As Stanford Business School professor Bob Sutton has pointed out, the world sure seems full of jerks these days. Maybe it's our politics, maybe it's an effect of online life, maybe it's that Mercury is in retrograde (probably not), but whatever the reason, being a bully and an egomaniac just doesn't seem as limiting as it did in the past.

Should we all conclude from this reality that the sad truth is being a jerk is actually a smart strategy? Should you even put up with a few in your office?

Even if you set aside the considerable mental toll of working with jerks, science is pretty clear on the answer to this question. In a word: no. Not only is being nasty unpleasant for those around you, it's also a pretty good sign you aren't that bright, recent research shows.

Science shows it's smart to be nice.

The international team of researchers behind the study published in the Journal of Political Economy had a straightforward aim for their work. They wanted to figure what drives people to be nice and cooperate. Is it intrinsic kindness? Certain values society beats into our heads? Something else?

To figure this out they recruited more than 700 volunteers to play standard economic games in which both players benefit if they cooperate. What traits or characteristics did those who figured out that being nice was the best strategy share? The answer wasn't a particular willingness to abide by social rules. Nor was it even an agreeable personality. Instead, the biggest predictor of a cooperative approach to the game was intelligence.

In a follow-on experiment, when the researchers grouped less bright players with higher IQ ones, those who were smarter actually ended up teaching the dimmer bulbs the advantages of playing nicely.

The scientists concluded one of the big reasons some people behave well towards each other isn't altruism or fear of criticism. It's because they are smart enough to understand that being nice pays off for everyone in the long term. "Cooperation arises in society if people are smart enough to foresee the social consequences of their actions, including the consequences for others," they explain on The Conversation.

That's interesting for economists, but viewed from a slightly different angle the findings are noteworthy for managers and business owners too. If high IQ tends to result in cooperative behavior, then managers should can also begin to guess an employee's intelligence from whether or not they're team player. And while their are undoubtedly some smart a-holes out there, I have bad news for jerks. In general, being a self-centered bully appears not to be a good sign for your IQ.

Yet more evidence that hiring skilled jerks is a bad bargain.

Most of us likely don't need too much nudging not to want to work with nasty people, but sometimes in business a skilled performer with an abrasive personality can seem like a tempting hire. This isn't the only research that suggests employing jerks is a bad bet in the long run. One Harvard study showed that toxic personalities cost companies literally twice as much as hiring a superstar earns them. Another study showed that while nasty bosses boost performance in the short-term, they tank it in the longer term.

And while this latest research shows that smart, nice people teach others to cooperate, previous studies have shown that being surrounded by jerks pushes others to become nastier and less cooperative. Being a team player is contagious. So is being toxic.

These are all great reasons not to hire jerks, but this new study probably offers the simplest argument to date. Jerks are usually jerks because they don't grasp the long-term consequences of alienating people with their behavior. Being cooperative, on the other hand, is generally a sign of smarts.

Not that we needed another reason to celebrate nice people, but just in case that's a great one.

Published on: Apr 25, 2019
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