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Identifying Dominant Behavior

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

Dominant behavior can manifest itself in many ways. From the subtle use of size to control a situation, to the outward display of aggression, dominance is an important behavior to recognize. Understanding the subtle cues of dominance will be useful when attempting to determine whether or not a person will make the sudden jump to outward aggression. Dominance can be viewed on a spectrum from subtle to aggressive, and it is our responsibility to determine the danger present in those actions.

Throughout the evolution of the human race, people have innately developed behaviors to keep themselves safe in social settings. Those behaviors viewed on the full range of the spectrum can identify how comfortable and dominant a person is compared to others around them. By exposing vital areas of the body (ex. Groin, abdomen), a person is letting others know they are not threatened by their presence.

Dominance can be displayed in any social scenario, even in a relaxed setting when the entire group is sitting and spaced out, not in striking distance. A display of dominance in this type of setting can be much more subtle and difficult to notice if you don’t fully understand the actions as they’re displayed. Let’s take a look at each action from the subtle to the more aggressive in the sitting and standing positions.

Sitting Position

Sitting back and putting hands behind head - Easily overlooked, a person who sits back in their chair and puts their hands up behind their head is displaying two behaviors at once. Alone, sitting back in a chair automatically lowers alertness and is typically displayed by a person who is more relaxed and comfortable in their surroundings. When adding the hands going up behind the head and the arms splaying out, we see a more direct attempt at displaying dominance. Extending the arms and hands out on the arms and/or back of a chair also broadens the position of a person trying to insert their dominance over others directly near them. One of the most recognizable dominant behaviors is when a person attempts to make themselves appear larger, by extending their arms in various positions. In this situation, it might be easy to ignore that behavior as dominant, but it should not be overlooked.

Leaning in towards another person - It may seem common to witness a person leaning towards another person to either hear them better or show interest in what they are saying, but in some social settings this can be seen as dominant behavior. Leaning in towards someone, especially if there is a size advantage can be intimidating to someone not familiar with that person. Squaring of the body while leaning in can also give the sense that they are specifically trying to make themselves appear to be larger. To a bystander, this behavior should appear to be meant as a means of intimidation, especially if the person they are facing is showing submissive behavior.

Putting feet up - As a more subtle dominant behavior, a person who puts a foot or both feet up while sitting can easily be overlooked. While sitting, it is often that when a person puts their feet up they tend to cross them, which can be seen as a more submissive act. Although this is true in other cases, when the feet are up it makes it much more difficult for that person to react to a threat, which means it is usually only done by a person who is more comfortable in that situation and not threatened by others in the vicinity. There is also a contextual feeling by most people that this type of behavior is inappropriate in most social settings. With that societal approach, when viewing this type of behavior it becomes more evident that this person is displaying a type of dominant behavior.

Legs spread apart - In a social setting, a person who appears to be relaxed among people they are not intimately familiar with (ex. Acquaintances, strangers), and sits with their legs apart exposing their groin area is showing their dominance over the others in their direct vicinity. On the flip side, a person who is less comfortable may close up their leg position, keeping their legs together and/or crossing them to restrict access to that vital area. The comfort level of a person to display this behavior goes beyond the average baseline behavior in many social settings. The majority of people will avoid exposing vital areas to people they are not intimately familiar with. The groin being a vital area of the body that most people will consciously restrict makes this behavior more deliberate on the actors part and more noticeable on the viewers part.

Standing Position

Arms crossed - Possibly the most ambiguous body position is arms crossed across the chest. This can mean many things, depending on the social setting and person’s life experience. Many experts will say this body positioning suggests more submissive behavior, but it really depends on the context of the situation. From a dominance standpoint, a person crossing their arms could also be trying to increase their size to appear more dominant to others. It could also mean that the person is just comfortable standing in that position. The context of the situation will determine whether or not this is a dominant act or not.

Hands on hips with arms splayed out - A common stance that can also mean several things is a person who is standing with their hands on their hips and their elbows splayed out. This could simply be a comfortable position for someone, but it could also be an attempt to show dominance by increasing their size in comparison to others around them. Again, the social setting and situation in which the person is displaying this action will determine whether it is a dominant act or not.

Widened stance - There are several well known examples of a widened stance being used to display dominance. In Britain there is a phenomenon called the Tory Power Stance, which was developed to convey power and authority. When Cristiano Ronaldo scores a goal in a professional soccer match, he jumps forward landing in a wide stands with his arms out to signify dominance over his opponent. The wide stance is one of the more recognizable dominant behaviors in any social setting.

Putting foot up on object - Not always viewed as a dominant act, when someone does this at the standing position it is similar to someone sitting with their legs apart. In this position they are exposing the groin openly which is a vital area to keep safe. By doing this, that person is using their groin to dominate another person, such as a dog will mount and thrust to establish the dominance hierarchy. It is much more subtle when done this way by humans, but it has similar intent by comparison.

Squaring off and leaning in - Several political figures have been known to use this approach when asserting themselves as the more dominant person. Linden B. Johnson is best known for how he would square himself off and lean in to dominate other people's space. This tactic can be overwhelming and seem rather aggressive to the person who is on the receiving end. By increasing their size and moving into someone’s intimate zone, they are purposefully taking away the victims' sense of safety to show them they are in control.

Puffing out chest and shoulders - The puffing out of the chest and shoulders is most commonly seen when dominance becomes aggression. Similar to when a gorilla is seen puffing out and pounding on his chest with his fists, this is an outward display of dominance and is typically done when challenged by another dominant person. This behavior will commonly be seen directly before a bar fight commences. When in a public space and this behavior is witnessed, it is usually best to create enough space away from the individual displaying this behavior to avoid a violent encounter.

From both the sitting and standing positions, it is clear that there is a wide range of behaviors that can be identified as dominant. It is also important to remember that just because someone is exhibiting a certain behavior doesn’t mean it is always dominant, but may depend on the context of the situation and that person’s personal life experience. That is when it becomes even more important to learn and understand how these behaviors are used in different social settings. Understanding each behavior allows for staying one step ahead of a person who may be about to display threatening behavior. Early recognition and comprehension in any case is always the best defense when dealing with people who may become a threat.

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