- The quality of being "nice" translates in personality psychology into the trait of agreeableness.
- In a new study based on the data of more than 1.9 million people, agreeableness appears to have eight important benefits.
- Trying a little kindness can be good for your well-being, especially if you use that kindness judiciously.
Have you ever wondered whether someone can be too nice? Isn’t it more adaptive to be somewhat skeptical to avoid being taken advantage of? Perhaps you have an acquaintance whom you’ve offered to help on a big project. You really don’t mind offering your time as you think it would be fun as well as productive. However, this acquaintance insists that they can do it themselves. You know this is potentially going to overwhelm the other person, but it seems they’re too afraid of sapping your time and energy to take you up on your offer. A person not as nice wouldn’t hesitate and might even request more of your time than you originally intended to spend on the project. This individual, though, seems bent on making sacrifices.
You may be trying to figure out whether this person is really all that humble or instead whether they don’t think your contribution will be all that worthwhile. Either way, their extreme niceness makes you wonder whether maybe you should take a page from their playbook. Maybe other people would like you better if you had a softer edge to your personality.
Niceness and the Trait of Agreeableness
In personality psychology, the quality of niceness translates into the trait of agreeableness, one of the five domains in the Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality. As defined in a new study on its adaptive value by the University of Arkansas’s Michael Wilmot and the University of Minnesota Twin Cities’ Deniz Ones (2022), “agreeableness is the personality trait primarily concerned with helping and building positive relationships with others” (p. 242). Although this definition seems pretty clear-cut, what’s less evident from prior research is whether agreeableness is simply the opposite of its nefarious counterpart, the Dark Triad, or whether it stands on its own as a unique group of attributes. Moreover, as Wilmot and Ones point out, it’s especially important to understand its so-called “external” validity and whether being agreeable has real-world consequences that play out over the course of a person’s life.
Because the literature on agreeableness is “massive,” in the words of the authors, encompassing effects for “hundreds of variables, investigated over myriad studies” (p. 243), to understand its potential impact on an individual’s life experiences, it’s necessary to collapse all those studies into some kind of rational framework. Ordinarily, researchers in this quandary would conduct their own so-called “meta-analysis” in which they pool statistically the findings from those “myriad” studies, but the total number of studies ordinarily used in such research totals in the hundreds, not thousands.
It makes more sense, Wilmot and Ones argue, to feed the existing meta-analyses into one even larger pool, or a meta-analysis of meta-analyses. The number of meta-analyses alone is sufficiently large (142) to permit such a condensation of findings. Furthermore, within the existing literature, there were 20 meta-analyses that examined the internal structure of agreeableness, enhancing further the understanding of this intriguing quality.
8 Benefits (and Potential Drawbacks) to Agreeableness
At the outset of their journey through the previous literature on agreeableness, the U. Arkansas and U. Minnesota researchers developed a hierarchical model that integrates its possible subdomains. In this model, agreeableness divides into three sub-facets of trust, compassion, and politeness. Compassion, in turn, divides into politeness and “tender-mindedness” (being gentle with others); politeness divides into cooperativeness, straightforwardness, and modesty.
All of these seem like traits you might want to possess if you were going to go on your own agreeableness enhancement mission. The question becomes, Would this matter? Do people like that acquaintance of yours really have better lives?
Remember that the meta-analyses themselves were based on large quantities of published data, and, in fact, the total number of participants was definitely massive—1.9 million individuals across more than 3,900 studies. The conclusion that 93 percent of all the variables correlated with agreeableness in a positive direction alone should signify the potential advantages of this quality.
Looking next at the hierarchical structure of agreeableness, the authors provide even more convincing evidence of its value, showing specifically which of its components relates to other consequential variables, including better “interpersonal attitudes,” less of a tendency to engage in backstabbing, better performance overall, and lower Dark Triad traits.
Taking all these findings together, the authors then go on to summarize the eight themes that seem best to capture the qualities of agreeable people:
- Self-transcendence: Desire to grow as a person, motivation to care for others, and an orientation to spiritual and religious practices or “an interconnection with what lies beyond” (p. 264).
- Contentment: Acceptance of your life as it is and the ability to adjust to whatever life might throw at you.
- Relational investment: Being motivated to cultivate and maintain good relationships with others.
- Teamworking: “Empathic capacity to coordinate goals with others” (p. 264), regardless of your role, to accomplish group objectives.
- Work investment: Being willing to roll up your sleeves and get things done.
- Lower results emphasis: A tendency to be lenient to others, and less of a focus on being the one who needs to finish a task.
- Social norm orientation: Avoidance of rule-breaking and behaving in ways compliant with social expectations.
- Social integration: Becoming better integrated into society and avoiding antisocial behaviors; a tendency to remain longer at one’s job rather than constantly leaving and finding a new one (turnover).
As you can see, this list does seem to describe not only an ideal friend or colleague but also a citizen in general. On the downside, though, the authors point out that highly agreeable people could be unassertive, meaning that others walk all over them. They may also be last in line for promotions or advancement because of their tendency not to insist on standing in the spotlight when a project is finished. Again reflecting their lack of dominance, individuals high in agreeableness may also be outwardly dependent on others.
What It Means for Your Own Quest to Be Nicer
Clearly, there are some disadvantages in the real world to being too nice, but these seem to pale, according to the authors, next to its benefits. Indeed, another term for agreeableness, Wilmot and Ones suggest, is “love.” Quoting the apostle Paul, moreover, “Love never fails” (p. 269). In other words, although a person may be “too” nice, in the end, their lives will benefit more than the lives of the nastier and more selfish in the population.
Examining each of the eight benefits of agreeableness, ask yourself which ones best characterize you. Are you a good team worker? Do you think beyond your own needs? Are you, for the most part, satisfied with what life has thrown your way?
Using those eight qualities as a roadmap to see where you could amp up your niceness factor can provide you with concrete ideas for softening what might be the rough edges of your own personality. You can also understand why people, like that selfless acquaintance of yours, are willing to take on the lion’s share of a project without complaining. Their behavior makes sense now, even if the only reason they say they don’t need you is to avoid hurting your feelings.
To sum up, it would appear that it is possible to be overly nice if it lets you in for such results as a lower salary or taking on too much work. The Wilmot and Ones study suggests, though, that the lifespan benefits of agreeableness may indeed be worth that price in gaining overall fulfillment.
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Wilmot, M. P., & Ones, D. S. (2022). Agreeableness and its consequences: A quantitative review of meta-analytic findings. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 26(3), 242–280. https://doi.org /10.1177/10888683211073007