the Perception of Dominance

Meriam Webster’s Dictionary defines dominant as “commanding, controlling, or prevailing over all others”. So it is safe to say that dominance, or perceived dominance, is being in a position where you command or control the position or influence of others. Being dominant can determine if your attempts to influence a person are accepted or rejected. If you are dominant in a situation, the outcome of the situation is more likely to swing in your favor [1].

In social engineering engagements, establishing dominance and control over your target is important and can assist you at success. Often times during our social engineering gigs it is necessary to have secretaries, security guards, or customer service employees fulfill our requests. Individuals that are perceived as dominant will find their orders are followed because they are looked at as having power or authority over their targets.

Dominance is largely based on perception. You do not have to be a dominant person, by nature, to appear dominant to those you’re interacting with. You only need to be perceived as dominant over that individual in that situation. There are many different things you can do to increase the level of dominance others see in you. Studies have shown that men with bald heads appear more dominant [2], beards increase head size which in turn increases the perception of dominance [3], even brown eyes are seen as significantly more dominant than blue eyes [4]. These things are all very interesting and as a fan of psychology, I recommend you check out the studies. Although many of those suggestions cannot be practically applied in every social engineering engagement, there are two areas where we can increase our perceived dominance over others, verbally and nonverbally, that we can actually use, and practice.

Dominance in Speech

The way we speak plays a big role in the way others look at us. People who use a lot of filler words, or disfluencies, are seen as less dominant versus individuals that do not use these fillers found Carney, Hall, and LeBeau in a 2005 study[5] (Carney, Hall, and LeBeau (2005)). Examples of these filler words vary from language to language. In American English disfluencies such as “uh” or “um” are often used. French language speakers use words like “euh” as filler. To increase the perception of dominance you should avoid these words. How?

Practice and confidence. No, not arrogance, but confidence in what you are saying will help you to reduce the use of filler words.

Research conducted by Benus, Gravano, and Hirschberg published in the Journal of Pragmatics has shown that individuals who speak in longer periods of time, during their turn in a conversation, appear more dominant.

Dominance is also indicated in conversation when someone begins a response before the other person has finished speaking. Interrupting others and speaking before your turn is a signal of dominance [6]. There is a caution with this thought, though, as doing this too much or without care can make you appear rude. Rudeness, whether you are perceived as dominant or not, can shut the mental “doors” to whatever secrets they may be holding you want to obtain.

Your volume, tone, and speech rate are also ways people perceive dominance. It has been found that individuals that talk in a higher volume, not yelling, are seen as more dominant individuals. It has also been shown that your rate of speech is interpreted by others as either dominant or not. In 2009, Tussling and Dillard found that a slower rate of speech and shorter messages predicted dominance. This jives with the DISC personality assessment of “D” personality types, or Dominant. Often a “D” type will communicate in very short, succinct sentences. This gives the perception of dominance since it appears this type of person doesn’t need to explain his or her thoughts, they just state them as you would accept them without question.

Nonverbal Dominance

Nonverbally you can increase your perceived dominance as well. When you are engaging with a target, your face tells a lot about you. Research done by Dunbar and Burgoon showed that expressiveness in the face is a sign of dominance for men, but does not seem to increase the perceived dominance in women [7].

Visual dominance ratio, or the ratio of looking while speaking compared to looking while listening was found to be high in persons of power. Research conducted by the Department of Psychology, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York has shown that persons of power look equally as much while speaking as they do while listening. Persons of low power looked more while listening than speaking. [8]

Your posture, the way you stand, where you face while you stand, and what you do with your hands all play a big role in the way people look at you and the amount of dominance you show. In 2005, research performed by Dana R. Carney, Judith A. Hall, and Lavonia Smith LeBeau showed that dominant individuals angled their bodies more so they are facing the person they are talking to, previous articles we wrote about showed that where your feet and hips point indicate your interest. That interest towards the “target” can be perceived as dominance.

Dominant individuals also have a very straight body posture with the chin up and the chest out. They also noticed dominant individuals possessed a more open body position while engaging with individuals. Their research also showed that with people of dominance or power, hand shaking and touch increased. A confident handshake can go a long way. This research also echos Eric’s previous paper illustrating the research into the power of nonsexual touch to increase compliance. Compliance is increased because the perception of dominance is high [9].

In 1972, Dr. Paul Ekman wrote a paper called “Hand Movements” [10] where he speaks about the power of illustrators. “Illustrators are those acts which are intimately related on a moment-to-moment basis with speech, with phrasing, content, voice contours, loudness, etc.” When speaking, the use of illustrators seems to also increase the perceptions of dominance and power. Illustrators are hand gestures, that do not have a precise verbal definition but are used while speaking such as pointing in a direction while saying the direction [7].

Practice Makes Perfect

Now we understand the importance of managing your verbals and nonverbals in regards to appearing more dominant but what can we do to improve our skills in these areas? How can we practice these things? To a lot of people, speaking to others in a dominant fashion does not come naturally. Not everyone is blessed with the gift of gab. There are many things you can do to increase the way you interact and speak to people and they all revolve around practicing… wait for it… SPEAKING!

Public speaking is a wonderful way to increase your overall comfortability and confidence when addressing other individuals. Google and find your local Toastmasters group (you can find some on and start attending. Watch others as they speak and take every opportunity to get up there and talk. Join your local computer or hacker group and start giving slide presentations on topics that interest you. Try your hand at stand-up comedy or join a local improv group. You may also want to speak in front of a mirror or, better yet, record yourself while talking and watch it to see what you’re doing. Most people have access to recorders thanks to the proliferation of web cameras, camera phones or smart phones. Every time you record yourself and watch it, make note of what you can do to increase your perceived dominance based o n the information presented in this article and the research provided.

Are you using hand gestures? Are you standing up straight and slightly leaning in? Are you keeping eye contact? Are you speaking fluidly without the use of filler words? Once you’re confident, go out and speak to people while being cognizant of your speech rates, tones, disfluencies, verbosity, posture, eyes, and illustrators. The more you practice, the better you will become.

Using it as a Social Engineer

After all is said and done, how can this be used as a social engineer? The first key is balance. When practicing, dominance can easily slip into arrogance or over confidence. Those are not attractive qualities. In most situations the over-confident, cocky, arrogant guy doesn’t get what he wants but generally irritates people.

Where as the confident, firm, but understanding guy gets adored as well as the prize he is seeking. In one social engineering pentest we did we tried to apply a pretext that was based on dominance in using two team members. A male team member who was supposed to be the manager was going to be dominant over the female team member. Instead of being the firm and confident “boss” the male team member came off arrogant, cold and condescending. In the end, the female team member was able to recover and use this to accomplish the goal, but it shot down the ability for the male team member to regain any type of relationship with anyone that saw the scene.

If applied wrongly, dominance turned to arrogance can do the opposite of what you want in opening the doors and can actually close them. Remember the introduction? Dominance can be defined as a command control over others – we want to influence others using dominance, which means getting others to WANT to do what we WANT them to do. Dominance can aid you in accomplishing that goal.

There are many different things you can do during your communication to increase your perceived dominance over an individual verbally and nonverbally. People who are naturally dominant possess these traits automatically and often are unaware they are even using dominant tactics. Remember, it is not necessary for you to be born a dominant individual. You can be extremely submissive by nature and still appear dominant and successfully control individuals that perceive you as more dominant than they are.

Please remember though, dominance is not always the best method of engagement,especially when you’re trying to build rapport with a stranger. Dominance should be used in very specific situations where dominance will increase compliance. Use these techniques wisely and appropriately and you will see great results.

Written by: Eric “urbal” Maxwell & Chris “loganWHD” Hadnagy