Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

History of Dominance Theory

  • Vincent BarnettEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3852-1



Dominance theory in ethology is concerned with how dominance hierarchies develop and function within human and animal societies in relation to the operation and maintenance of social status, behavioral strategies for survival and reproduction, and gaining preferential access to resources in competitive social situations.


This entry will start with a history of dominance theory in ethology, before documenting the history of the understandings of socially stratified relations as they have been developed in some other subjects such as sociology and philosophy. It will then consider component concepts of Denise Cummins’ more recent account of dominance hierarchies in more detail, as it was developed as part of the wider evolutionary psychology paradigm.

In terms of a definition, a dominance hierarchy, otherwise known more colloquially as a pecking order or a rank order, is simply a well-defined set of priorities defining the access of different individuals to desirable resources. High-ranking individuals have priority for access to desirable resources over low-ranked individuals, but specific dominance hierarchies often involve complex sequences of priority for various individuals in relation to different types of resources. Higher-ranking individuals are usually more successful in reproductive terms than lower-ranking individuals but this may not always be the case, as lower-ranking individuals can use non-aggressive and/or deceptive means to achieve their reproductive aims (Turner 1992, p. 148).

Dominance hierarchies are both conceptually and organizationally distinct from bureaucratic or administrative hierarchies, even though they do share some common characteristics with them. Bureaucratic or administrative hierarchies are formally fixed structures of dominance and subordination in which individuals occupy specific roles at specific times, and in which authority is formally stratified and the division of labor clearly defined (Jaques 1991). Dominance hierarchies on the other hand, as will be seen, are more organic and less formal than bureaucratic hierarchies, and they allow for greater fluidity in the specified roles and greater flexibility in the hierarchical relationships.

The idea that human societies are hierarchically stratified is, of course, nothing new, the concept of the class hierarchy being found in the work of various nineteenth-century and twentieth-century social theorists such as Karl Marx and Max Weber (Barnett 2009, p. 122). However, since the notion of a class hierarchy is potentially distinct from dominance hierarchies and bureaucratic hierarchies, the historical origins of dominance theory in ethology needs to be considered.

Origins of Dominance Theory (Ethology)

The origins of the hypothesis of an evolutionary link between human and animal mental states and behavior is often attributed to Charles Darwin (1874 [1871]), but its historical origins goes back much further than this. John Gregory’s A Comparative View of the State and Faculties of Man with Those of the Animal World explicitly paralleled the human mind both as a material system of instincts in parallel with the human body, and alongside the instincts of animals (Gregory 1766 [1765], pp. 4–7).

Gregory declared in proto-Darwinian fashion that “one [animal] species often runs into another so imperceptibly, that it is difficult to say where the one begins and the other ends,” and he declared that the mental faculties of different species of animals were all “well adapted to the particular sphere of action which Providence has allotted them” (Ibid., 8). In addition, he believed that the scientific enquiry “into the Instincts that are natural to Mankind” should be conducted alongside the study of “the analogous Instincts of other Animals” (Ibid., 16).

While neither Gregory nor Darwin discussed dominance hierarchies explicitly, Darwin did describe what he called “the law of battle” that operated between male animals, with the victors in these battles being characterized as conquerors (Darwin 1874 [1871], pp. 500–514). In a section of The Descent of Man, he explained that:

When many males congregate at the same appointed spot and fight together, as in the case of grouse and various other birds, they are generally attended by the females, which afterwards pair with the victorious combatants. (Darwin 1874 [1871], p. 49)

Although in this passage the concept of dominance was not explicitly outlined, it can be suggested that dominance relations were implied through the idea of the victorious combatants in fights. However, the idea that “the Battles of certain [Male] Animals for the Possession of their Females” was common in nature goes back to well before Darwin, at least as far as J.J. Rousseau (1761, p. 85).

The concept of a dominance hierarchy in its ethological sense was first explicitly studied in the early 1920s in relation to the behavior of chickens (Schjelderup-Ebbe 1921), which is how the term pecking order (Hackordnung) originated. The pecking order of chickens is established most significantly in relation to feeding and mating behavior. As has been explained:

When strange[r] chickens are put together, they will at first fight intensively. Each animal will fight every other animal and victory or loss will determine its future standing. A chicken that has lost a fight will remember the victor and avoid it in the future. The victor usually is the stronger animal, but agility, perseverance, and aggressiveness are also of importance. (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1975, p. 391)

The term pecking order came into being because chickens fight mainly by pecking at other chickens with their beaks. Once the pecking order is established, fights then only occur occasionally, and most of the time the chicken social structure remains peaceful. The pecking order determines which chickens have priority access to any newly-available resources such as food sources and mates.

