Nice Guys Never Win (Neither Do Mean Girls)


For years, we’ve been hearing from fictional alpha males like Ari Gold and Gordon Gekko that nice guys finish last. Now, according to a collection of studies soon to be released in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, there appears to be some truth to the axiom. While nice guys don’t necessarily finish last, they rarely finish first. Researchers Beth A. Livingston of Cornell, Timothy A. Judge of Notre Dame, and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario, show how “agreeableness” negatively affects monetary earnings. Moreover, their research shows that this “agreeable gap” is more pronounced in men than women, who still trail their male counterparts. Here’s a full version of the study. And here’s the abstract:

Sex and agreeableness were hypothesized to affect income, such that women and agreeable individuals were hypothesized to earn less than men and less agreeable individuals. Because agreeable men disconfirm (and disagreeable men confirm) to conventional gender roles, agreeableness was expected to be more negatively related to income for men (i.e., the pay gap between agreeable men and agreeable women would be smaller than the gap between disagreeable men and disagreeable women). The hypotheses were supported across four studies. Study 1 confirmed the effects of sex and agreeableness on income and that the agreeableness – income relationship was significantly more negative for men than for women, controlling for each of the other Big Five traits. Study 2 showed that the differential effects of agreeableness on income for men versus women were replicated when job responsibility and occupational status were taken into account. A third study, using a policy-capturing design, yielded evidence for the argument that the joint effects of agreeableness and gender are due to backlash against agreeable men.

The paper goes on to state:

Nice guys do not necessarily finish last, but they do finish a distant second in terms of earnings. From a humanistic perspective, it seems remarkably unfair that men who are amiable would be so heavily penalized for not conforming to gender norms. Yet, seen from the perspective of gender equity, even the nice guys seem to be making out quite well relative to either agreeable or disagreeable women.

The authors are careful to tease out what exactly constitutes “disagreeable.” Rather than a raving psychopath, a disagreeable person is  “more likely than people high in trait agreeableness to behave disagreeably in certain situations by, for instance, aggressively advocating for their position during conflicts (van de Vliert & Euwema, 2004).”

Women, on the other hand, experience a smaller gap in earnings in terms of their relative “niceness,” and still earn salaries well below their male counterparts.

Nice girls might not get rich, but “mean” girls do not do much better. Even controlling for human capital, marital status, and occupation, highly disagreeable women do not earn as much as highly agreeable men.

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  1. Agreeable Male says:

    I will make it a goal to disagree with one thing at work everyday.

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  2. Chuck says:

    Could it be this simple: nice guys agree to lower salaries while disagreeable guys successfully negotiate higher salaries?

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    • Ivan says:

      I would be willing to bet that being a successful salary negotiator accounts for a sizable chunk of that earnings difference. Most places where I have worked, general dissent from corporate culture (no matter how dysfunctional) and disagreements with bosses are not well tolerated. Those that went far (and significantly increased their salary) were in completely conspicuous agreement with upper management.

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    • Merlyn says:

      it really depends on which society the guy is from. Or it could be due to the implicit assumption that a guy should stand up and fight for what he deems is right for him? Or it could be what the authors mentioned in Superfreakonomics that men have a weakness for money?

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  3. Gary says:

    So being a jerk on the job only pays when you are male. Got it.

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  4. Josh says:

    Salaries aside, which party is happier?

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  5. Eric M. Jones. says:

    On roughly the same trajectory, here is the secret that most guys have been searching for, that explains why women who they can’t get are going with guys who are creeps.

    One day I asked my friend “Texas Mike” why it was that I couldn’t compete for the sweetness of women who chose creeps instead?

    Texas (Buddha) Mike looked at me and said, “Eric, you’re a nice guy but you simply lack the Sociopathic Edge.”

    I asked for some clarification on this pronunciamiento, and Mike continued, “Well, would you DO ANYTHING to get the girl?”

    I sat there knowing I had just been taught by a master. “No…” I said softly.

    “Well, HE would…. So there ya’ go.” (He should have ended that statement with…”Grasshopper.”

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  6. Chairman says:

    The caveats that are offered need to be noted. It’s not being disagreeable, rather being willing to speak your mind. Within that group, there will certainly be a range of how people do that. Also more importantly, this experiment isn’t examining how agreeable someone is in their daily lives. Rather, agreeableness is measured in conflict, which is generally where people can differentiate themselves.

    A natural follow-up to this study would be to find four groups of people corresponding to how agreeable/disagreeable they were in everyday life and how agreeable/disagreeable they were in debates (conflict, whatever you want to call it). Then, you can see if the patter matches. If you see the dis-dis group do best, then you have some further validity. However, if you see the agree-dis group do as well, then we know that being “disagreeable” is only necessary in debate (or in certain contexts). The parallel convention wisdom would be that people should know when to fight, and to actually fight when they should.

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  7. Joel Upchurch says:

    They seem to have rediscovered something I discovered in civil service many decades ago. If you aren’t willing to piss someone off, you will never accomplish anything. You don’t want to piss off everybody, but you are going need to piss off someone.

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  8. Melinda Marcus says:

    I found this research both fascinating and disheartening. The conclusion that “disagreeable” behavior is rewarded with higher compensation does not bode well for professionals who are easy to work with and cooperative with their colleagues. Does this reflect that being “agreeable” is considered both a feminine and “weak” trait?

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    • robyn ann goldstein says:

      I have heard this one before. There is only one conclusion to draw- wanna succeed–don’t be nice, but don’t be mean.

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    • CPA says:

      I think there are a lot of people who are both easy to work with and disagreeable. I also find agreeable people can be difficult at times as well. If I am explaining to a staff about something int he Tax Code and say, “do you agree with my interpretation of this paragraph of the internal revenue code?” And he/she just nods and says “Yes.” I would be dissapointed. Why did I hire him/her if all she is going to do is think that whatever I say is correct?

      Maybe some men would take it personally if a female staff were to reply, “Well actually, (in a snooty Hermoine Grainger type voice – charachter created by a woman by the way) there was a court case that gives clearer guidance…”, but I would be happy to be corrected.

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