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When Being Nice Gets in the Way of Being Smart

Highly agreeable people may be prone to choking under pressure

This post is in response to
What Is an Intelligent Personality?

In a previous post, I discussed a number of differences concerning the relationship between personality and objective measures of intelligence compared to how lay people perceive this relationship. In particular, I noted that the personality trait of agreeableness is unrelated to performance on intelligence tests, yet there are some indications that lay people tend to associate high agreeableness with lower intelligence, even though agreeableness is a socially valued characteristic. The reasons for this are not well understood. However, although there are important advantages to agreeableness, high agreeableness may also be associated with a number of costs, such as in regards to career advancement. Additionally, a recent study found that highly agreeable people are prone to choking under pressure. Perhaps there are some ways in which being too agreeable might lead to behavior that could be regarded as less intelligent.

The relationship between personality and intelligence remains puzzling.

There is something puzzling about the relationship between personality and intelligence

Agreeableness, one of the well-known Big Five personality factors, refers to interpersonal traits that affect the quality of one’s social relationships (Graziano & Tobin, 2009). Highly agreeable people are very concerned with the welfare of others and tend to be trusting, kind, considerate and tender-minded. Disagreeable people on the other hand tend to be more self-centred and come across as cynical, abrasive, domineering, and tough-minded. Most people fall somewhere between these extremes. However, high agreeableness is generally considered a good thing, and agreeable people tend to be well-liked by others.

How agreeableness is related to intelligence may depend to some extent on how one chooses to define intelligence and intelligent behavior. One very successful approach has been to assess intelligence based on performance on objective tests of mental ability (e.g. IQ tests). These tests assess a wide range of abilities, but seem to share a common core of ability to understand complex information. As noted in my previous post, studies have found that agreeableness has a nearly zero correlation with objective tests of general intelligence (DeYoung, 2011). This suggests that one’s interpersonal qualities are unrelated to one’s ability to deal with complexity. However, some have argued that there exists a special kind of “emotional intelligence” encompassing the ability to understand and respond to other people’s emotions that is distinct from general intelligence. Whether or not emotional abilities should best be referred to as an “intelligence” has been debated (Brody, 2004) but for the purposes of the present discussion I will leave that issue aside. (A previous post of mine discusses some conceptual problems with emotional intelligence.) Studies have found that agreeableness has a moderate positive correlation with tests of emotional intelligence (Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2008). This seems to indicate that agreeableness is associated with certain abilities that at least some people consider intelligent. On the other hand, as discussed previously, one study found that people who were asked to describe the personality of a highly intelligent person ascribed such a person a number of disagreeable traits (Mõttus, Allik, Konstabel, Kangro, & Pullmann, 2008). Additionally, other studies have found that people who consider themselves to be highly intelligent (whether or not they actually are) tend to have disagreeable personalities (Furnham & Buchanan, 2005). Why then do people associate agreeableness with lower intelligence?  

Some feel there is an intelligence of the heart as well as the mind

Perhaps it is because being high in agreeableness is sometimes associated with certain personal costs, in spite of its likeability. A number of studies suggest that being highly agreeable can be an obstacle to career advancement, at least in some occupations (Seibert & Kraimer, 2001). Agreeableness may be a liability in jobs that require more “political” skills. Past research has found that being able to take credit and shed blame affects career success. Agreeable people may be less willing to take credit or assign blame, and they may be less assertive in pressing their own interests, leading them to be taken advantage of in competitive environments. Perhaps for these reasons, lay people might implicitly believe that people who are smart in terms of getting ahead in life are those who are not too “nice” when their self-interest is at stake. Please note that I am not condoning this sort of attitude, rather I am trying to understand it.