However, the notion of a pecking order, if not the term itself, goes back at least as far as the early eighteenth century, where peck sparring between young cockerels, and the resultant “well ordering of the Cocks in these their early heats” of battle, was duly noted (Howlett 1709, p. 42, 48). The pecking instincts of various different birds were discussed in detail at the end of the nineteenth century (Morgan 1896, pp. 36–44), and hierarchies within Eskimo dog sledge teams were noted by anthropologists at around the same time (Boas 1964 [1888], p. 125). Dominance hierarchies among both jackdaws and mice were studied more formally by ethologists in the 1930s (Lorenz 1935; Uhrich 1938), and the effects of social conditioning on dominance behavior began to be studied in the 1940s (Ginsburgh and Allee 1942).

The link between territorial groupings and dominance hierarchies was considered by various authors as early as the 1920s (Howard 1920; Allee 1926). Some animal dominance hierarchies are confined in their active operation to certain marked geographical areas, the individual control of which has been clearly established through previous ranking contests amongst individuals located in the area under dispute (Blount 1990, pp. 430–431). As has been explained:

Dominance behavior can be conveniently viewed as the analog of territorial behavior in which a group of animals coexist within one territory. The result is that one of them, the equivalent of the territory holder, comes to dominate the others … The expression of hierarchies may shift with the spatial position of the animals. (Wilson 1971, p. 196)

One of the first more general accounts of rank order in the psychology literature in the 1930s linked together behavior, status, and feelings of social dominance (Maslow 1937).

The connection between rank order, constant mating provocation, and the growth of the neocortex region of the brain began to be investigated in the ethology literature in the 1960s. The need to mediate between sexual and aggressive behaviors was seen as a crucial driver in the growth of Hominid brain size, with dominant animals being characterized as those that could hold their aggressive and sexual instincts in most effective equilibrium (Chance 1967). Also in the 1960s, dominance hierarchies among crickets were studied (Alexander 1961).

However, there is an important difference between the dominance hierarchies of crickets and those of chickens. In the case of chickens, individual hens remember which particular hens they have previously beaten in fights, whereas individual crickets only remember whether they have won or lost across a sequence of fights.

The concept of a dominance hierarchy became very well established across the ethological literature on animal behavior and many studies of specific animal dominance relations were published (see Richards 1974 for a discussion of dominance assessment). The concept of a pecking order eventually migrated to other academic subjects. For example, the literature on the structure of corporate finance (Frank and Goyal 2003) and the literature on the sequence of biochemical reactions (Buettner 1993, both developed their own versions of a pecking order theory.

The related concepts of the teat order and the leap order were then proposed. The teat order refers to the sequence in which piglets get to suckle their mother’s milk (Jeppesen 1982), while the leap order refers to a separate form of physical aggression (leaping) that chickens use in addition to pecking (Rajecki 1991). However in addition to its prevalence in the ethology literature, the idea of dominance structures has also been a key part of the social science tradition for a very long time.

The History of Dominance Theory in Human Societies

When stranger human beings are first put together, they do not usually fight each other in order to determine a future pecking order, like chickens do. However, occasionally a few do exhibit similarly aggressive behavior:

Mentally retarded [sic] boys who stayed together in a fairly large room initially fought for certain territories. When at last everyone had claimed a spot, quarrelling became rare … Each had his place and knew that there he would be left in peace. (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1975, p. 505)

Even though such first-contact physical aggression is rare among human beings (Esser 1968), when they are first put together, humans do instinctively evaluate each other in terms of a range of different qualities such as looks/beauty, physical strength, size, exhibited wealth, age, sexual orientation, and so on, in order to determine preliminary evaluations of various qualities such as perceived rank order and potential future relationship function (friend/foe; predator/prey; sexual partner/platonic).

Various types of hierarchy in human societies have, in consequence, been documented for many centuries. For example, the ruling Turkish political hierarchy, composed of the Grand Seignor, his chief councillor the Great Vizier, then the Lords of Lords and then the provincial Sanzacks, was documented in the UK in the late seventeenth-century (Shirley 1683, pp. 384–385). This political hierarchy could be conceived of as a dominance hierarchy. The familial dominance hierarchy was one of the first hierarchies to be explicitly identified as such in terms that are very close to the contemporary ethological meaning: Thomas Hobbes described what he called “paternal dominion” in the mid-seventeenth century (Hobbes 1983 [1651], p. 197).

