The dominance game, as played by dictators and other animals

Senior Editor
Yahoo News
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Evan Vucci/AP, Getty Images (2), Jon Chol Jin/AP (2).
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Evan Vucci/AP, Getty Images (2), Jon Chol Jin/AP (2).

If you’ve been wondering what makes Kim Jong Un such a successful dictator, here’s one hint: When he speaks at a meeting, his officials sit up and pay attention. We know this because President Trump praised him for it after their meeting in Singapore last week, adding “I want my people to do the same.” Trump later described the remark as a joke.

One way to command the attention of others is with force of personality, argument and rhetoric. The other way, evidently preferred by Kim, is to make an example of subordinates who fall asleep at meetings or official functions by shooting at them with antiaircraft guns. Unconfirmed but widely cited reports said that was how the career of North Korea’s defense minister ended in 2015. Whether Trump was aware of this practice when he praised Kim’s command of the bureaucracy is not known, but he reportedly has been annoyed at his secretary of commerce, 80-year-old Wilbur Ross, for dozing off during his speeches.

We take it for granted that this is how dictators behave. As a high-ranking official of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev would nap during the day in order to stay awake during the all-night vodka-fueled dinners Soviet premier Josef Stalin hosted. “Things went badly for those who dozed off at Stalin’s table,” Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs. (Stalin also once commanded the portly, late-middle-aged Khrushchev to perform a hopak, the Cossack kicking dance. Khrushchev complied. “When Stalin says dance, the wise man dances,” he wrote.)

But why? When Kim is accused of sending assassins to douse his exiled half-brother with nerve poison, we recognize it as depraved, but rational in the sense that he is cementing his own power by dispatching a potential rival, following the rule of “what would Putin do?” But why should falling asleep be a capital offense? If anything, a sleeping rival is less of a threat than a wide-awake one. If I were the ruler of North Korea and gave a 5,000-word New Year’s Day speech, (“Today, recollecting with great pleasure and pride and deep emotion the proud achievements we performed last year through our diligent and worthwhile labor and sincere efforts..”) I’d pardon anyone who kept his eyes open through even the first half-hour. But that’s why I’d make a lousy dictator.

To understand what motivates someone like Kim, we turned to an authority on dominance — ethologist Marc Bekoff, author of “Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do.” In an essay on the Psychology Today blog, Bekoff writes:

“Dominance is a fact. Nonhuman (and human) animals dominate one another in a number of ways. Individuals may dominate or control (1) access to various resources including food, potential and actual mates, … (2) the movements of others; or (3) the attention of others…”

Taking these one at a time, Kim, the dictator of a country where as many as a million people starved to death in the 1990s and which still uses starvation as a tool of political control, according to no less an authority than Donald Trump, doesn’t appear to have missed many meals himself. His wife, Ri Sol Ju, is a comely, fashionable former cheerleader who just happened to have fallen for a fat guy in a Mao-style suit, with a weird haircut, who incidentally is the absolute ruler of a country of 25 million. Kim controls the movements of his subjects to the degree that those attempting to leave the country without permission are shot on sight. And, crucially, he commands the attention of his citizens. State-run media lavishes fawning coverage on Kim. If he used Twitter, the whole country would probably be required to follow him, if ordinary citizens had access to the internet, which they generally do not.

Behavioral biologist Dario Maestripieri, author of “Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships,”  studies social hierarchies. “A dominant can use any means at his disposal to keep the subordinate from acquiring more power,” he writes. “This is the strategy used by dictators in despotic political regimes, and also by some domineering people in their personal relationships.”

But dominance exists only in relation to its opposite, submission. In some ways the more interesting question is not about the Kims or Trumps of the world, but their subordinates: those who either occupy a place within a formal hierarchy, (i.e., staffers or Cabinet members) or stand outside it but willingly place themselves in a submissive position. We’re looking at you, Ted Cruz. Do you remember, back when you were rivals, Trump tweeting a picture meant to show that his own wife was prettier than yours? You said you wouldn’t be a “servile puppy dog,” didn’t you?

Well, roll over and show us your belly.

At least in the animals Bekoff studies, mostly dogs and coyotes, the interplay of dominance and submission serves a purpose for both parties. The opposing behaviors appear to have evolved as a way to avoid actual fighting. Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but that’s a bad motto among members of the same species. “Wild animals do not want to fight, do not want to get into situations where they can get hurt,” he said in an interview. He regards the continual need some leaders display for attention, submission and flattery as mostly a human trait. “I can’t think of any nonhuman animals who continually need to have their status ratified,” he says. “Sometimes you’ll see a lower ranking animal lick the muzzle of a higher-ranking animal in a show of appeasement or submission, but most of the time they’ve got other things to do.”

Maestripieri thinks the continuous one-upmanship of a Kim or a Trump is a function of narcissism, a personality trait that puts one’s self at the center of the world. “Narcissists are fundamentally insecure,” he says. “They have an image of themselves that is dependent on what other people think, and so they need constant reinforcement.”

The worst thing you can do to a narcissist, therefore, is to ignore him or her, the lesson Kim’s defense minister learned, too late, and that Trump seems inclined to enforce in his own world, unless you take him at his word that he was joking.

Are you paying attention, Wilbur Ross?

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