the emotional pull of the social alpha

The 1960 US Presidential Race was a historic moment: it catapulted a youthful John F Kennedy into the White House and started the emergence of a nation out of depression into prosperity. But it’s probably most famous – certainly in media history – for the moment Kennedy and his presidential opponent, Richard Nixon, appeared side by side in the first-ever televised presidential debate.

The story goes that Nixon had recently been hospitalised and had not yet fully recovered. Insisting on campaigning right up until the first debate was due to start, he appeared pale, sickly, underweight and tired. Kennedy, by contrast, had spent the previous day preparing and had rested well the night before so appeared calm, confident and relaxed.

Voters who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won. But those listeners were a minority compared to the 70 million viewers watching on TV who overwhelmingly believed Kennedy had won.

Despite Nixon performing much better in subsequent debates, Kennedy went on to win one of the tightest elections of modern times. He himself credited the TV debates as being a crucial factor in the race: the belief being that a watching nation just couldn’t ignore the image that had impressed in their minds from the first debate. On the largest stage imaginable, the influence of what was said was dwarfed by the influence of how it was said: presentation, appearance, personality, tone of voice and the ability to connect directly with the audience – matter greatly.

What was at play here is a hard-wired emotional response that goes way back to our ape ancestors. In short, while our rational brains have developed sophisticated neural software to interpret, calculate, reason and problem-solve, our emotional brain is mainly governed by the software of our ancestors.

Social choices like who to like and who to follow are heavily led by something called the ‘alpha factor’. Pack animals like wolves recognize the alpha factor instinctively. Yes, physical size and strength can play a part, but wolves are highly intelligent animals and the wolf pack is a complex social unit. Purpose and presence are equally important factors and in many cases, the alpha is not always a male but often a female. Once an alpha is acknowledged however, a clear dominance hierarchy can be established. In social groups like a wolf pack, these hierarchies allow smooth social functioning and easily coordinated effort.

So back to our Kennedy/ Nixon case, while our System-2 side of the brain (rational) was being in engaged in policy and ideology, our System-1 side (intuitive) was being stimulated by the emotional subtext of what was being seen and felt. Ultimately, we were judging how dominant one candidate was over the other and therefore how effective they will be at providing that order and leadership at the head of the pack.

We can apply these principles to any social group, no matter how big or small; young kids in the playground, mums at the school gates, fans on the terraces, lads down the pub. Often social dynamics in people are highly complex with dominance hierarchies constantly shifting. But an alpha is an alpha and their influence over the group tends to dominate over the long term.

Understanding who has that alpha factor and how they can influence their wider social group is a highly potent marketing tool. Malcolm Gladwell called it ‘The Law of the Few’ explaining how “the success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts”. These ‘social alphas’ must have credibility in their field of influence as well as a network and means to transmit their knowledge – often via a social media channel. But as we’ve proven already with JFK: knowledge and network are nothing without that something extra – that emotional dimension – that make people sit forward and listen.

True social alphas have passion and personality.

By Tom Ellis-Jones

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