Within the social science tradition in the West, one of the earliest works explicitly on social hierarchy in human societies was John Millar’s Observations Concerning the Distinction of Ranks in Society (1771), which argued that over time, social authority tended to become less concentrated and more dispersed across society as a whole. Adam Smith was more pessimistic than Millar, arguing that the idea of submitting to higher ranks was a doctrine of nature that was difficult to over-ride (Smith 1976 [1759], p. 53).

By the early twentieth century, the nature of social authority and bureaucratic hierarchy was being investigated by sociologists such as Max Weber, who distinguished between various different types of authority: rational/legal, traditional, and charismatic authority (Weber 1947 [1922], pp. 300–301). Regarding the functioning of bureaucratic hierarchies, Weber declared that:

The organization of offices follows the principle of hierarchy; that is, each lower office is under the control and supervision of a higher one. Hierarchies differ in respect to whether and in what cases complaints can lead to a ruling from an authority at various points higher in the scale, and as to whether changes are imposed from higher up or the responsibility for such changes is left to the lower office. (Weber 1947 [1922], p. 303)

Weber outlined that different hierarchies could sometimes employ different types of authority in tandem, for example, in the system of hereditary charisma. Occasionally, Weber’s work was drawn upon by those studying animal dominance hierarchies (Chapais 1991, p. 191). In the first half of the twentieth century, the philosopher Bertrand Russell identified power as being the fundamental concept of social science, but Russell’s work on this topic was not influential within the social sciences (Russell 1938, p. 10).

As has been demonstrated in this section, although various types of social, political, and administrative hierarchies were considered by sociologists such as Millar and Weber and by philosophers such as Russell, the concept of a dominance hierarchy as a type of pecking order generally remained limited to the ethological literature for much of the twentieth century, until it was taken up directly by various evolutionary psychologists such as Denise Cummins at the end of the century.

Cummins on Dominance Hierarchies

A few studies applying the ethological concept of dominance hierarchies to humans had been published prior to Cummins, but, with one notable exception (Omark et al. 1980), these studies were usually isolated examples with very specific foci, for example, school playground hierarchies or hierarchies in psychiatrically hospitalized boys (Esser 1968). Cummins was, therefore, in the mid-1990s the first to attempt a more general application of dominance theory to human societies using evolutionary psychology as the overarching theoretical framework. As she explained about the fundamental impetus to her work on dominance theory:

… a look at human history shows quite unequivocally that humans have the unfortunate tendency to organize themselves into dominance hierarchies at both local and global levels. A monarchy, with its social stratification of power and status, is a dominance hierarchy. Indeed, much of human history is a careful record of intrigues and wars aimed at gaining or limiting domination of territory and resources … The struggle for survival through competition and cooperation with members of one’s own species is as old as life itself. If the data on social norm and theory of mind reasoning show us anything, it is that the winners are most likely to be those with the capacity to exploit or route the constraints of the dominance hierarchy. (Cummins 1998, pp. 45–46)

As will be seen, by “route the constraints of the dominance hierarchy,” Cummins meant to manipulate it to an individual’s own benefit.

A dominance hierarchy is simply a social hierarchy that is governed by a set of rules that enshrine the various rankings that constitute it, e.g., that if A has priority over B for resource x, and B has priority over C for resource x, then A also has priority over C for resource x. As explained by Cummins:

Social living confers both costs and benefits to individuals … In hierarchical social groups, how these costs and benefits cash out depend a good deal on an individual’s status. Consider that from a cognitive standpoint, a social hierarchy is, essentially, a set of social norms, that is, rules that constrain the behavior of individuals depending on their rank (Cummins, 2000). In human societies, these may be implicit or explicitly codified as regulations or laws …. (Cummins 2005, pp. 681–682; italics in original)

The basic distinction between hierarchical and nonhierarchical societies (e.g., some aboriginal societies) is not that the latter are not constrained by any general social rules, but that in the former, adherence to social rules varies in a well-defined way according to an individual’s position within the dominance hierarchy (Cummins 2005, p. 681).

How the set of rules that constitute the dominance hierarchy are established also varies for different animal species. For example, rank in chimpanzee hierarchies is not determined by physical size of the individual animal but instead by the formation and maintenance of alliances that provide support during any ranking contests (Cummins 1998, p. 34). In other animals (e.g., chickens), rank is determined mainly by fighting ability. As Cummins explained, in addition to physical abilities, “dominance hierarchies are supported by a collection of specific cognitive functions” such as rule learning, behavior forecasting, and alliance formation (Cummins 2005, p. 680). A central distinction here, therefore, is between physicality-based dominance hierarchies and prestige-based hierarchies, although sometimes a combination of both types is involved.