A recent study on how people perform under pressure suggests there might be a more direct connection between agreeableness and cognitive ability, specifically working memory, under stressful conditions (Byrne, Silasi-Mansat, & Worthy, 2015). Some people who are able to make effective decisions under low-stress conditions, make poorer decisions under high-stress conditions, which is known as choking under pressure. One proposed explanation for this is that pressure creates mental distractions that interfere with a person’s ability to concentrate on the task and use their working memory resources effectively. This study looked at how the Big Five personality might relate to performance under pressure. In two experiments, participants were asked to perform a decision-making task involving selecting between immediate and delayed rewards in a computer game. In this task, the best strategy is to forgo a large immediate reward in order to achieve an even larger delayed reward. Previous studies on this task found that introducing distractions that tax working memory results in poorer performance. In both experiments, participants were assigned to either low-pressure or high-pressure conditions. In the high-pressure condition, they were told that they were playing with another participant (but who was not actually real), and that if both they and their partner could reach a certain score they would be given a monetary bonus. If either player failed to reach the target they would both forfeit the bonus. They were also told that their partner had already succeeded in reaching the target and hence success was now entirely up to them. The second experiment also included an element of time pressure as participants were told that they had limited time to complete the task and if they timed out both they and their partner would forfeit the bonus. In the low-pressure condition, participants’ performance was unrelated to their personality traits. However, in the high pressure condition they found that participants who were high in neuroticism and those who were high in agreeableness performed more poorly than those who were low in these traits. That neuroticism was associated with choking under pressure was expected, as people high in this trait tend to handle stress poorly. As the authors discussed, this may be because people high in neuroticism tend to have more pressure-related thoughts that distract them from the task. However, the association between agreeableness and choking under pressure is a new finding. The reasons for this association are not entirely clear, but it may be that highly agreeable people under pressure were distracted by concerns about disappointing their partner, impairing their concentration on the task.

The authors of the study noted that as the association between agreeableness and choking under pressure is a new and somewhat unexpected finding it should be regarded tentatively and explored further in future studies (Byrne, Silasi-Mansat, & Worthy, 2015). However, if it turns out that this finding applies more generally, it would mean that highly agreeable people may find it harder to use their mental resources effectively under certain demanding conditions compared to less agreeable people. As noted earlier, low agreeableness is associated with being ‘tough-minded’ rather than ‘tender-minded’. Perhaps tough-mindededness allows people to make more rational decisions under difficult circumstances. If this is true, it might help explain why lay people tend to associate intelligence with being less agreeable, even though agreeableness is unrelated to performance on standard intelligence tests. Such tests assess performance under non-stressful conditions in which a person is encouraged to do the best they are able. However, in day-to-day life, people do not always make optimal use of their intellectual abilities, and this might be related to personality traits such as agreeableness. Perhaps lay people’s beliefs about intelligence might reflect a genuine insight into how personality can influence the quality of a person’s decision making for better or worse in real life.   

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. 

Image Credit

Puzzle Illusion obtained from Wallpaperfreeks

DeviantArt image: "Tranquility" by ProjectConsciousness

Other posts discussing intelligence and related topics

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Why there are sex differences in general knowledge

The Knowledgeable Personality

Personality, Intelligence and “Race Realism”

Intelligence and Political Orientation have a complex relationship

Think Like a Man? Effects of Gender Priming on Cognition

Cold Winters and the Evolution of Intelligence: A critique of Richard Lynn’s Theory

The Illusory Theory of Multiple Intelligences – a critique of Howard Gardner’s theory

More Knowledge, Less Belief in Religion?

What is an Intelligent Personality?


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Byrne, K. A., Silasi-Mansat, C. D., & Worthy, D. A. (2015). Who chokes under pressure? The Big Five personality traits and decision-making under pressure. Personality and Individual Differences, 74(0), 22-28. doi:

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Graziano, W. G., & Tobin, R. M. (2009). Agreeableness. In M. R. L. R. H. Hoyle (Ed.), Handbook of individual differences in social behavior (pp. 46-61). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

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Mõttus, R., Allik, J., Konstabel, K., Kangro, E.-M., & Pullmann, H. (2008). Beliefs about the relationships between personality and intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(6), 457-462. doi:

Seibert, S. E., & Kraimer, M. L. (2001). The Five-Factor Model of Personality and Career Success. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 58(1), 1-21. doi: