Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

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

Nonverbal Indicators of Dominance

  • Kristofor McCartyEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1415-1


Dominance Status Facial Hair Dominance Rating Fighting Ability Intrasexual Selection 
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Dominance in large part is having power or influence over others. An important part of negotiating access to resources, be it food or mates, throughout the animal kingdom and ancestral humans is/has been achieved through physical force, particularly between males. For example, men who repeatedly win fights and contests against other men (intrasexual selection) are often revered in society, and their status within the group is elevated (Hill and Hurtado 1996). This functions as a deterrent to potential competitors from challenge and is known as physical dominance, which will be the focus of this section.


The ability to make accurate assessments of physical dominance in species with aggressive social interactions is of particular importance as it can ultimately fall within the realm of natural selection. People who have the potential to inflict serious or even fatal physical harm is a strong selective force and it makes sense that our perceptual system has evolved cognitive mechanisms in which to make dominance judgments based off a number of cues.

This section will focus on male cues of dominance as males have productively limited access to mates and have engaged in intra-sexual conflict, be it one-on-one, or in a coalitional sense (e.g. war) (Keeley, 1996).

Static Cues

It is well known that humans have highly specialized neurological structures to quickly extract information from faces as these hold the key to many social interactions such as the identification of emotions, sex, age, and attractiveness. Aggressive confrontations are often acutely time sensitive and given our affinity with faces, it makes them an ideal structure in which to assess dominance.

Intrasexual selection is thought to have been a strong selective pressure on men’s bone structure resulting in thicker skulls, pronounced brow ridges, and more robust mandibles in order to provide better protection from damage (see Puts 2010 for a review). The expression of men’s facial structure is thought to be at least in part determined by prenatal testosterone exposure in utero with higher exposure leading to more exaggerated expression of such traits. At puberty these structures are activated by the surge of circulating testosterone thus contributing to sex differences in appearance. Prenatal testosterone exposure also leads to many other organizational effects on men such as increased physical strength and cardiovascular fitness – all of which can be attributed to the ability to fight.

Research has found that exaggerated masculinized features lead to higher ratings of dominance by both men and women (e.g., Neave et al. 2003) and that people are generally accurate when judging strength and formidability (fighting ability) from men’s faces (Sell et al. 2009). Furthermore, men with masculinized facial structure typically have higher circulating testosterone (Penton-Voak and Chen 2004; Roney et al. 2006) which is attributed to more dominant behavior (Mazur and Booth 1998).

A rapidly growing area of research has begun to document how the ratio between the width and height of a face (fWHR – bizygomatic width divided by upper facial height to be precise) is correlated with many dominance traits, particularly aggression. If a man has a high fWHR (they have a wider face), then this seems to be associated with more aggressive reactions to a perceived slight by others, greater sporting penalties resulting from aggressive fouls, as well as socially aggressive behavior such as being self-interested and performing more violations of trust in economic games (Haselhuhn et al. 2015). Furthermore, men with higher fWHR’s have also been found to have more circulating testosterone (Lefevre et al. 2013) which might be a mediating factor in explaining these behaviors. Interestingly, these associations appear to be exclusive to men and no relationships are found between fWHR and dominance-related traits in women. Taken together this suggests fWHR is a cue to dominance in men.

Aside from facial structure, another source of dominance information is a man’s facial hair. Facial hair does not hold any clear survival value, it is not usually present in women or children, and its expression is dependent on testosterone (Saxton et al. 2015). From an intersexual point of view, facial hair growth does not relate clearly and consistently to ratings of attractiveness. However, dominance ratings show a positive linear pattern with facial hair prevalence indicating that beard growth might have primarily evolved via intrasexual means.

Perceptions of dominance are subject to individual differences, particularly in relation to the observer’s own dominance status. Studies have shown that a man’s self-rated dominance affects his ratings of faces manipulated for dominance. Shorter men are more sensitive to cues of dominance and rate men’s faces as more dominant than taller men do (Watkins et al. 2010, 2013). This has been explained in terms of allowing less dominant men to avoid conflicts that might be costly. However, this moderation effect does not hold true for all studies and there is some debate as to whether these effects are in fact robust (Lefevre and Lewis 2014).

Another indicator of someone’s physical dominance status is of course their size and build. Men have around 75 % greater upper body muscle mass than women and are typically taller and heavier with broader shoulders (see Sell et al. 2012). These traits are easily observable and are perhaps one of the most direct ways in which to assess physical dominance. The reason men have greater upper body muscle mass than women is that this is the primary mechanism for inflicting damage, be it grappling, choking, or punching. As expected, when observers are shown static photographs of men’s torsos they are able to quite accurately gauge that man’s upper body strength however, this relationship does not hold true for his lower body strength suggesting our perceptions are engineered for detection of fighting strength (Sell et al. 2009).