Regarding the origins of her approach, Cummins has cited work on both reciprocal altruism and the social context effect vis-à-vis reasoning tasks as the initial starting-points of her own work. As she explained, from reading the literature on how reasoning processes actually functioned, she noted that “virtually all of them made reference to status hierarchies, and … social norms … It seemed apparent to me that status hierarchies were the crucible with[in] which much social intelligence adaptation evolved” (Private correspondence).

Therefore, Cummins’ work can be seen as stemming less from the ethological approach to status hierarchies and more from the cognitive psychology tradition of understanding the influence of content effects on reasoning performance, as human social reasoning evolved in direct response to the need to navigate dominance hierarchies. The only partial precursor in this respect is the work of Michael Chance (1967).

Cummins argued that the higher reasoning capacity of human beings evolved in direct response to the pressure to cooperate and to compete with conspecifics within the set of dominance hierarchies that go to make up human societies (Cummins 1998, p. 30). This means that the main function of higher intelligence in human beings is not primarily to solve abstract or mathematical problems, but to solve problems associated with social behavior and the understanding of group dynamics. Successful functioning within dominance hierarchies requires the application of deontic reasoning, or reasoning about rights and obligations with respect to what individuals are permitted, obligated, and forbidden to do within these dominance hierarchies (Cummins 1996a, b, 1998, p. 39, 1999).

Cummins contrasted this deontic reasoning about social norms with indicative reasoning, or reasoning about what is factually true or false, and suggested that humans are “primed” for, or have evolved psychological mechanisms devoted to, responding to violations of these hierarchical social norms (or to cheating) by means of ongoing deontic calculations. One piece of evidence for the importance of deontic reasoning was that this form of reasoning emerges early in a child’s development and operates separately from indicative reasoning, with children as young as three exhibiting behavioral sensitivity to transitive dominance hierarchies (Cummins 1998, p. 42).

Even so, some references to work on the social order of turkeys suggest that ethology was certainly an influence on Cummins’ approach (Cummins 1998, p. 34, 50; Watts and Stokes 1971). Hence, although her work on dominance hierarchies is an important part of the evolutionary psychology paradigm, it also fits to a significant degree within the comparative psychology tradition, which aims to understand the parallels between animal behavior and human societies (Vonk and Shackelford 2012; Romanes 1898 [1878]).

A modern form of the comparative psychology tradition, which Cummins’ work can be said to resemble to a degree, is comparative developmental evolutionary psychology, which “integrates frameworks from developmental psychology and evolutionary biology” (Parker 1990, p. 3). It has been suggested that Darwin’s approach to studying comparative cognition searched for human-like behaviors in animals (Shettleworth 2012, p. 529, 532); in which case, Cummins’ work can be described as searching for animal-like behaviors in human beings. This would characterize it as drawing on the contemporary cognitive ethological tradition, or on the evolutionary comparative cognition framework.

Other Aspects of Dominance Hierarchies

Dominance hierarchies are not static structures but are open to challenge and are subject to ongoing conflicts and change, a fact that was acknowledged early on in the ethology literature (Lorenz 1935). They are dynamic structures in which some individuals challenge others above them in the hierarchy for greater resource-access rights and where established hierarchies can be reversed or overturned, at least for a period of time.

This dynamic property of dominance hierarchies is one important way in which they differ from bureaucratic or administrative hierarchies. It is certainly possible for individuals in bureaucratic hierarchies to be promoted or demoted, and therefore to change position within the hierarchy, but this is a formal process that follows fixed administrative procedures. Changes within dominance hierarchies are less formal and more open-ended, and are also subject to more frequent and ongoing challenges.

In addition, the dominance hierarchies of different species can have different levels of dynamism. In one species, the dominance hierarchy might only rarely be subject to challenge and experience changes only very infrequently, for example, after the death of a dominant individual, whereas in another species the dominance hierarchy might be subject to almost continuous challenge and in consequence experience very frequent changes in position.

Interestingly, dominance hierarchies are not always linear (or transitive) in function. For example, in most circumstances, if A has priority over B and B has priority over C, then A necessarily has priority over C, i.e., a simple linear relationship exists between A, B, and C. However, in other circumstances it is possible for non-linear (or non-transitive) hierarchies to develop. For example, a high-ranking individual A, who was dominant over both B and C because they had been victorious over them in previous fights, might then lose to D in a fight, D having previously lost to both B and C, possibly because A was temporarily weakened by their last fight. Then A would still be dominant over B and C, but would be below D in the hierarchy, even though D would still remain below B and C (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1975, p. 391). It is likely that such non-linear hierarchies are often transient phenomena.

