Being Nice Doesn't Always Work Out

Nice people are for nice neighborhoods

Posted Apr 26, 2013

In an earlier post, I argued that nature is not really red in tooth and claw. Most animals spend far more time cooperating than they do tearing each other apart. Yet, there are settings in which being nice can be a losing proposition. A gangster who cares about other people’s feelings might as well shoot himself – before someone else does.

The case for being nice

Darwinians expect animals to be nasty to each other when the stakes are high enough to balance out the risks of injury. That sort of nastiness is real but gets exaggerated by scientists and non scientists alike.

On the other hand, the potential for animal cooperation is treated with a cold shower of skepticism. Skepticism aside, there are many examples of unrelated animals being nice to each other as I described in earlier posts (here and here):

Vampire bats share food with others on the verge of starvation.

Penguins crowd together for warmth on extremely cold days in Antarctica as depicted in the popular documentary March of the Penguins.

Mule deer females look out for the fawns of other females who are away grazing.

Mutual grooming removes skin parasites and improves health by relieving stress.

Small birds team up to counter larger predators in a mobbing attack

Being nice is a real feature of animal behavior that occupies a great deal more of their time than fighting does. Yet, there are limits to what can be achieved by being nice. These limits arise whenever competition over scarce resources raises its ugly head.

The cuckoo chick gets more food after it dumps the rightful inhabitants over the side of the nest. If cuckoos behaved nicely they would go extinct.

The limits of being nice

Similar limits to cooperation apply to our own species. This principle goes some way to explaining warfare. Our subsistence ancestors were rather peaceful because they ranged widely over the land in search of game and vegetable food.

Once they became more sedentary, they settled on patches of ground capable of growing plenty of food. This land was violently defended ushering in organized warfare.

Even comparatively non warlike hunter-gatherers are not particularly peaceful amongst themselves and homicides are quite common. The most common cause of aggression is sexual competition. Men mostly die in fights over women and women are often murdered by jealous husbands.

Sex is a dangerous business because it raises severe conflicts of interest. A lover may impregnate a wife but evade all the costs of raising the child that then fall to the husband who believes that the child is his own.

Aggression and risk-taking by young men is an endless source of trouble and inflates accident statistics, assaults, and homicides. It also reflects sexual competition. Young men try to impress peers as a way of increasing their social status and sexual attractiveness to women (1).

That scenario plays out in subsistence societies but it is less obvious in middleclass communities where competition focuses on economic success rather than physical prowess. Violent confrontation is much more common in poor communities, however.

Parents who are not nice

Interestingly, children from urban slums are raised to be more aggressive. This is realized by withholding affection and through the liberal use of corporal punishment.

When social workers try to educate the parents on the adverse emotional consequences of corporal punishment, and provide instruction on being emotionally supportive to their children, they get nowhere (2).

The parents listen politely and continue as before. They believe that sparing the rod is spoiling the child and raise their children to be as aggressive and suspicious as they are themselves.

Perhaps they recognize that learning to trust other people is not such a great idea if you happen to live in a crime-ridden slum. Being nice there could mean getting taken advantage of. If you want to be nice, try living in a nice neighborhood.

1. Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.

2. Nightingale, C. H. (1993). On the edge: A history of poor Black children and their American dreams. New York: Basic.