Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be the nice guy

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Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be the nice guy, according to a University of Guelph study.

Ask anyone who they might prefer to work with, nice guys or bullies, and you’ll get a fast and certain reply — just about everyone will say that they prefer to share an office with kindhearted and positive people.

That’s what people say, anyway.

Highly cooperative and generous people can attract hatred and social punishment, especially in competitive circumstances, the research found.

The study, conducted by professor Pat Barclay and undergraduate student Aleta Pleasant, is published in Psychological Science.

Sometimes what people claim to want and how they actually behave can be completely at odds. While everyone praises kindness and cooperation, exceptionally nice people often find their good deeds met with nastiness, ridicule, exploitation, and backstabbing.

Why do you suppose that is?

You could conclude (not entirely without foundation) that humans are sometimes nasty, hypocritical creatures, but according to the study, the reason our stated ideals and our real-life actions fail to match up is more complicated than that. Being cooperative and nice, the research found, can actually come across as threatening.

Highly cooperative and generous people can make others look bad

Psychology professor Pat Barclay and his collaborators discovered, when they brought study subjects into the lab to play a series of economic games, that things are different when a real-life person starts playing the role of being cooperative and generous. Exceptionally generous and hard-working colleagues make those around them look bad. Their super-kindness and productivity challenge other employees to perform at the same level, and that can stir up nasty reactions, the researchers found.

“Most of the time, we like the cooperators, the good guys,” Barclay commented, but when people find themselves in competitive environments such as many offices have, the script flips. “People will hate on the really good guys. This pattern has been found in every culture in which it has been looked at.” In particularly tough environments, people will attack an exceptionally nice, hard working person, even if doing so harms the group as a whole.

While Barclay’s research wasn’t designed to suggest real-world strategies for those impacted by this nasty human tendency to punish the exceptionally nice, he does have some suggestions.

“It might help to turn the tables on the criticizers: Point out that they’re just attacking to prevent themselves from looking bad” was his first suggestion. But the best solution may be even more straightforward: Don’t put yourself in situations where you have to work with terrible people.

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be the nice guy — “Perhaps the best solution is to just find better associates. If you’re being criticized for being too nice or for working too hard, then go find others who are just as nice and hard working as you. When cooperative people work with one another, they end up much better off than their critics,” Barclay advises.

According to Barclay’s study. There is a real, scientifically validated reason that being extra good can sometimes bring out the worst in people. That shouldn’t stop you from being who you are at work, but it should make you more careful about whom you spend your kindness on.

Pat Barclay - Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be the nice guyPat Barclay is an evolutionary psychologist whose research combines the fields of evolutionary biology, animal behavior, social psychology, mathematical game theory, and experimental economics to study topics such as: cooperation, altruism, reputation, punishment, friendship, partner choice, trust, biological markets, costly signaling, and risk-taking.

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