Sex Differences and Dominance Hierarchies

So far, the discussion about dominance hierarchies has been presented as if all individuals of the same species had the same nature, when in fact this assumption is certainly false. Males and females have, is some respects, very different natures (Davies and Shackelford 2008). One example of this is that Homo sapiens women tend to use subtler and more indirect means of conducting intra-sexual competition, in order to denigrate and defeat rivals, whereas men use more direct and physical means of intra-sexual competition. Put differently, women tend to use relational verbal aggression as a means of intra-sexual competition, whereas men tend to use direct physical aggression (Cummins 2005, p. 691; Mavin 2008).

Other differences relating to sex have also been outlined in the literature. For example:

An important implication of men’s stronger tendency to compete over status is that the male status hierarchy is steeper and has a more pinched distribution: that is, we find more men at both the highest and lowest end of the status continuum, while relatively more women lie in the middle of the hierarchy … Given their motivation to obtain status, men have been more eager to become leaders than women. (Buunk and Dijkstra 2012, p. 41)

However, just because there have been, historically, more male leaders than female, male leaders are not always superior to female leaders, and there are observable patterns that have been identified in the literature for when male and female leaders are preferred. For example, it has been suggested that female leaders are preferred in order to manage instances of intra-group conflict and competition, whereas male leaders are preferred in order to manage instances of inter-group conflict and competition (Ibid.,).

Another aspect of dominance and sex differences is that there are three forms of dominance hierarchy that are found in the animal world: male-male hierarchies, female-female hierarchies, and male-female hierarchies. If male-male hierarchies were the first ‘default’ dominance hierarchies to be investigated in the 1920s, as was also implied in Darwin’s notion of “the law of battle,” then female-female dominance hierarchies began to be studied as separate phenomena in more detail in the 1960s (Kawamura 1965).

Male-female dominance hierarchies are heavily affected by the degree of sexual dimorphism present in the particular species in question. In species with no or low sexual dimorphism, male-female hierarchies are either ambiguous or mildly in favor of females. However in species with high sexual dimorphism, male-female dominance hierarchies usually operate strongly in favor of males. Female-female dominance hierarchies are often matrilineal, i.e., rank is transmitted from mothers to daughters, although they are not always so. Male-male dominance hierarchies are often based on size and fighting ability but other factors such as skill at making cooperative alliances are sometimes also involved (Chapais 1991, pp. 199–200).


Historically speaking, the formal concept of a dominance hierarchy started out in the ethological animal behavior literature (in its “default” male-male form) in the early part of the twentieth century, before it migrated to various other subjects, then broadened out to include female-female dominance hierarchies, and was eventually adopted by evolutionary psychologists such as Denise Cummins at the end of the twentieth century. In this protracted adaptation process, the concept was transformed from its early more narrow “pecking order” meaning, which was initially confined to chickens, to a broader concept that could be applied to both other animal species and to human societies.

However, it is important to distinguish between the concept of a dominance hierarchy meant in its ethological sense, and other types of hierarchies such as class, administrative, or bureaucratic hierarchies. These latter types of hierarchy do share some features in common with dominance hierarchies, for example, that position within them is usually connected with an individual’s status, but they also have some features that may differ from them, for example that positional changes are usually accomplished by more formal and/or bureaucratic means.

Although, as has been suggested, the importance of the class hierarchy for a long time involved “the profound influence which it exerts upon the intermarriage of different families,” with legal penalties sometimes applying to illicit inter-class marriages (Fisher 1930, p. 210) – similar to how an individual’s dominance hierarchy position usually affects their reproductive success – such strict marriage prohibitions are now no longer in place in most of the Western world. This may mean that class hierarchies are now less important than dominance hierarchies in determining mating success in some instances.

Finally, one potentially interesting further extension of dominance theory might be to widen its scope beyond the intra-species level, as has been discussed in this entry, to the inter-species level, in order to investigate how some species may dominate over other species. As Darwin related, human beings are currently the dominant species in the world (Darwin 1874 [1871], p. 51), but all other species below them are not of equal rank with each other. How the long-term evolution of different species affects various inter-species dominance hierarchies might prove an illuminating topic.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Todd K. Shackelford
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyOakland UniversityRochesterUSA