Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

Author: Jonah Lehrer

In 1948, the legendary baseball manager Leo Durocher declared that “nice guys finish last.” Although Durocher would later deny the quote, his pithy line summarizes a popular and pessimistic take on human nature. When it comes to success, we assume that making it to the top requires ethical compromises. Perhaps we need to shout and scream like Steve Jobs, or cut legal corners like Gordon Gekko: the point is that those who win the game of life don’t obey the same rules as everyone else. And maybe that’s why they’re winning.

Well, it turns out Durocher and all those pessimists were right: nice guys really do finish last, or at least make significantly less money. According to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Beth A. Livingston of Cornell, Timothy A. Judge of Notre Dame, and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario, levels of “agreeableness” are negatively correlated with the earnings of men.

Let’s begin by defining our terms. There are six facets to aggreeableness: trust, straightforwardness, compliance, altruism, modesty and tender-mindedness. Those are all nice character traits, right? Why would someone lacking those traits have a competitive edge in the workplace?

To understand why niceness might be a disadvantage, it helps to understand the essence of disagreeableness. Because being disagreeable doesn’t mean you behave like Ari Gold. It doesn’t mean you are a sociopath or intentionally inflict pain on others. Instead, those on the disagreeable spectrum are generally pretty decent folks, described by their peers as mostly amiable. However, these disagreeable people do consistently exhibit one special trait: They are willing to “aggressively advocate for their position during conflicts.” While more agreeable people are quick to compromise for the good of the group — conflict is never fun — their disagreeable colleagues insist on holding firm. They don’t mind fighting for what they want.

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