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Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last?

When warm and kind faces off against bold and sexy.

Nejron Photo/Shutterstock
Nejron Photo/Shutterstock

Is being called "a nice guy" a compliment or a curse?

Women say they want to date nice guys (Urbaniak & Kilmann, 2003), but their actions and choices often send a different message. Our culture is full of examples of less-than-nice guys getting the girl (or many girls)—Han Solo, Barney Stinson, Johnny Castle, and even Jordan Belfort (of The Wolf of Wall Street) had no trouble attracting women.

When a woman says, “He’s nice,” her ruling may actually be a polite rejection, a recognition of some good qualities, but an overall evaluation of “no, not for me.”

The trouble may be in how we use the term nice. It's generally defined as a constellation of traits that prioritize kindness, conscientiousness, warmth, and respect—but when it comes to romantic interest, nice can be a shorthand antonym for bold, strong, or sexy, instead meaning “needy, weak, predictable, boring, inexperienced, and unattractive” (Herold & Milhausen, 1999).

If nice really meant weak and boring, however, then nice guys wouldn’t be attractive. The classic definition, however—kind, emotionally sensitive, and caring about others—holds great appeal.

This was clearly documented in a study examining the date-ability of online profiles depicting "Nice Todd," "Neutral Todd," and "Jerky Todd" (Urbaniak & Kilmann, 2003). These profiles were identical except for subtle suggestions of traditional qualities of niceness—and women selected Nice Todd as the person to date twice as often as they did Neutral Todd, and more than eight times as frequently as Jerky Todd (Urbaniak & Kilmann, 2003).

A refined look at the results shows that Nice Todd was seen as the better marriage partner, steadier boyfriend, and better platonic friend (though he was not significantly preferred for short-term relationships). In fact, women in the study chose nice-guy profiles over insensitive-guy profiles even when those insensitive guys were more physically attractive (Urbaniak & Kilmann, 2003).

Being nice does come with some assumptions: Women typically perceive nice guys as intelligent, but less assertive (Urbaniak & Kilmann, 2003), and other evidence suggests that women assume nice men are less sexually experienced and even less attractive, but more interested in commitment (Herold & Milhausen, 1999).

Maybe women see nice guys as long-term relationship material, but not as the guys they might pursue for a fling. If so, this would suggest that until a woman is interested in establishing a steady partnership, she may sacrifice niceness for other desirable attributes.

Indeed, women prioritize physical attractiveness over kindness when describing their preferences for a short-term partner (Li & Kenrick, 2006). For long-term relationships, non-physical characteristics take precedence: Women care more about kindness and warmth and less about status and physical attractiveness.

So, is nice enough? Not quite. The real story appears to lie at the intersection of niceness and dominant characteristics. An experimental study revealed that men who behaved pro-socially—being nice—positively affected women’s ratings of their physical attractiveness, sexual attractiveness, and dating desirability, while social dominance alone had no impact on these judgments (Jensen-Campbell, Graziano, & West, 1995). A deeper look revealed what happens when dominance interacts with being nice—nice men who also showed evidence of social dominance were seen as even more attractive. In other words, dominance only makes a difference if a guy has already shown that he's nice.

This may give the nice guys out there some hope if they mistakenly think that being nice is a detriment: Nice is a foundational characteristic that has a positive influence on women’s preferences. Better to be “Nice Todd” than “Jerky Todd.”

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Barclay, P. (2010). Altruism as a courtship display: Some effects of third‐party generosity on audience perceptions. British Journal of Psychology, 101(1), 123-135.

Herold, E. S., & Milhausen, R. R. (1999). Dating preferences of university women: An analysis of the nice guy stereotype. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 25(4), 333-343.

Jensen-Campbell, L. A., Graziano, W. G., & West, S. G. (1995). Dominance, prosocial orientation, and female preferences: Do nice guys really finish last? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(3), 427-440.

Li, N. P., & Kenrick, D. T. (2006). Sex similarities and differences in preferences for short-term mates: what, whether, and why. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(3), 468-489.

Urbaniak, G. C., & Kilmann, P. R. (2003). Physical attractiveness and the “nice guy paradox”: Do nice guys really finish last? Sex Roles, 49(9-10), 413-426.

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