The Green Mind

Finding the human place in nature

Are Polite People More Violent and Destructive?

Polite people seem to make society flow more smoothly. But a new experiment shows that they’re more likely to inflict harm on others. As we stumble in the search for a more livable world, we might want to embrace the people who rub us the wrong way occasionally. They’re more likely to choose the less destructive path. Read More

Agreeableness and Sustainability

I think you're oversimplifying. You're basically saying that people who are impolite are more likely to change societal norms - that's fine. But for change to be sustainable, it must have momentum, and momentum can only build as more people join the cause - that requires agreeable people (those who agree with the cause, no less).

Oh, and there's no guarantee that the change will be a "positive" one, that tends to be a matter of perspective. So to say that "We need more people willing to be contrary. And we need to give them some leeway and respect" is oversimplifying matters because there are also people who are "willing to be contrary," but will do more harm than good.

I also don't understand why you keep mentioning that "people with more contrarian, less agreeable personalities were more likely to buck the trend and refuse to hurt other people when told to do so." I don't see there being a trend in society, in general, that encourages people to "hurt other people". That's why laws exist, right? So if, in fact, our society encourages people to be polite with one another, does that mean that "people with more contrarian" personalities are more likely to hurt people?

Re: Agreeableness and Sustainability

Dear Kenii,

Thank you for your comment.

I think your comment pointed out some ambiguity in my post, and I've edited it slightly to clarify. The complacency and conformity that I see less agreeable people often going against is all around us--driving when we could bike, upgrading smartphones as often as possible. I've talked about this extensively in my other posts and in my book, but I glossed over it in this post. I think these findings suggest that people willing to be less conforming and agreeable are the ones willing to go against these trends and thus serve as models for behavioral change.

"Hurting other people" parallels hurting the environment, as I explain extensively in Invisible Nature.

I agree with you that forming movements, etc., will also need agreeable people. I didn't mean to paint them out of the picture--only to include their counterparts more explicitly.



In today's corporate world, there is no message "for the masses" that will have any teeth unless it is properly branded and sold casting the widest net possible. Tens of billions of dollars have already been spent on ideas and projects which were shot up like a flare and shot down by common sense, in spite of the financial backing which was present. The real underlying issue is that the consolidation of wealth has marginalized the ability of most individuals to make a meaningful impact on their surroundings.

Your link to the study is a

Your link to the study is a file on your hard drive. You need to fix that.

Re: Link

Sorry--it was an error introduced when copying the article in from the word processor. It's just a footnote. Scroll to the end of the article to see the citation.

Words and the power they hold

Hi Kenneth,

Thank you for your article. I completely understand the point you are trying to convey in this article (and largely, I agree) but I personally object to the use of certain words within it - and most particularly, the title. Words carry weight and when simplifying such a complex subject, I think more careful consideration is necessary.

The definition of the word polite is:

1.showing good manners toward others, as in behavior, speech, etc.; courteous; civil: a polite reply.
2.refined or cultured: polite society.
3.of a refined or elegant kind: polite learning.

By these definitions, one who IS polite (ie. possessing the trait of politeness) cannot be violent. One who BEHAVES politely may of course be going through the motions of prescribed societal etiquette with an underlying personal motive - and may of course be violent and destructive.

Agreeable is defined as follows: one's liking; pleasing: agreeable manners; an agreeable sensation.
2.willing or ready to agree or consent: Are you agreeable to my plans for Saturday?
3.suitable; conformable (usually followed by to...): practice agreeable to theory.

Agreeable is perhaps a more suitable alternative for polite in the context of the title, since it has nuances relating to conformity, which I believe is the point you are trying to make.

Lastly, conscientious is defined thus:

1.controlled by or done according to one's inner sense of what is right; governed by conscience; principled: a conscientious judge.
2.careful and painstaking; particular; meticulous; scrupulous: conscientious application to the work at hand.

This word in the context of the article is ambiguous and open to serious misinterpretation.

My point (and please forgive the long post - I am an HSP with a particular affinity with words) is that a person need not be impolite to be a left-wing, libertarian, rebellious malcontent. I say this because I am one - and know of many many more people in the same category (granted, it may well be small but I haven't done a study to prove otherwise). I have been referred to as well-mannered, refined, conscientious and polite but I am also intellectually independent - and that, ultimately, is the important factor.

In conclusion, I would argue that it is more fruitful to be both polite and non-conformist because the likelihood of having the social collateral to promote positive change is far greater. Then again, perhaps I am obtuse, anal and distinctly disagreeable but I will let you be the judge of that by the content of my post. ;)



Re: Words

Dear Kate,

Thank you for engaging. I agree that words hold a lot of power. And I also agree that polite and agreeable people can do a lot of good. It's important to remember that the title refers to people people on the whole, as we do in psychological studies, and doesn't indicate what each individual polite person might do.

