Social Dominance Orientation: Definition and Examples

social dominance orientation, explained below

Social dominance orientation (SDO) refers to the degree to which an individual accepts or desires a group-based social hierarchy.

Social dominance orientation refers to the fact that individuals differ in regards to their acceptance of the underlying beliefs that uphold and legitimize the structure.

Those beliefs consist of cultural ideologies that provide the moral and intellectual justification for the structure.

Social Dominance Orientation Definition and Origins

Social dominance orientation was originally developed from social dominance theory (SDT) by Sidanius, Devereux, and Pratto (1992).

SDT states that human societies are organized based on intergroup oppression. Different groups hold different levels of status that form the basic structure of society.

These group-based hierarchies ensure that “members of dominant groups secure a disproportionate share of the good things in life (e.g., powerful roles, good housing, good health), and members of subordinate groups receive a disproportionate share of the bad things in life (e.g., relatively poor housing and poor health” (Sidanius & Pratto, 2012, p. 418).

Groups can be defined based on gender, race, ethnicity, educational level, economic status, occupation, and religious beliefs, just to name the most prevalent categories.

The group-based structure is perpetuated through institutional discrimination, aggregated discrimination that occurs across generations, and behavioral asymmetry.

Measuring Social Dominance Orientation

Social dominance orientation has been developed into a measurement tool that assesses “the general desire to establish and maintain hierarchically structured intergroup relations regardless of the position of one’s own group(s) within this hierarchy” (Sidanius et al. 2017, p. 152).

The scale consists of various pro- and contra-statements that reflect an acceptance of social dominance or egalitarianism (Ho et al., 2014).

For example, the two statements below reflect an acceptance of social dominance:

“Some groups of people must be kept in their place.”

“An ideal society requires some groups to be on top and others to be on the bottom.”

Whereas the statements below reflect egalitarianism:

“We should work to give all groups an equal chance to succeed.”

“No one group should dominate in society.”

Respondents read each statement and then indicate the extent to which they disagree or agree with each one on a 7-point scale (1=strongly disagree, 7 =strongly agree).

Research by Pratto et al. (1994) found that high scores on an Social dominance orientation scale are associated with support for social policies that exacerbate social inequality, favorable attitudes towards war, the military and capital punishment. In contrast, lower scores are associated with endorsement of affirmative action, women’s rights, gay rights, empathy, tolerance, and altruism.

Cross-Cultural Scores Regarding Social Dominance Orientation

Lucas & Kteily (2018), examining eight studies consisting of over 3,000 individuals, found that most people in the U. S. and U. K. scored fairly low on an Social dominance orientation scale (an average of 2.98 on a 7-point scale), indicating a tendency towards egalitarianism.

Fischer et al. (2012) conducted a meta-analysis involving studies in 27 countries with a sample size of over 50,000 individuals. The results indicated that the average social dominance orientation score was below the midpoint (approximately 2.60).

Similar results were found by Pratto et al. (2013) when administering the social dominance orientation scale in 20 countries involving over 2,000 individuals. Average scores in these samples ranged between 2.5 and 4.

Lucas & Kteily (2018)Examined eight studies with over 3,000 individuals in the U.S. and U.K. Most scored low on the Social dominance orientation scale (average 2.98 on a 7-point scale), indicating a tendency towards egalitarianism.
Fischer et al. (2012)Conducted a meta-analysis involving 27 countries with over 50,000 individuals. Average social dominance orientation score was below the midpoint (approximately 2.60), indicating a bias toward anti-dominance.
Pratto et al. (2013)Administered the social dominance orientation scale in 20 countries with over 2,000 individuals. Average scores ranged between 2.5 and 4.

Nation-Level Factors Affecting Social Dominance Orientation

In addition to examining how social dominance orientation is related to individual attitudes regarding political and social attitudes, research has also explored how nation-level factors affect social dominance orientation.

For instance, SDT predicts that attitudes endorsing the legitimacy of dominant groups should become more pronounced by members of the dominant group during challenging economic ties.

Therefore, during challenging economic times, when resources are harder to come by or unemployment is high, the dominant group should become less accepting of immigrants, and thereby have a higher social dominance orientation.

Cohrs and Stelzl (2010) conducted a meta-analysis of data from 157 samples in 17 countries involving over 40,000 individuals. This analysis demonstrated that high unemployment predicted stronger and more negative attitudes towards immigrants.

Similarly, Fischer et al. (2012) examined how democratic principles and Social dominance orientation are related. Their study involved a meta-analysis on data from 95 samples collected in 27 countries involving over 50,000 individuals.

Their results found that higher Social dominance orientation scores was associated with greater income inequality in highly democratic countries. However, the opposite was true in less democratic countries: greater income inequality in these countries was associated with lower Social dominance orientation scores.

This finding is consistent with the study by Henry et al. (2005), which found that an antidominance orientation was associated with anti-West sentiment.

Fischer et al. (2012) theorize that this surprising finding may be due to “the meaning and expression of social dominance may be partially dependent upon the political system that citizens live within” (p. 15).

Cohrs and Stelzl (2010)Meta-analysis from 157 samples in 17 countries with over 40,000 individuals showed high unemployment predicted stronger negative attitudes towards immigrants, and thereby have a higher social dominance orientation.
Fischer et al. (2012)Meta-analysis from 95 samples in 27 countries with over 50,000 individuals. Higher Social dominance orientation scores were linked to greater income inequality in highly democratic countries. In less democratic countries, greater income inequality was associated with lower social dominance orientation scores.
Henry et al. (2005)Antidominance orientation was associated with anti-West sentiment.

