Do Nice Guys Finish First or Last?

There are both upsides and downsides to showing kindness and cooperative intent.

Posted Nov 01, 2019

In Barack Obama’s eulogy for Rep. Elijah Cummings, the former president noted that Cummings “was a kind man.” He went on to passionately argue that “there’s nothing weak about kindness and compassion. There’s nothing weak about looking out for others. There’s nothing weak about being honorable. You’re not a sucker to have integrity and to treat others with respect.”

Obama is, of course, correct. It takes great strength to rid oneself of egotism, take on the perspectives of others, and act with honor—especially when some of those others are fighting dirty and benefiting from a self-interested and antagonistic approach. But is it true that people who show compassion, seek compromise, and embrace humility get their just desserts, or is it the case that nice guys really do finish last?

There is a growing body of research showing that warm characters who signal benevolence and kindness—who seek to get along with others, rather than get ahead of those around them—are favored and awarded increased respect and admiration. They are also seen as more desirable long-term romantic partners.

Adopting a warmer approach can provide a healthy boost to financial returns, too. In contrast to the stereotype of the prototypical self-aggrandizing salesman, who thinks himself God’s gift, most successful salespeople tend not to self-promote and boast to clients in an attempt to demonstrate superiority. Their strategy is more subtle and, consequently, smarter. They express warmth rather than grandiosity, and so form a personal connection with clients that is more than its own reward.

Sometimes nothing more than a simple compliment is required. Waiters receive bigger tips after approving of diners’ choices; so, too, do hair stylists who compliment their customers by saying "Any hairstyle would look good on you." Warmth can transform the workplace, too. One study found that while 46 percent of employees were willing to assist a colleague at work who asked for help, 79 percent did so if the person making the request complimented them first. 

Leaders can also benefit from adopting a warm persona. Indeed, an analysis of over two decades of American National Election Studies data by political scientists Lasse Laustsen and Alexander Bor found warmth to be a more important characteristic than competence when voters come to judge political leaders. The evidence, therefore, suggests that a human-centric approach works even in situations where, traditionally, a more hard-nosed style has been favoured.

Investigative interrogations are another case in point. Accusatorial approaches taken by police and law enforcement interrogators have long been considered essential, the standard view being that repeated accusations of guilt, accompanied by claims of mounting evidence against the accused, are highly effective techniques when it comes to obtaining a speedy confession and conviction.

But such approaches are hardly optimal. A careful examination of 181 interrogations—including those of Al-Qaeda-inspired suspects, paramilitary activists, and right-wing terrorists—found that interviewees who experienced respect, dignity, and integrity from their interviewers were much less likely to employ what are known as counter-interrogation tactics (CITs), such as retraction and silence. Even in the most difficult and emotionally charged of contexts, interrogators who signal their warmth via a gentle tone, gestures of friendliness, disarming humour, and cooperative non-verbal body language can gain a desirable advantage.

Barack Obama himself won praise and popularity for showing humility when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. He did not boast about his accomplishments, but instead stated publicly that his achievements were relatively trivial compared to those of previous winners of the prize. "Compared to some of the giants of history who’ve received this prize—Schweitzer and King, Marshall and Mandela—my accomplishments are slight."

But it is not all rosy for the nice folks among us. There are drawbacks to being kind, humble, and warm. The person who appears too cooperative, expresses guilt too easily, and shows too great a concern for how another will react could be viewed a pushover. They may, as a result, leave themselves open to exploitation by an advantage-seeking opponent.

The Columbia Business School Professor Adam Galinsky, for example, has found that people who score highly on a measure of empathy performed worse in negotiation tasks and simulated war games than those who were less empathetic. Galinsky suggests that perspective-taking is crucial in competitive situations where it is necessary to have a deep understanding of an opponent’s strategic concerns and intentions, but empathy—the capacity to share the feelings of others—may hinder performance in such circumstances.

Forced, inauthentic warmth tends to be received negatively by others. Audiences may see through the facade and judge accordingly. There’s also a danger that if expressions of generosity or empathy seem disproportionate, they will disconcert others rather than win them over.

If a friend tells you that he’s planning to give away a lot of his money, without explaining why, you may think he’s being very generous—but you may also react negatively, worrying that your friend is being more self-sacrificing more than he should. A study I conducted with Tali Sharot at University College London suggests that both responses are equally possible. In these experiments, those who voluntarily chose to give away more than their fair share when deciding how to split a pot of money with another person often elicited negative emotions in onlookers. The altruist may be regarded as warmer than those who act selfishly, but their actions can also make people feel uncomfortable.

In extreme circumstances, that can lead to hostility. Vegetarians who justify their choice of diet to meat-eaters often find that their claims to be sensitive to animal welfare and the needs of the planet are thrown back in their faces. Their message is distorted by a perception that by taking the moral high-ground, they are automatically putting others on a lower plane. Most of us want to be viewed as good people, so it hurts our self-esteem if it looks as though that is being called into question. 

Humility is also something of a double-edged sword. While Obama signaled what is known as "appreciative humility" when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize—he showed an appreciation and celebration of other people rather than focusing on his own achievements—psychologists have noted that there is a darker side to humility, too. Whereas appreciative humility is positive and generally comes from a position of strength, "self-abasing" humility is driven by low self-esteem. Those who engage in self-abasing humility don’t have a strong sense of belonging. They feel others don’t respect them. They are meek and submissive and, as a result, are less respected by others.

Understanding the benefits—but also the potential costs—of adopting a kind and cooperative approach may be useful in helping us to navigate the intricacies of the complex social world in which we live. Game theorists understand this and note the advantages of, for example, the basic cooperation/conflict matching strategy: cooperate only when others cooperate; retaliate when others take a more aggressive stance.

But in a world rife with divisions and increasing inter-group antagonism, the ability to take the high ground, act with honor, and maintain one’s integrity should not be overlooked. As Obama made clear, now more than ever such behavior needs to be recognized and rightly applauded.


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