Social Dominance Orientation

Social Dominance Orientation Definition

Social dominance orientation (SDO) is a measure of an individual’s support for group-based hierarchies. It reflects a person’s attitudes toward hierarchies in general, as well as beliefs about whether one’s own group should dominate other groups. People with high SDO believe that society should be structured in terms of inequality, with some groups at the top (i.e., possessing more power and resources) and others at the bottom. People with low SDO, in contrast, believe that society should be structured in terms of equality, with no single group dominating others.

Social Dominance Orientation Background and Importance

Social Dominance OrientationSocial dominance orientation is based on social dominance theory, which was developed by Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto. According to social dominance theory, all societies are composed of group-based hierarchies. Group-based hierarchy refers to the notion that some people dominate others by virtue of their membership in powerful groups, independent of their individual-level characteristics such as charisma and intelligence. These groups can be organized by gender, race, ethnicity, social class, religion, sports teams, or any other social category relevant to the context at hand.

Social dominance theory postulates that group-based hierarchies are reinforced by legitimizing myths, or belief systems that indicate how power and status should be distributed among groups of people. Legitimizing myths can take one of two forms. First, they can be hierarchy-enhancing, meaning that they promote social inequality. Examples include racism, sexism, nationalism, and social Darwinism. Second, they can be hierarchy-attenuating, meaning that they promote social equality. Examples include multiculturalism, beliefs in the universal rights of humankind, and socialism.

Hierarchy-enhancing myths justify group-based domination. For instance, a central idea of social Darwinism is that certain groups are at the top of the hierarchy because they are more fit and capable than are those at the bottom. Hierarchy-attenuating myths, in contrast, counteract these belief systems to regulate the degree of inequality in society. Individuals with high SDO tend to support hierarchy-enhancing myths, whereas individuals with low SDO tend to support hierarchy-attenuating myths.

Social dominance orientation is an important measure because it shows that people’s general feelings toward social inequality can predict their beliefs about whether their own group should dominate other groups (e.g., nationalism), their endorsement of specific social policies (e.g., capital punishment), and even their choice of occupation or college major. In turn, these beliefs, attitudes, and choices can influence individuals’ levels of SDO because they perpetuate the idea that certain groups should be at the top of the hierarchy, whereas other groups should stay at the bottom. Thus, SDO is both a cause and a consequence of hierarchy-enhancing myths and practices.

Antecedents of Social Dominance Orientation

SDO stems from at least three sources, one of which is group status or power. Members of high-status groups generally have higher SDO than do members of low-status groups. For example, men have higher SDO than women, White Americans have higher SDO than non-Whites, and heterosexuals have higher SDO than gays. A possible reason for such patterns of SDO endorsement is that groups at the top of the hierarchy would like to maintain their dominant position, whereas groups at the bottom of the hierarchy would like to change their subordinate position. As a result, the former support social inequality and the latter oppose it.

Another source of SDO involves socialization and background. In general, individuals who were raised in unaffectionate families have higher SDO than do those who were raised in affectionate families, most likely because unaffectionate families promote fewer ideas of equality. Furthermore, people who consider themselves religious typically have lower SDO than do their nonreligious counterparts because religious faith predicts endorsement of many hierarchy-attenuating legitimizing myths.

A third source of SDO is personality or temperament. People who are tough-minded tend to have high SDO because they are concerned with group-based competition and domination. In contrast, people who are empathetic and concerned about others tend to have low SDO because they care about cooperation and the reduction of group-based inequality.

Consequences of Social Dominance Orientation

As noted previously, high SDO is associated with the promotion of hierarchy-enhancing myths, and low SDO is associated with the promotion of hierarchy-attenuating myths. Endorsing these myths in turn leads people to support social policies that either heighten or attenuate social inequality. For instance, hierarchy-enhancing myths trigger favorable attitudes toward war, the military, and capital punishment. Hierarchy-attenuating myths, on the other hand, induce favorable attitudes toward affirmative action, women’s rights, and gay rights.

In addition to predicting endorsement of legitimizing myths and social policies, SDO predicts selection into particular organizational roles. To illustrate, police recruits and law students have higher SDO than do public defenders and psychology students. Presumably, the reason for this is that the former two roles are hierarchy-enhancing and attract people with high SDO, whereas the latter two roles are hierarchy-attenuating and attract people with low SDO.

Importantly, hierarchy-enhancing roles can heighten the SDO of individuals who enact them. In one study, the magnitude of the difference between law and psychology students’ levels of SDO increased with the amount of time that these students spent in college. This finding suggests that hierarchy-enhancing roles, such as being a law student, can breed positive feelings toward social inequality. In contrast, hierarchy-attenuating roles, such as being a psychology student, can trigger negative feelings toward social inequality.


  1. Pratto, F., Sidanius, J., Stallworth, L. M., & Malle, B. F. (1994). Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 741-763.
  2. Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. New York: Cambridge University Press.