If you divide men into the alphas and betas — the old binary system that pits charismatic, bullying alphas against compliant little betas — the 22 other letters of the Greek alphabet present an interesting problem. Alpha and beta are but two letters in a 24-letter set: Does that mean there are potentially 22 other types of dudes? Enter the sigma male. What is a sigma male, you ask?
According to a certain corner of the internet, he’s a new kind of dude: He’s as powerful as an alpha but free of alpha baggage. He’s quiet but cool, a lone wolf who defies hierarchical categorization. Men obey him. Women want him. Alphas hate him because they can’t control him, but they also respect him for that very reason. Power? Status? No, thanks. He’d rather have freedom and solitude. He doesn’t dominate. Not because he can’t — but because he’s not interested. He doesn’t yell. He exudes quiet confidence. He’s a loner, Dottie. A rebel. Imagine Keanu Reeves in John Wick, mixed with Keanu Reeves in John Wick Chapter 2, plus a little Keanu Reeves in John Wick Chapter 3, Parabellum sprinkled on top.
The sigma male, hatched in a dark and unsavory corner of the internet, might appeal to a few self-styled lone wolves out there. And by “might,” we mean “probably.” But if we can break down the old binary of alphas and betas, and let in a little nuance, there’s a possibility — a slim one, but a possibility nonetheless — that it could open up into something positive.
“For a long time, being a dominant male was an exalted notion of masculinity in our culture,” says Vinita Mehta, Washington, D.C., psychologist and author of the book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Genes Complicate Modern Relationships. “That seems to be changing, thankfully. One advantage of being a ‘lone wolf’ would be to bypass the toxicity that can come with being part of a hierarchy, like unhealthy competition or negative interactions.” The scientific basis for sigma males is undeniable, only because there’s no science behind sigma males to deny. “They are more of a social phenomena than a scientific one,” Mehta says.
The sigma male was cooked up by all-around hateful guy and alt-right provocateur Theodore Beale, a.k.a Vox Day, for a low-grade 2010 blog post, in which he ran down the Greek alphabet, randomly assigning letters to male archetypes he’d invented. The sigma trail goes cold until 2014, when California plastic surgeon John T. Alexander quietly published The Sigma Male: What Women Really Want. Around 2018, the sigma male reached YouTube. As of 2021, the streaming service boasts dozens of videos with titles like 5 Habits of the Sigma Male, 10 Signs You’re a Sigma Male, Understanding the Lone Wolf: Are You a Sigma Male? and Why Sigma Males are Highly Attractive to Women & the Best Sigma Game.
In early 2021, the world took notice when a viral tweet juxtaposed a sampling of sigma male images against the question “what the fuck is going on with men?”
What the fuck is going on, indeed. Well, in part, men might be slowly starting to realize that splitting the world into alphas and betas is pretty dumb. But it’s too ingrained a habit to quit. Alpha and beta is so often used as a shorthand for winners and losers. Men aspire to alpha behavior and worry about being a beta. Life is supposed to be better when you’re an alpha male. Alphas are successful, attractive winners. And people are getting rich exploiting this anxiety over failing to be alpha enough through books, YouTube videos, and $4,000 weekend-long bootcamps.
But being alpha isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “Much of the male contingent of society now seem to consider the tendency to suppress emotions as ‘strength’ too, and praise guys who do this,” neurologist and author Dean Burnett says. “This is seriously unhealthy for our brains and minds.” It can exact a physical toll, too. And despite the pick-up artists’ promises, women may be less naturally drawn to men with alpha tendencies, such as being demanding. Alphas also have a bad habit of being more aggressive than situations require. When their need for dominance encounters a modern situation that doesn’t require domination, they wind up yelling at the checkout line at Costco or getting into fistfights with Little League coaches.
And if you believe in alphas and betas, the last thing you’d want is more alphas. Society would grind to a halt. “The logic of the alpha male model means that only a select few can realistically claim to be alphas,” Burnett says. “That just makes mathematical and logical sense. If you’ve got a hierarchy, then only one person can be at the top. You need a lot more people beneath you, otherwise the whole thing makes no sense.”
In the wild, alphas don’t dominate through strength alone. Alpha chimpanzees use their size and physical prowess but also practice politics, currying favor through kindness and generosity. With bonobos, the alpha are more often than not females.
“While alpha males do exist, their status is often determined by their connections to the alpha female, or their mothers,” Burnett says. “Ergo, they have alpha males, but the title is the result of the relationships they form and maintain, not physical prowess or combat.”
Alphas aren’t what we think there are. But a lot of men plugged into the alpha/beta binary don’t want to think they’re betas. They’ve sensed there’s a core problem with how they understand social hierarchies and see the sigma male identity as a way to make it continue to work.
“The sigma thing does strike me as an attempt to expand the alpha male model to account for human diversity without abandoning the concept,” Burnett says. “But I feel it’s inherently futile in the long run.”
Part of the futility lies in the very nature of the lone wolf. The chief alpha trait is leadership, so the idea of dominant sigmas as “loner alphas” seems inherently laughable. One could read it as a coping mechanism for those laboring under a fear of being beta. Or, more charitably, as a misguided attempt to try to acknowledge the diversity of human behavior within the tight confines of the alpha male model of dominance.
“The sigma male thing seems like a probably unintentional recognition of the fact that the whole alpha-beta male model is far too simple and limited to account for all the variation human groups and societies can produce,” Burnett says. “It’s a bit like those religious types that keep promising the rapture on a certain date, then that date passes incident-free, and they try to explain it away by saying ‘It was actually a spiritual rapture so it looks the same’ or some other bizarre claim.”
But it’s important to note there’s a key difference between videos about being an alpha male and being a sigma. Alpha videos are often aspirational or instructional in nature. They purport to teach viewers how to be an alpha. Sigma videos encourage a form of self-reflection. They propose that the viewer might be a sigma male and give a list of traits that can serve as a roadmap for this voyage of sigma self-discovery. It’s silly, yes. But at least it’s about accepting something and not telling someone how to be something they’re not.
The real valuable thing would be to have that self-reflection without the interference of alpha, beta, and sigma framing. So, to put this in language viewers of these videos have grown accustomed to: Listen up, betas. Stepping away from the alpha/beta/sigma mindset? That’s the real alpha move.