But the problem with connecting politeness with benevolence is that politeness really only concerns a style of interaction with people with whom you're directly involved. It's entirely possible for polite people to be utterly careless about the welfare of people with whom they're not interacting. And it's also possible that their politeness conflicts markedly with their intent. The prime example mentioned in this article is Adolph Eichmann, who apparently had an agreeable style (which inspired the study, and Hannah Arendt's work on "The Banality of Evil").

As I explain in my book Invisible Nature, modern life is specifically structured to enable action at a distance by the vast majority of people. So you buy a product with palm oil in it and orangutans die in Borneo. Consequences are remote. This disconnection of actions from consequences has major implications for politeness because, as I say, politeness is about actual social interactions, not about how your the effects of your choices ripple out into the world beyond your social sphere, not about the welfare of the world.

Polite (or agreeable) people might be more concerned with going with the flow, even when doing so means buying shiny new products all the time and causing environmental harms that go along with those choices. People less concerned with politeness and social smoothness might be more willing to make choices against the destructive norms of consumerist our society. I believe this new study supports that conclusion, though I also realize (as I express with provisional language in the article) that we could use more data to really know for sure.

The basic premise of the article that must be remembered is that the "normal behavior" in our society, the behavior most condoned by social convention, is destructive toward the environment.

Thanks again,


Thank you for bringing up

Thank you for bringing up this idea. I have long been pondering the confusing idea of "agreeableness" trait.

The idea of being less agreeable for greater good has long been a repeated theme in Japanese TV shows (e.g. Saito-san). I suppose it is because Japanese are generally very polite and conformitive. In these shows, the protagonist is often ostracized for being rude and loud while standing up for his/her principles. They have few friends and are often not successful at work despite being the most skilled. Predictably, he/she would help out one person in need and started to change people's mind one by one in each episode, questioning what it means to do the right thing.

Re: Thank you

Dear Adora,

Thank you for mentioning this fascinating and highly relevant piece of information about the culture of politeness. I'd love to learn more about it since it seems to echo the theme of this article very well.

best wishes,


this is just another article

this is just another article designed to break down any moral fiber that might be left in todays society. it suggests we should tolerate the intolerable and that people like Eichmann and Hitler will make mankind better off than people like Gandhi and Mother Teresa. if "polite/kind" people had it in them to inflict harm on others they would rid the world of the unkind. its only the unkind/not polite people that have it in them to harm others and keep a clear conscience.

Re: this is just...


I wonder whether you read the article closely. The research was inspired in part by the fact that Eichmann, whom you mention as someone rude, etc., was actually quite polite and agreeable in his interactions.

Perhaps you also missed the distinction between interpersonal interactions (being more or less agreeable) and people's morality about the way they treat people who are not present (for instance by buying clothing made under very harsh labor conditions).

I bet you can think of some agreeable/polite people who weren't necessarily very caring and some more contentious people who, for instance, worked very hard volunteering their time to help homeless people in shelters or unwanted animals, etc.

I assure you, this article was certainly not meant to break down any moral fiber--just the opposite: to point out what's truly important in society (caring) versus what may in some cases mask what's important (politeness).

best wishes,


"eating meat = contributing

"eating meat = contributing to deforestation and the needless death of orangutans and many other creatures"

Well, this is some propaganda ...

Re: eating

I'm sorry, but you misread the post. Deforestation and orangutan habitat destruction in the article refers to palm oil consumption, not eating meat.

Having said that, eating meat can indeed contribute to forest destruction as a lot of beef is raised on grains or soy grown on land that was rainforest cleared to grow animal feed.



This is as willful a misreading of a historic study as I've ever seen. Many polite comments are here to tell you the same thing.

Not really

It's hard to know for sure what this commenter is referring to. The study is not historic but new (not even published in final form yet, though accepted). And it says exactly what I write in the article: "that people with more agreeable, conscientious personalities are more likely to make harmful choices." So I'm not sure what the misreading is. Perhaps s/he takes issue with my use of the word polite to characterize people who are agreeable and conscientious. That could be arguable, but I don't think it could make the entire article a misreading.


Some of the least polite folks I've encountered are on the opposite end . . .

I consider myself to be polite. I’m also vegan (but practice live-and-let-live); rarely drive (mainly for groceries); produce what food I can, by growing veggies in pots; and haven’t shopped during holiday season for years, preferring to send a check to grandkids who can then buy whatever they want later. Politically, I’m far-left and have a minimalist lifestyle, maintenance of which doesn’t require me to be impolite. See? Not a rude word in there.

It’s not conscientiousness or politeness that makes people comply when they’re asked to do something horrendous; it’s the refusal to question a so-called authority figure. It’s the tendency to believe that there is some right way, that someone else knows that right way, and to simply follow in lockstep.

