Recently I overheard a mom put a positive spin on the outrageous demands and expectations of her cranky child. With a crinkled nose, she said, “Well, at least my child is not a people pleaser!” Her disgust toward any overly agreeable child was evident. Presumably, such a child would be very weak in character.
I must confess, however, that I very much like children who are people pleasers. It’s wonderful to have them over for playdates with my young daughter. I’m happy to take them sightseeing, buy them new toys, and cook their favorite dinners. The little darlings say, “Thank you so much, Miss Anita.” They take their dinner plates from the table to the sink, brush their teeth when I ask, and giggle when I tell them funny bedtime stories. They wouldn’t dream of complaining when it’s time for lights out.
Why, then, do people pleasers have such a bad reputation? One of the biggest reasons can be traced back to Carl Rogers who developed his theory of personality in the 1950s (1). He claimed that what prevents people from self-actualizing is that they bend over backwards to please others. He said that trying to fulfill conditions of worth put on them (i.e., people pleasing) prevents them from leading an authentic life. He claimed that the solution lay in the receiving of unconditional positive regard. Such regard would allow the person to stop the self-destructive people-pleasing and get in touch with his or her inner experiencing.
Somehow this idea has translated into the common expectation today for us to receive unconditional positive regard from loved ones. And yet around the same time that Rogers was developing his theory, Abraham Maslow was piecing together the characteristics of self-actualizing people—the most psychologically healthy people he could find. Maslow found that self-actualizers were universally hard-working and committed to human causes. Instead of expecting to be granted love based on their mere existence, they would likely endorse the statement, “I am loved because I give love” (2). Thus, self-actualizers may be characterized as people pleasers.
Along these same lines, researchers Lee and Ashton recently observed that persons scoring high on the personality factor known as Honesty-Humility tend to be sincere, fair-minded, and non-greedy (3). They are oriented toward cooperating with others even when they could exploit them without retaliation. Thus, they too qualify as people pleasers. However, rather than being spineless as widely believed, these people pleasers tend to have a high degree of integrity. They like to cooperate on a day-to-day basis; and yet because they are so committed to the principle of fairness, they will stand up against a major breach of ethics.
Thus, I ask you to consider, “Who wouldn’t encourage their kids to be people pleasers? And who wouldn’t want to be around such persons?” After all, people pleasers pay their fair share of expenses, do their fair share of work, and have in general a high regard for other people. Yet far from being weak, they are the very ones who will stick up for you when you really need it.
1. Rogers, C. R. (1957). Becoming a Person. In Symposium on Emotional Development, edited by Doniger, Simon, 57-67. New York, NY: Association Press.
2. Lee, K. & Ashton, M. C. (2006). Further assessment of the HEXACO Personality Inventory: Two new facet scales and an observer report form. Psychological Assessment , 18, 182-191.
3. Shostrom, E. L. (1964). An inventory for the measurement of self-actualization. Educational and Psychological Measurement , 24, 207-218.
This post stems from Anita Kelly’s Science of Honesty project, which was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this manuscript are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.