The dominance behavioral system and psychopathology: evidence from self-report, observational, and biological studies

Psychol Bull. 2012 Jul;138(4):692-743. doi: 10.1037/a0027503. Epub 2012 Apr 16.


The dominance behavioral system (DBS) can be conceptualized as a biologically based system that guides dominance motivation, dominant and subordinate behavior, and responsivity to perceptions of power and subordination. A growing body of research suggests that problems with the DBS are evident across a broad range of psychopathologies. We begin by describing psychological, social, and biological correlates of the DBS. Extensive research suggests that externalizing disorders, mania proneness, and narcissistic traits are related to heightened dominance motivation and behaviors. Mania and narcissistic traits also appear related to inflated self-perceptions of power. Anxiety and depression are related to subordination and submissiveness, as well as a desire to avoid subordination. Models of the DBS have received support from research with humans and animals; from self-report, observational, and biological methods; and use of naturalistic and experimental paradigms. Limitations of available research include the relative lack of longitudinal studies using multiple measures of the DBS and the absence of relevant studies using diagnosed samples to study narcissistic personality disorder and bipolar disorder. We provide suggestions for future research on the DBS and psychopathology, including investigations of the potential usefulness of DBS in differentiating specific disorder outcomes, the need for more sophisticated biological research, and the value of longitudinal dynamical research. Implications of using the DBS as a tool in clinical assessment and treatment are discussed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Dominance-Subordination
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / metabolism
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Narcissism
  • Power, Psychological*
  • Psychological Theory
  • Research Design
  • Self Report
  • Social Dominance*
  • Testosterone / metabolism*


  • Biomarkers
  • Testosterone