Do nice guys — and gals — finish last? Insights from UK personality data

There are comprehensive, and interesting, academic studies (e.g., here) on the question I’ve posed in the title. I offer this blog as a complement, because seeing the data visually is compelling. For the purposes of the blog, I’ll be using one of the “big 5” personality traits, agreeableness, as the proxy for “nice”. A key feature of “agreeable” people in this sense is that they are able, willing, and more likely than less agreeable people, to put others’ interests ahead of their own.

In a previous blog, I have already established that whether nice guys, and gals, finish last depends on what competition we imagine them taking part in. If the ultimate goal is to live a long and happy life, then being agreeable — or nice — seems to be a good strategy. However, some might also consider income to be an indicator of success. Certainly, traditional metrics of measuring, for example, inequality (such as the gini coefficient) tend to be focused on relative incomes or wealth.

On these metrics, nice people in general do finish last: the higher a person’s agreeableness, the lower their relative income. [Note that this is not “all other things considered” statement, but the research quoted above does also control for various other factors and finds the same.] For example, in the UK data sample I’m using*, around 11% of people in the highest income category were highly agreeable, whereas the proportion in the lowest income category was 21%. Another way to look at the data shows the same pattern: only 17% of highly agreeable people were in the top income category, while for the least agreeable people, the figure was 29%.

[* The data comes from the Understanding Society survey, Wave 3 (2011–13), which is the last time the “big 5” personality dimensions were assessed. The figures quoted are my calculations, based on that data, in a sub-set of the sample that only includes employed people (around 19,500 respondents).]

On this data alone, it is hard to draw conclusions on the differences between sexes. Why? Because men are much more likely to be in the higher income categories no matter what their level of agreeableness. Across the entire sample, 38% of men, but only 17% of women, fell into the top income category. [The top income category (dark blue blocks in the chart) includes people who reported monthly labour income of more than £2,500. Across men and women, they made up around 25% of the sample. Of course, self-reported income is not always a reliable gauge, so that needs to be taken into account when interpreting these results.]

Within each gender, a person’s “agreeableness” is associated with their income category. Among men (left-hand side of the chart), around 31% of highly agreeable — or “nice “— guys made it into the highest income category. That’s a slightly lower proportion than for not-so-agreeagle men [the 2 columns left-most on the chart].

However, even the nicest guys do better in terms of income than the least nice gals. As the right-most column shows, only 10% of highly agreeable women show up in the top income category. Less agreeable women do do better: around 20% are in the top income category. [Part of this appears to be because women are more likely to work in caring professions, which are, on average, less well remunerated.] That’s still a significantly lower percentage than for any of the categories of men on the left-hand side of this chart.

The reasons behind these patterns are complex. But reading through the literature, I did come across some useful advice for women wanting to succeed while benefiting from the upsides of agreeableness (such as higher job satisfaction and stronger friendships). Apparently, in some studies, those women who matched their level of agreeableness (or aggression) to their negotiating partner or work colleagues “in the moment” were able to achieve many of the benefits of being tough (such as higher income and status) while building positive relationships at other times and/or with other people.

Of course, such advice — to be flexible and adopt behaviours that fit a particular situation — is likely to work for men, too.

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Tera Allas

Tera Allas

I help complex organisations make the right strategic decisions through innovative, insightful and incisive analysis and recommendations.

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