Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last?

New research into agreeableness and financial success yields some surprises.

Posted Oct 30, 2018

KIRAYONAK YULIYA/Shutterstock
Source: KIRAYONAK YULIYA/Shutterstock

Though the phrase "nice guys finish last" has long been attributed to baseball player and manager Leo Durocher, there's little evidence that he ever actually said it. Still, whatever the origin, the saying has taken on a life of its own and often gets trotted out whenever the subject of "nice guys" comes up.

And surprisingly enough, recent research does suggest that this particular adage is truer than you might think. Studies examining the different personality traits that make up the Five-Factor Model have shown strong links between specific traits and economic success or failure. For example, people high in neuroticism tend to be especially prone to running up debts and compulsive buying, while conscientiousness has been linked to higher rates of savings and avoidance of debt. But it's the quintessentially "nice guy" trait of agreeableness that seems to be particularly related to negative financial outcomes.  

Usually defined in terms of positive behaviors, such as kindness, sympathy, cooperation, and warmness, agreeableness has long been regarded as an important factor in team-building and social harmony. At the same time, however, people high in agreeableness are typically less aggressive and have greater difficulty making tough decisions than low-agreeableness individuals. In looking at real-world outcomes, some studies have found a strong negative relationship between agreeableness and such economic predictors as credit scores and income level. In other words, nice people tend not to be as financially well-off as those who are less agreeable overall.

As to why this would be, researchers have suggested different explanations. One possibility is that being agreeable can have an impact on negotiating styles used for determining salaries, among other things. Since prosocial people are less confrontational than their competitive peers, they are more likely to make concessions and be less demanding in the workplace. Agreeable people also appear more vulnerable to taking on financial burdens that may backfire on them (such as co-signing loans for a friend or family member), while their less agreeable counterparts would shy away from these kinds of risks.   

A new research article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology provides a comprehensive look at the link between agreeableness and economic hardship. Written by Sandra C. Matz of Columbia Business School and Joe Gladstone of the University College of London School of Management, the article describes a series of online panel and archival studies used to examine different potential explanations for why this link exists. This included looking at negotiating styles and the relative value that agreeable people place on money. Since most of the previous research studies tended to be cross-sectional, Matz and Gladstone also conducted a longitudinal study following adolescents tested for agreeableness and how they did financially decades later.  

Based on their research using thousands of participants, Matz and Gladstone confirmed that there is a strong link between agreeableness and financial hardship, as previous researchers reported. Not only are highly agreeable people more likely to have lower credit ratings, but they are also more prone to bankruptcy, have less money saved, and are in much greater debt overall than less agreeable individuals. Most importantly, however, the relationship between agreeableness and economic problems is especially strong among low-income individuals rather than people with higher disposable incomes.

This research also showed that the study results were remarkably consistent across different populations in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The authors also found no real difference in terms of the methodology used, how agreeableness and financial hardship were measured, or whether they used actual bank records or simple self-report as an estimate of financial success. Even when looking at the other Big Five personality traits, agreeableness was the only trait consistently related to financial hardship across all seven studies.

So why are agreeable people less well-off financially? While previous research has suggested that this may be due to agreeable people being poorer negotiators or being more vulnerable to being exploited by others, Matz and Gladstone's research suggests that this isn't really the case. They suggest instead that agreeable people simply don't place as great a value on money as less agreeable people do, though they admit that much more research is needed to explore this further. Another question that needs to be explored further deals with cause and effect. Are agreeable people more likely to have financial problems, or does being less well-off make people more dependent on others, causing them to change their behavior to become more agreeable to receive support?

As Matz and Gladstone point out in their conclusion, this research also highlights the role that personality can play in financial success, something that has largely been overlooked by researchers in the past. While research has often focused on "Dark Triad" characteristics, such as Machiavellianism and psychopathy — and how they can make people more financially successful — studies looking at how more positive traits, such as agreeableness and conscientiousness, affect financial decisions aren't as common.

Overall, studies such as this one do suggest that being kind and trusting can cause financial problems, especially for people who don't have the financial means to recover from the economic setbacks these problems can cause. These results also suggest that agreeable people often don't view money as being that important in their lives, especially if they place a greater value on family and friends instead. 

And certainly, life isn't all bad for agreeable people. Though they may not be as well-off financially as their less-agreeable counterparts, their lives are certainly successful in other ways. For example, studies have also shown that agreeableness is strongly associated with subjective well-being, job satisfaction, happiness, and overall emotional health.   

 So, do nice people really finish last? You be the judge.

References

Matz, S. C., & Gladstone, J. J. (2018). Nice guys finish last: When and why agreeableness is associated with economic hardship. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000220