“Nice guys finish last.” Really? What does the research say?



“Nice guys finish last.” Is it true?

To some degree it depends on what area of life we’re talking about. Let’s see what the research has to say…



Nice guys finish last here. More agreeable people make less money:

…men who measured below average on agreeableness earned about 18% more—or $9,772 more annually in their sample—than nicer guys. Ruder women, meanwhile, earned about 5% or $1,828 more than their agreeable counterparts. “Nice guys are getting the shaft,” says study co-author Beth A. Livingston, an assistant professor of human resource studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Being ethical brings your salary down too:

Using a self-reported measure from a longitudinal survey of registrants for the Graduate Management Admissions Test, we find that ethical character is negatively associated with males’ wages.

And rude people have higher credit scores:

“…agreeableness was negatively related to your credit score,” said Jeremy Bernerth, assistant professor in LSU’s E. J. Ourso College of Business Rucks Department of Management.


Dating and Marriage

The trait most associated with long, happy marriages is conscientiousness. That’s not the same thing as “nice” but we can mark it up as a win for the nice guys:

…our findings suggest that conscientiousness is the trait most broadly associated with marital satisfaction in this sample of long-wed couples.

As for dating and sex, we have to give that one to the bad boys, hands down:

In one survey of men, Trapnell and Meston (1996) found that nice guys who were modest, agreeable, and unselfish were disadvantaged in sexual relationships. Men who were manipulative, arrogant, calculating, and sly were more sexually active and had a greater variety of sexual experiences and a greater number of sex partners.



This one is a toss-up. The research confirms that leadership is a tenuous balance.

You’d expect military leaders to be tough, right? But the Navy’s best commanding officers are supportive.

Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

In the U.S. Navy, researchers found, annual prizes for efficiency and preparedness are far more frequently awarded to squadrons whose commanding officers are openly encouraging. On the other hand, the squadrons receiving the lowest marks in performance are generally led by commanders with a negative, controlling, and aloof demeanor.

That said, US Presidents have a number of traits in common with psychopaths:

These findings indicate that the boldness associated with psychopathy is an important but heretofore neglected predictor of presidential performance, and suggest that certain features of psychopathy are tied to successful interpersonal behavior.

The best leaders are a balance. Not too assertive, but not too passive. They must balance kindness and toughness:

“If you’re too soft—no matter how competent and able you are—people may not respect your authority. But if you only have dominance and you don’t have great ideas, and you use force to stay in power, then people will resent you,” he concludes. “Being successful as a leader requires one to have both dominance and prestige.”


What About Life In General?

Overall, there are undoubtedly advantages to being a jerk:

In the workplace it’s difficult because, as Harvard professor Amy Cuddy explains, warmth and competence are seen as inversely related:

In a business context, she says, this means that “The more competent you are, the less nice you must be. And vice versa: Someone who comes across as really nice must not be too smart.” This pattern is the opposite of the halo effect: a plus on one dimension demands a minus on the other. The unconscious logic might be: If she were really competent, she wouldn’t need to be so nice; and conversely, the highly competent person doesn’t have to be nice—and may even have reached the top by stepping on others.

But let’s not forget about the advantages of being nice. Raises and promotions are easy to quantify, making the bad boys look good. But when you really dig into the research you see it’s not so one-sided.

Studies show nice guys have higher quality friendships, are better parents, have better academic and career performance, as well as better health:

…agreeableness, one of the Big Five personality dimensions, is linked with higher-quality friendships, successful parenting, better academic and career performance, and health… Based on the review of the literature, it is postulated that being agreeable may be the path to enduring interpersonal relationships, happiness, success, and well-being.

Confused yet? I hear you.

Luckily, Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, wraps it up very nicely.

Yes, nice people get screwed sometimes. That’s true.

Being nice also confers many advantages since people like and trust you. That’s true too.

So that’s why when you look at the whole picture, nice guys finish last…

And first:

What I find across various industries, and various studies is the Givers are most likely to end up at the bottom. That’s primarily because they end up putting other people first in ways that either burn them out, or will allow them to get taken advantage of and exploited by Takers. Then I looked at the other end of the spectrum and said if Givers are at the bottom, who’s at the top? Actually, I was really surprised to discover, it’s the Givers again. The people who consistently are looking for ways to help others are over-represented not only at the bottom, but also at the top of most success metrics. 

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