Social Dominance Orientation Examples

  • Endorsing Racial Hierarchies: Individuals with high SDO might believe that certain racial or ethnic groups are naturally superior to others. They may justify discriminatory policies against minority groups based on these beliefs and act in ways that maintain or establish dominant-subordinate group dynamics.
  • Opposing Affirmative Action: Those with high SDO may argue against affirmative action policies, viewing them as unnecessary or even detrimental. They might believe that each group should naturally find its place in society without intervention, seeking to maintain the status quo of dominant groups.
  • Advocating for Strict Immigration Policies: Individuals with high social dominance orientation might perceive immigrants, especially from certain regions or backgrounds, as threats to the dominant culture or resources. Therefore, they support policies that limit immigration or make citizenship more challenging to attain in order to preserve the power dynamics of the dominant in-group.
  • Rejecting Gender Equality Movements: People with high SDO may resist movements that aim to level the playing field between genders. They might believe that traditional gender roles, where one gender dominates over the other in certain spheres, should be preserved, further reinforcing existing hierarchies in society.
  • Supporting Autocratic Leadership: High SDO individuals might be more inclined to support leaders or systems that centralize power and reduce egalitarian principles. They view autocratic leaders as the best means to maintain order and the dominance of specific groups over others, demonstrating their preference for hierarchy and structured power dynamics.

Social Dominance Orientation and Right-Wing Authoritarianism

One of the earliest investigations of Social dominance orientation was presented by Pratto et al. (1994) in a paper subtitled “A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes.”

This suggests that Social dominance orientation is a personality characteristic associated with specific political views. Indeed, research has consistently documented a relationship between right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and attitudes similar to those measured by Social dominance orientation.

For example, high-RWA individuals and high-Social dominance orientation individuals both score high on measures of generalized prejudice (Ekehammar et al., 2004), negative attitudes towards lesbians and gays (Altemeyer, 1998; Lippa & Arad, 1999), African-Americans (Altemeyer, 1998; Lambert & Chasteen, 1997), and various ethnic groups (Akrami & Ekehammar, 2006).

Furthermore, RWA and Social dominance orientation have either low, positive correlations (in North America) or moderate, positive correlations (in Europe) (Roccato & Ricolfi, 2005; Heaven & Connors, 2001).

To delve deeper into the relation between RWA and Social dominance orientation, Akrami and Ekehammar (2006) utilized sophisticated statistical analyses to divide RWA and Social dominance orientation individuals into subgroups.

Comparing the subgroups with the Big-Five personality traits revealed some subtle differences.

Their findings indicated that submissive (high RWAs) and dominant RWAs (high Social dominance orientations) have a close-minded trait in common. Dominant authoritarians however, possess an added trait of being tough-minded and lacking warmth.

Interestingly, Kleppestø et al. (2019) found a genetic basis for Social dominance orientation. Collecting data on twins, the researchers found that Social dominance orientation contain common genetic influences and overlap with other political attitudes related to enhancing or attenuating social hierarchies. 

Criticisms of Social Dominance Orientation

Turner and Reynolds (2003) identified several flaws with SDT.

For example, SDT postulates an evolutionary basis for social dominance; stating that it was and is adaptive for one group to dominate and subjugate other groups. This has been true since the beginning of human history.

Turner and Reynolds however, argue that there is equal evidence of humans being peaceful with other groups, forming social and economic partnerships, and prospering in several mutually beneficial relationships.

Wilson and Liu (2003) examined the gender differences found in previous research that have been reported as supporting SDT (e.g., Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).

Through advanced statistical analyses, their results indicated that gender group identification was a stronger predictor of Social dominance orientation than gender itself. This implies that social identification theory offers a more accurate explanation than SDT. A similar alternative explanation based on social identification theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) can be found in Schmitt et al. (2003).   

Sidanius et al. (2004) provide a rebuttal to these criticisms and elaborate on how SDT provides greater explanatory value than alternative theories.

Turner and Reynolds (2003)Identified flaws with SDT, especially its postulate of an evolutionary basis for social dominance. They argue that there is evidence of humans peacefully coexisting and forming mutually beneficial relationships with other groups.
Wilson and Liu (2003)Examined gender differences reported in previous research supporting SDT. Found that gender group identification was a stronger predictor of Social dominance orientation than gender itself, suggesting social identification theory might be a more accurate explanation than SDT.
Schmitt et al. (2003)Presented an alternative explanation based on social identification theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), supporting the idea that social identification theory may offer better insights than SDT.
Sidanius et al. (2004)Provided a rebuttal to criticisms of SDT, arguing that SDT offers greater explanatory value compared to alternative theories.


Social dominance orientation refers to an attitude regarding the structure of society and the various groups within. Some individuals are highly supportive of a structure in which one group is dominant.

These individuals believe that for a society to be healthy, some groups must be more privileged than others and thus have better access to resources and opportunities.

Other individuals however, have a more egalitarian perspective. They are inclined to believe that all groups should be treated equally. Because no group should be dominant, these individuals are more likely to endorse equal rights for women and minorities. 

Research has demonstrated a consistent link between high Social dominance orientation scores and RWA, finding increased prejudicial attitudes towards various groups such as those with a non-traditional sexual orientation, the poor, and African Americans.

Cross-cultural studies in primarily Western countries (and some Southeast Asian countries) have found that scores on the Social dominance orientation scale tend to fall below the midpoint, which suggests a leaning towards egalitarianism.


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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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