hierarchy in their relationships, but it’s not based on the guys at the top being idiots for everyone around them.
“Alphas” make even less sense to humans
Now let’s talk about how all of this was turned into toxic masculinity. The original “alpha” wolves were understood as male-female pairs, but this quickly fell by the wayside when efforts were made to describe human society with this alleged natural law.
If you think that human society is necessarily organized in a hierarchy with “alphas” at the top, you want to be an alpha, right? And if you get a number of outdated wolf studies wrong, you will conclude that you must be a dominant asshole for everyone around you.
Like wolves, humans have a sense of status, but like wolves it is also complicated. For example, they fit into a place in the social structure of your workplace, while at the same time you have a completely different status in a group of friends or in a community organization to which you belong. Nor do you need to be aware of every gradation in social status. If you want to meet someone who is way above or below you in a hierarchy (who makes a lot more money than you, for example), it could be uncomfortable. But you can also lead a normal and happy life without worrying about the exact place of everyone in a hierarchy that not everyone could agree on anyway.
Where “Sigma” comes into play
The idea of ”sigma males” is newer than the alpha trope. Basically, a couple of guys had convinced themselves that all men in a hierarchy with alphas were at the top (wrong, yes), and then they realized that it is exhausting to have to constantly provoke conflicts with other people just for them Win conflicts and prove that you are the alpha.
Even chimpanzees, our closest wild relatives, don’t do that. Primatologist Frans deWaal entered speak about “alpha” chimpanzees who emphasize the way in which they look after others and are in turn cared for. 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 become an alpha male and what they mean is how to beat up and hit others over the head. and let them know that you are the boss and don’t mess with me and so on. Basically, to them, alpha male is a bully. I really don’t like that kind of description … it’s used very superficially, unrelated to what a real one [chimpanzee] Alpha male is.
But the idea of alpha males became so entrenched in circles marked by venomous masculinity that the people who held onto it were unable to give up on it. In other words, they looked up to alphas but also defined alphas in ways that made them terrible people; They don’t want to be that type of alpha, and you don’t want to be friends with them either. So, time to throw the trope away, right?
Well, you would think. If you’ve already subscribed to the idea of a hierarchy of men as the absolute natural order of things, it would be hard to stop and live like a normal person. But these guys had already defined their subculture through their strange beliefs about masculinity (of which alphas were only a part – we’re now in Pickup Artist / Redpill / Incel / MGTOW territory). Time for an alternative to Alpha: a guy who’s out of the hierarchy but is still better than everyone else.
This is what a “Sigma Male” is supposed to be like, and it’s even more nonsense than the Alpha / Beta / Omega business because it’s not based on an outdated theory of animal behavior, it’s just made up. (Beta is simply the second in a hierarchy; Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, is the lowest level. Sigma is, well, another Greek letter.)
You can read a brief history of the term’s rise in a variety of explanatory pieces such as this one at Mel. The author, Miles Klee, hits the charm with this quote:
Basically, [identifying as a sigma male is] no other than trying to understand yourself through the order filters of zodiac signs, Myers-Briggs types, Enneagram numbers, or Hogwarts houses. We want to know ourselves better and, guided by our prejudices, seek this knowledge through a selected framework of the assignment (and in this case the classification) of personality. Of course, this process tends to bind to whatever archetype you find most convenient, which explains why there is a lot of weird gatekeeping going on to the Sigma title: it has to be unusual for it to have any power, but any idiot will want to say he belongs to that group.
With horoscopes at least, the people who read horoscopes and share astrology memes know this is bullshit (well, most do). This makes it easier to put the personality types aside when they don’t serve you or when you just don’t want to think about them anymore. Maybe you really thought you were a Ravenclaw before, but now that you do learn a little more about JK Rowling, you’d rather go ahead and share memes about being an Enneagram 7.
This type of shift is more difficult when your chosen personality type is related to strong beliefs about gender and social status and their supposed roots in biology. Or in short: If you think you’re (or want to be) a Sigma, you’ve already seen through quite a bit of bullshit. Do yourself a favor and extract yourself all the way.