As one character in Orange is the New Black said, “As long as there are psychopaths [the spoken-to character], there will be fools willing to follow them.”

Impolite and the ability to think for oneself do not go hand-in-hand. And they, especially, are not cause and effect.

Conversely, I’ve often come across comments complaining about “you left-wingers” and “feminazis,” clearly written (rudely) by folks far more likely to practice (and demand) conformity, the sort who’d willingly administer shocking (in every sense of that word) treatment of others.

Re: Some of the least...

Dear Reader,

Absolutely true that not all polite people will be more willing to be destructive. These ideas do not tell us what any particular individual is willing to do.

You says it's refusal to question a so-called authority figure that makes people comply, but the question remains what makes people more likely to refuse. According to this study, they're more willing to refuse (on average) when they're less agreeable and conscientious.

Thank you for your food for thought.


Thanks for your reply. It

Thanks for your reply. It seems as if you agree that people don't belong in boxes . . . and rarely fit inside.


A statistical leaning in one direction or another, is only valid in the abstract and has little bearing or use when it comes to an individual. Would that more psychologists (degreed professionals or armchair enthusiasts) could come to a similar conclusion . . . and quit trying to contort everyone into said cubed structures.

Life experience has taught me that most people are a mass of contradictions; hence, I wonder why so much time and effort is spent on trying to discover a box that will accommodate us all . . . or (in this case) all, within a given category.

Thank you for your wise

Thank you for your wise words. Your comments point out the problem with our institutions. Everyone must be categorized, or in your words, people must be put into boxes. A non-conformist is simply anyone who refuses to stay in the box. To leave the box requires critical thinking, and anyone engaged in that is less likely to commit acts harmful to others. In large part, because they are not fooled by the disconnection between their actions and the consequences.

I wonder about your political commentary

In your article you write "It turns out that people holding left-wing political views were less willing to comply with demands to inflict suffering." Were the folks who ran the gulags in the Soviet Union, the cultural revolutionaries in Communist China, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia et al 'polite' conformists rather than lefties? I think maybe you were interpreting the data to prove your point, and ignoring other data that would contradict your bias. I think that the people who want to institutionalize political correctness/sensitivity/stamp out 'H8' (force a new sort of 'politeness' and conformity) are quite often bullies themselves.

Re: I wonder

Dear reader,

I wrote that because that's what this empirical study found.

The finding that people holding left-wing political views were less likely to inflict suffering doesn't conflict with your examples. A tendency is not absolute. You can certainly find violent people across the spectrum.

But if you want to count examples of violent people holding left-wing political views, then you'd have to compare that with examples of violent people holding right-wing political views. My guess is you'd find many examples--likely more--of the latter through history.


The conventional contrarian

The example of the contrarian in this article seems a bit conventional. We meet lots of those. Try Stefan Lomborg for a real contrarian:

my view is that we live under

my view is that we live under an economic system which breeds these kinds of behaviours we have a variability naturally that is weeded out. We end up with a world which has an immoral and destructive attitude and yet we are too arrogant to see it. how many people do you see that behave in a way that says I'm right and i'm good yet their attitude and behaviour says completely the opposite? (politicians?) I think this is a form of cultured psychopathy based on the foundation of human greed.

There must have been a reason why true morality has evolved does an evil system naturally create an opposite? Did capitalism create socialism and marxism etc? In the early days of capitalism it was said poverty breeds communist ideas and this was a worry for capitalists.

Empathy is a part of morality and is distinctly lacking in our world, is this because it only exists in a very small weeded out minority? I think religion has something very interesting to say about this the lord believed that every intention of every man's heart was evil continually. It was only Noah a righteous man blameless in his generation who found favour in the eyes of god. God said that now the earth was corrupt and the earth was filled with violence and he would destroy them with the earth, sound familiar?

How Many?

The study's subjects were "... 35 males and 31 females aged 26–54 from the general population ...".

How many "right-wing" political activists were in the study?

Question: This article

Question: This article indicates that less polite people are more likely not to hurt other people, and you link this to the environment. However, was this study confined to first-world Western society? How many people from other countries or cultures were involved? If so, how much of the study is simply an expression of first-world western culture as opposed to actual human nature?

Also: I would be very interested in the numbers of the people concerned with human suffering as opposed to environmental suffering in this study as well.

Thank you very much!



To Katherine

Dear Katherine,

The study is cited and linked for people to see for themselves. The study was done on French people, not Americans, so it's subject base is limited. It would be beneficial to try the study with people from other Western and also non-Western countries to see if there are any differences. The study didn't directly test animal suffering. In the piece, I tentatively extrapolate from destructiveness toward humans to general destructiveness. I discuss this extrapolation more extensively in chapter 3 of my book Invisible Nature.


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Kenneth Worthy, Ph.D., author of Invisible Nature, is a research associate at the University of California, Santa Cruz.


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