Why the Big Baboon Doesn’t Always Win

Forrest ChristianCareers, Managing, Organizations 2 Comments

Neurologist Robert Sapolsky is an interesting character. The Edge has an interesting piece by him, which seems to be fairly stream of consciousness. Sapolsky, of couse, has done some fascinating field research on baboons and lab research into the inner workings of the brain, and a little of both all the time.

In the Edge pice, Sapolsky writes about what makes a baboon with all the perks fail in being Top Dog (to mix my animal metaphors):

[W]hen you observe at [baboons] for a week, [you] realize that success is all about impulsivity control.

On the one hand there’s the view of someone like Robert Ardrey that primate social competition is all about, who’s got the biggest canines, the most muscle, and the biggest balls. This view is straight-ahead and deterministic. Later, a much more p.c. version came along that held that competition is all about social intelligence, forming coalitions, and being nice in your game theory. But what really happens is that you’ll get some baboon that’s absolutely physically adept and by Ardrey’s logic should be doing just fine. He also knows how to use social intelligence to form coalitions, and so by Howard Gardner’s reckoning he should also be doing fine. However, at a critical moment he just can’t stop himself from doing something stupid, impulsive, and disinhibited. Amid the physical prowess and the social intelligence, you look at the baboons that are most successful, and not coincidentally pass on more copies of their genes, and they simply have more impulsivity control.

He goes on to give some wonderful story examples of how baboons simply cannot resist the impulse to get at another if they can. They scheme but their schemes fall apart because their impulse control fails and they act wrongly at just the right time.

You can see this in people, of course, especially if you sit in organizations for very long, and especially among men. Young men, left to themselves, have a tendency to play the Alpha Male game, competing for what Jim McCarthy calls “free alpha”, the amount of dominance not taken up by other males. (It’s interesting that software development, the arena McCarthy comes from, was massively overrepresented by young males with no children.)

Literature is filled with examples of powerful men, scheming and about to get what they want, just to lose it because they can’t control their impulses. Los Brothers Hernandez made it the climax of their Mister X, where a mafia boss who has gone more or less “legit” can’t help himself from trying to kill the hero in public. His hatred and jealousy overrides his desire to be seen as a stalwart of the community. “Will the real Arnold Zamora please stand up?”

So when you’re asked what the biggest reason for success is, don’t forget Impulse Control. You may need the horsepower (mental capacity), capability and knowledge, and strong Social Intelligence, but without controlling your impulses, you’ll just be another washed up athlete talking about your glory days.

Comments 2

  1. Post

    I wasn’t particularly thinking about Bill, but that works. Politicians are great exemplars of this. But you can think of lots of CEOs, too, who just couldn’t stop themselves from doing something stupid. Sex does seem to be a good place to look with these “alpha male” types.

    I’m betting that both Obama and McCain have strong impulse control, developed for different reasons.

    Some of impulse control is genetic, of course. And just because you have the predisposition to having poor control doesn’t mean that you still aren’t responsible for your actions. You have to learn to compensate with systems, using the great Human Brain.

    Nixon is a good example of a very deliberate person who still did something stupid. So impulse control isn’t everything.

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