Feb. 6, 2002 -- Put three strangers in a room, and if they're all male, within minutes one of those guys is going to try to take charge.
And in not much more time than it takes to say "macho," one will emerge as the commander in chief, another as his lieutenant, and the third will be the peon who has to answer to both.
Such "dominance hierarchies" just seem to come naturally to males. Social psychologists say it's part of something they call the "pecking order." No kidding.
Females, of course, are quite different.
Democrats or Crabs?
They tend to be less comfortable in a hierarchical structure, so whenever females gather together, they tend to work things out democratically, according to long-standing theory in psychology. They are less comfortable than men in forming alliances with some of their colleagues in order to rule over their peers.
But along comes Marianne Schmid Mast to throw a monkey wrench into all of that.
In a report published in the January issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Mast, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, shows that women also form dominance hierarchies. It just takes them a little longer to do it.
What that suggests is that women ought to be just as good as men at clawing their way to the top, because both are equally willing to form the friendships and associations necessary to take control.
"So that's probably not the reason that we don't have more women in top leadership positions," she says.
Mast's research, involving 116 strangers who took part in the project, contradicts two popular theories of how women handle themselves in a group setting.
One is called the "Egalitarian Structure," in which democracy prevails, and no hierarchical structure evolves.
The other is known as the "Crab Basket Structure," according to her paper. You don't need to put a lid on a basket full of crabs to keep the crabs from crawling out, she writes, because "every time one crab tries to crawl higher, another will hold her back by crawling over her."
Watching Hierarchies Form
In an effort to find out which of these three concepts (pecking order, egalitarian, or crab basket) best describes how females deal with other members of the group, Mast invited 58 men and 58 women to take part in an experiment at Northeastern, a private research institution in Boston.
The participants were divided into smaller same-sex groups of total strangers. Obviously, Mast didn't want to tell them that she was going to see if they could sit around and discuss something without someone trying to take charge and build a little social empire. So she came up with what she calls a "cover story."
All participants were parents of at least one child between 4 to 6 years old, and they were told that they would be videotaped from behind a two-way mirror as they discussed various parental issues, such as "Is punishment indispensable when rearing children?"
With videotape rolling, each group went into a 45-minute discussion period. Her interest, however, was not in how they responded to the questions. She wanted to see how they responded to each other.
Primarily, she wanted to see how often the participants interrupted each other, and how the speakers responded to the interruptions. That's a valid tool, she says, because when one speaker interrupts another, it can be a way of trying to take charge. Or build a dominant hierarchical structure, as psychologists put it.
Following the first session, the participants were asked to come back a week later and do it again. The results, Mast says, were dramatic.True to prediction, it only took an average of eight minutes for the males to figure out who was in charge.
"At the very beginning, when total strangers meet for the first time," men try to establish their pecking order, she says.
That didn't turn out to be the case for the women, at least in the beginning. They talked, and politely interrupted each other from time to time, but no patterns emerged showing the establishment of a hierarchical structure.
"But during the second session," things changed a lot, she says. "The females formed hierarchies as well."
In time, she says, the behavior among men and women was about the same. Both favored a pecking order.
Reality May Vary
Her research paper concedes the project may not be conclusive. Some could argue, for instance, that since more parental responsibility traditionally rests with the mother, the "cover story" could have biased the results. The performance of the participants may have reflected more passion about the subject matter among the women than the men. The interruptions by the female participants thus may have been an expression of concern rather than an effort to dominate.
But the results do seem compatible with other studies that show a basic human desire to know who's in charge, be it male or female.Mast's study suggests that men make their move almost as soon as they have finished shaking hands with the other strangers in the room. Women, apparently, think about it a little longer before trying to take charge.
Of course, even if Mast's findings are right on, the real world we live in varies a lot, and exceptionally strong personalities, or people driven to rise above the masses, may influence our own predicaments.
Perhaps you find yourself living in a world where your pecking order is clear. Or maybe in one of those rare egalitarian worlds where democracy shines.
But probably a whole bunch of us feel like we're living in a crab basket.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.