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Empirical evidence that nice people don’t always finish last

[Sept. 1, 2020: John Timmer]

Think your boss is a jerk? Wonder why the management of your organization consists of sociopaths? Some academic researchers suspect you're not alone, and they start their new paper with the statement, "We suffer no shortage of jerks in power." And they go on to ask the obvious question raised by this fact: "Does being a jerk help people attain power?"

To find out, the researchers set up a very long-term experiment. After administering personality surveys to undergrad and MBA students, they waited over a decade to follow up and find out which personality types had accrued power in the world of employment. The results suggest that jerks don't necessarily get ahead at work; instead, some of the consequences of being unpleasant offset the benefits that it might otherwise provide.

The technical definition of “jerk”

Believe it or not, scientists have not developed a technical definition for "jerk." But they do have one for the next best thing: disagreeable personalities, which the researchers describe as "the tendency to behave in quarrelsome, cold, callous, and selfish ways." It's a set of tendencies that tend to remain stable over time and can be identified through some basic personality surveys. And it's those later two features that enabled the researchers to think long-term.

Starting around the turn of the century, the researchers started giving undergraduate and MBA students personality tests each year. Then, in 2018—an average of 14 years later—they got back in touch with some of the same students, with a third of them agreeing to do follow-up surveys, giving the researchers a total of about 670 participants. The studies they performed (a study and a replication of the result) were both preregistered, which ensures the researchers don't just search for an analysis that produces a significant result.

The intervening years allowed these people to start careers and, in many cases, accrue some degree of authority and power in the companies they were working in. The authors defined power as "the capacity to influence others by providing or withholding resources or administering punishments." The authors describe a number of ideas about how people end up with power, some of which overlap with disagreeableness. These include aggressive and coercive behavior that intimidates others or through calculated, political behavior that actively pursues power.

But there are other proposals where power is largely separate from whether someone's disagreeable. These include power gained by being generous and participating in communal activities (which may require an agreeable personality) or simply by behaving competently and advancing through achievement.

The actual experiment

In one of the follow-up surveys, the researchers asked people a series of questions that got at how much power they had accrued in their current place of employment, such as rank in the company hierarchy and number of employees supervised. And, in the replication experiment, they got the participants to get people they work with to rate the amount of power they had. They then compared the power rating to the outcomes of the personality test taken over a decade earlier.

The only major personality trait that was clearly associated with power was extroversion; disagreeableness didn't correlate with power at all. The researchers then checked whether there might be a threshold effect, where a certain amount of manipulation and intimidation gets people ahead, while too much of it was a hindrance. But there was no indication that disagreeableness at any level had any relation to gathering power. There was also no connection if the data was also adjusted for things like race or gender, and there was no link to the degree people had obtained.

There was even no connection in organizations that have aggressive, intimidating cultures. Also having no effect: switching jobs often, years in the current organization, and the size of the organization. Being disagreeable just didn't seem to get people into positions of authority.

This isn't to say that it hurt people. There wasn't a negative correlation, either. "Organizations place disagreeable individuals in powerful positions at the same rate they do agreeable individuals," the authors write. "Nasty individuals reach the top just as often as nice individuals."


For the replication study, the researchers got into the actual behaviors previously proposed to influence the accrual of power. They asked each participant's co-workers to rate how often the subject engaged in intimidating behavior, relied on forming political connections, worked for others' well being, and/or displayed competence. Extroverted people who were best at accruing power were rated as engaging in all of them. Disagreeable people, by contrast, were great at the aggressive behavior but undercut any gains that provided by being less communal and generous to their co-workers.

The good news here is that, as the researchers put it, "individuals who were more selfish, combative, and deceitful did not, subsequently, attain higher power." So, nice people do not necessarily finish last. But, at the same time, nobody seems to be held back by displaying that list of behaviors on the job.

This Brighter Side of News post courtesy of Ars Technica at


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