In a counter-balanced, cross-over study, we examined the contributions of serotonergic systems to the acquisition of social dominance in adult male vervet monkeys. Subjects were members of 12 social groups, each containing 3 adult males, at least 3 adult females, and their offspring. Animals were observed in 5 intervals including a first baseline, a first experimental, a second baseline, a second experimental, and a third baseline period. At the end of the first baseline period, the dominant male was removed from each group. In each group, one of the two remaining subordinate males was selected at random for treatment and during the first experimental period, 6 of the 12 treated males received drugs that enhanced serotonergic activity (3 were given tryptophan 40 mg/kg/day and 3 fluoxetine 2 mg/kg/day). The other 6 treated males received drugs that reduced serotonergic function (3 were given fenfluramine 2 mg/kg/day and 3 cyproheptadine 60 micrograms/kg/day). At the end of the first experimental period, the original dominant male was returned to his group and the second baseline period began. In all instances, the originally dominant male regained his dominant position. The second experimental period began with the dominant male again being removed and, the 12 treated males were given the treatment they had not received in the first experimental period. At the start of the third 12-week baseline period, the original dominant male was returned to his group and resumed his dominant status. When the 12 treated subjects received tryptophan or fluoxetine, they became dominant in all instances. When they received fenfluramine or cyproheptadine, their vehicle-treated cage mates became dominant. The sequence of the behavioral changes shown by the treated males as they acquired dominance status paralleled those seen in naturalistic conditions. These observations support the distinction between dominance and aggression and strongly suggest that when hierarchical relationships are uncertain, serotonergic mechanisms may mediate the behaviors which permit a male to attain high dominance status.