You've probably heard the saying "nice guys finish last." If you happen to be a nice guy, you might know the maxim firsthand. You're kind, sweet, loyal, and looking for a long-term relationship, but as much as you make yourself available, women aren't seeking you out. You have terrific relationship potential, but feel repeatedly overlooked. Maybe you end up listening to your female friends complain about their insensitive jerk boyfriends.
Frustrating, to say the least.
The Nice-Guy Paradox
The "nice guys finish last" idea is that women say they want to date nice men, but in reality, they choose men based on other characteristics, like physical attractiveness, charisma, or status. Traditionally, the "nice guys finish last" maxim opposes being nice with being attractive, although we know this isn't always — or even usually — the case. The nice, less attractive guys, in this formulation, are competing with attractive, not-so-nice guys, and they're losing. Yet, the nice guys might be the better long-term partners, despite being overlooked again and again. If women see a hot guy and a not-so-hot guy on dating apps, like Tinder or Match.com, what could make them pay attention to other qualities, like niceness?
How can you work around the "nice guys finish last" problem?
A recent study by Spielmann and MacDonald (2016) makes the case for niceness by first considering how women often find prospective partners today — by looking through, in sequence, a series of photos or profiles. Online dating tools have nearly standardized the process of seeking a potential partner, making laboratory studies that ask people to look through an ordered set of profiles a fairly good representation of how looking for love now happens in real life.
Taking advantage of online dating popularity, the researchers presented women a set of male dating profiles. These profiles varied by physical attractiveness and by niceness (or the potential lack of it) — i.e., some profiles explicitly referred to emotional responsiveness, caring, and relationship effort, while other profiles referred to a disinterest in others' problems or a career orientation that makes relationships less of a priority. By controlling the attractiveness and the niceness of the profiles women saw, as well as the order in which they saw them, the researchers could examine the role of contrast effects in romantic interest.
When does the nice guy win?
So, when does a nice, but maybe not-as-attractive person best have a shot at garnering women's romantic interest? The evidence points to a fascinating subjectivity in women's judgments: Women were much more interested in the responsive (i.e., nice), unattractive target when they had previously viewed an unresponsive (i.e., not so nice) target (Spielmann & MacDonald, 2016). This target could have been unattractive or attractive: In either case, the responsive and unattractive target was preferred.
These findings underscore the fascinating way context affects social judgements. When you're scrolling through potential partners, the order in which you study their different attributes and see their varying physical qualities makes a difference. For the very nice, but not-so-attractive person, this means it might be better to not have your profile highlighted: you might have more success after people have considered possible partners whose profiles convey less emotional responsiveness, kindness, or loyalty.
Contrast effects seem to play a fairly big role in the very first impressions that then translate to future interaction, but scholars have yet to examine how they could play out later, once a relationship is off the ground. Perhaps comparing to other couples, or contrasting with ex-partners, also has a role in relationship maintenance.
Spielmann, S. S., & MacDonald, G. (2016). Nice guys finish first when presented second: Responsive daters are evaluated more positively following exposure to unresponsive daters. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 64, 99-105.