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Do Nice Guys (and Girls) Really Finish Last?

A new Notre Dame study suggests income discrepancies based on agreeableness

A new study out this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology put a new spin on the old "nice guys finish last" theory. Heralded by Dr. Timothy Judge from the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, a series of 4 studies examined income as a function of agreeableness and gender. The first study found that sex and agreeableness (e.g., trust, compliance, altruism) were related to income, such that less agreeable individuals earned more than their agreeable counterparts. Men were more affected by this, meaning that there was a more significant discrepancy in income between disagreeable and agreeable men, relative to women. That is to say that women earned slightly more by being less agreeable, but not by much. Disagreeable women earned more than agreeable women in all 3 studies.

Photocreo Michal Bednarek Shutterstock
Source: Photocreo Michal Bednarek Shutterstock

Study 2 controlled for the other 4 Big 5 traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism) to confirm that the findings were due to agreeableness, and not another trait. Study 3 went on to determine whether or not the findings were influenced by job responsibility. For example, whether the effect could be more pronounced as a function of having a higher status job (e.g., engineer, attorney, etc.) as opposed to a lower status one (e.g., elementary school teacher, social worker, etc.). Hence, the study examined job responsibility and occupational status and found the results still held.

Study 4 sought to examine in an experimental study more closely how the effect of agreeableness was more negative for men than women. It has been suggested that due to a "stereotype backlash effect," women are expected to conform to social gender norms of being more "nice" and agreeable. As a result, they may suffer due to not meeting this expectation. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be more demanding or aggressive, hence they would be more likely to be rewarded for behavior that demonstrates this. In this final study, participants were asked to act as though they were a human resources manager for a company. Eight candidates for an entry-level consultant position were described, and study participants had to determine which ones should be placed on the fast-track to management. Results indicated that agreeable candidates were less likely to be recommended to advance to management. Women were also less likely to be recommended to advance. This supported the notion that the income-agreeableness connection was possibly due to the "demand-side" or decision-maker explanations.

Study authors provided an interesting interpretation of their results. They note:

"Nice guys do not necessarily finish last, but they do finish a distant second in terms of earnings. From a humanistic perspective, it seems remarkably unfair that men who are amiable would be so heavily penalized for not conforming to gender norms. Yet, seen from the perspective of gender equity, even the nice guys seem to be making out quite well relative to either agreeable or disagreeable women. Thus, exhortations for women not to be nice (Pfeffer, 2010) might be overblown. Nice girls might not get rich, but "mean" girls do not do much better. (pg. 39)"

The authors also noted that income may not be the best predictor of success. Other factors such as fulfillment, accumulation of social and human capital, and contribution to one's chose field are also significant. Hence, niceness may not get you the bonus check, but it might get you more fulfillment down the road.

Judge, T.A., Livingston, B.A., & Hurst, C. (2012). Do nice guys-and gals-really finish last? The joint effects of sex and agreeableness on income. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 390-407.

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