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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.