It Doesn't Pay to Be Nice. This is How Much It Costs

Last Updated Aug 7, 2011 10:40 PM EDT

Countless sayings, such as "Nice guys finish last," remind us that being too "nice" is not the way to get ahead. But is being too "nice" really all that detrimental?

The simple answer, unfortunately, is "yes," especially if you're a guy. Timothy Judge, of the University of Notre Dame, Beth Livingston, of Cornell University, and Charlice Hurst, of the University of Western Ontario, analyzed data from four big surveys to see if there was a link between 'agreeableness' and income. The studies, such as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, query thousands of people, often across decades, about their education, work history and family status. But they often also include questions commonly used by psychologists to assess personality traits such as neuroticism, agreeableness, and extraversion. Their findings:
  • Women earn less than men. This is hardly news, but since some people seem to doubt the existence of a wage gap, it bears repeating. This study found that women earned 14 percent less than men, and that's after controlling for education, marital status, hours worked, and workforce continuity (in other words, did the person take off a big block of time, as women are more likely to do to care for newborns or elderly family members.)
  • Overall, agreeable people earn less than those who are disagreeable.
  • Men pay the highest price for being too "nice." In the first study, of younger people, agreeable men made $6,958 less per year than men who were a bit difficult. In a follow-up study, which included a large sample of people who ranged in age from 25 to 74, being agreeable cost men an average of $10,326 a year.
  • It doesn't pay for women to be too nice, either. "Nice" women made $1,100 less than those who were at least somewhat disagreeable. In the follow-up study, agreeable women made $3,213 less per year than disagreeable ones.
The researchers controlled for variables such as educational attainment, work history, and hours worked. So the study would still be valid, if, for instance, it turns out that agreeable men pursue less lucrative or lower-status work than their difficult-to-get-along with peers. They also controlled for two other personality traits-- neuroticism and extraversion--both of which have been shown to impact salary.

Why being nice may get you nowhere
The researchers point out that people who scored lower on the 'agreeable' scale were not necessarily nasty or awful. They were just less, well, agreeable.
  • It could be that people who are very agreeable may not negotiate and push for raises all that well.
  • People who are less agreeable may be perceived as more competent. Generally, the reseachers say, competence is not seen as a warm and fuzzy attribute. People who are disagreeable, because they are not personally warm, may be seen as more competent by their colleagues and bosses.
  • It can be beneficial to express anger in a workplace setting. The researchers mention an earlier study that found that job applicants who expressed anger were generally recommended for higher positions and higher pay. It makes sense to think that disagreeable people are more likely to express anger in a job interview than agreeable ones.
Does this study make the case that it's worth being a bit ornery at work? Or does that entail a cost that can't be measured in dollars?

RELATED Image courtesy flickr user Nina Matthews Photography
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.

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