Dynamic Cues

There are numerous occasions where the static features on which we rely on to make dominance judgments might be concealed, for example, when it is dark, the person is wearing clothing or they are at a distance. As these factors are common in everyday life and the costs of misjudging someone’s fighting ability may be grave, we might predict that humans have also developed ways in which to assess dominance using other mediums.

The ability to perceive motion is an ancient information channel and was likely developed before our eyes had sufficient resolution to interpret static detail. Motion is detected and processed very quickly and likely evolved as a result of natural selection in order to detect predators. Several strands of evidence support the hypothesis that movement provides reliable information about an organism’s physical condition as unlike many static constructs, movement is very difficult to fake or conceal. In the animal kingdom, for example, it is used to size up competitors before serious intra-sexual conflicts (for example, deer and some species of fish, see Sell et al. 2012 for a review).

The ability to record human movement with sufficient control (for example, removing structural confounds like facial attractiveness and body size) was developed in the 1970s by Swedish psychologist Gunnar Johansson and are known in the literature as point-light displays (PLDs). PLDs are comprised of an array of dots that typically represent the major joints and structures of the body and when viewed as a static frame, people have trouble interpreting what they are or represent. However, when they start moving a vivid representation of a person’s motion.

By observing only very brief presentations of PLDs depicting walking (as it is a motion we see every day), observers are able to resolve the sex of the walker with accuracy (typically in the region of 70 %). A typical male walk involves greater lateral shoulder sway and very little hip movement, whereas the opposite is true of a typical female walk (Troje 2003).

Raters give equivalent answers irrespective of whether they are asked if a PLD is of a female walker or a feminine walk. In contrast, when asked whether a walk is masculine versus whether it is a male walk, a disconnect occurs and observers will report a walker to be male much earlier in the continuum (between neutral and extreme male walk) than to assign the walk as “masculine.” This is thought to be attributed “precarious manhood,” a term that suggests simply being a man is quite a different concept to being a real man (i.e., being masculine) (Kozlowski et al. 2016).

The composition of PLDs means that facing direction is absent as there are no depth cues. When observers are asked the sex and facing direction of a sex neutral, or male walk, they will typically default to reporting that walker as walking toward them. In contrast, obvious female walkers are more likely to be perceived as walking away from the judge. Furthermore, sex neutral walkers are typically judged as being male. This is thought to be a perceptual failsafe as misjudging a male for a female and/or their facing direction may be risky. Men seem to be particularly sensitive to this effect and report extreme male walks to always be walking toward them. This again fits with a threat detection hypothesis as these cues are more relevant to them and may inform them of potential conflict (Schouten et al. 2011).

All of these factors indicate that observers have quite specific perceptions of dominance based solely on walking gait, and we have evolved cognitive mechanisms that help us size up how dominant a man is, and have built in failsafe’s to avoid misperception of facing direction. However, research to date is lacking in evidence that informs us how accurate people’s perceptions are, that is, do dominance ratings track the actual dominance status of the walker?

A separate body of research has documented how body postures and gestures lead to perceptions of power and dominance (and even lead to greater feelings of power in the poser) although these judgments have primarily been attributed to more social dominance and leadership rather physical dominance. For example, when observing political candidates, key movement parameters that lead to increased perceptions of (social) dominance are more expansive body postures and gestures as well as greater movement frequency (Koppensteiner et al. 2016). While these ratings are judged in more of a social dominance context, these perceptions are likely to be rooted in the detection of physical dominance. The size of a person is a major factor in how dominant they are perceived to be, and larger men are generally more dangerous than smaller men so making yourself look larger using expansive gestures and posturing is likely to lead to increased dominance ratings.


Intrasexual competition has likely been a very salient selective force in humans, particularly for men. This led to the development of increased aggression, greater upper body muscle mass in order to deal damage, and to stronger, thicker bones to help limit damage incurred in fights. The risk of misjudging a potential rival can lead to serious injury or even death, and research indicates we can call upon a wealth of cues in order to make our assessments from static cues in the face and body as well as more dynamic cues in motion we see every day such as walking gait.

Taken together, the evidence detailed above indicates our perceptual system has evolved cognitive mechanisms in order to assess the dominance status of another person and keep us out of danger from potential threats.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyNorthumbria UniversityNewcastle upon-TyneUK