Being nice, we all know, is the right thing to do. Is it also the smart thing to do? Playing dirty, cutting corners, and manipulating others are all intended to be shortcuts to success, after all. Do they work? Is the old saying true--do nice guys truly finish last?
These are the questions at the heart of a fascinating new Psyche article from psychologists Scott Barry Kaufman and Craig Neumann, which delves into a rich vein of research on these questions.
And I have good news for fans of basic human decency. Yes, being a jerk can give you a leg up, but only in the short-term. In the longer run, nice guys do not, in fact, finish last.
Who says jerks get ahead?
If you're shaking your head in disbelief reading that, it's probably because of to real-life counterexamples you've run across -- the incompetent narcissist who keeps getting funded, the schemer whom the bosses all seem to love, the terrible guy you knew in high school who's now some variety of big shot or another.
It's hard to argue with this sort of experience, which most of us have unfortunately had. Kaufman and Neumann don't try to. They acknowledge that plenty of research indicates superficial charm and a willingness to break a few eggs can accelerate your rise. Basically, endless studies show that narcissists' charm makes them much more likely to be chosen as leaders.
But how do self-regarding egomaniacs perform once they're elevated to power? Here too the research is pretty unequivocal. "When it comes to getting the job done, they tend to achieve less and are considered poor team players," the psychologists write of corporate leaders with so-called "dark traits" such as psychopathy.
Jerks aren't just ineffective in the C-suite. When they're elected to public office, they're less likely to pass legislation, and when they run hedge funds they achieve worse financial returns. And how about in their personal lives? Again, being a shark doesn't lead to fast cars and sharp suits. It leads to sadness and destruction.
"Even if they manage to avoid prison (imprisonment being a high possibility for those with extreme traits), they are at increased risk of suicide and violent death. They are also not particularly happy: people with dark traits tend to report poor self-image, an inability to intimately connect with others, and little life satisfaction," report Kaufman and Neumann.
You're not too nice to succeed.
The article goes into greater depth about the mechanisms for these poor outcomes (the short version: empathy is really important for success) as well as fascinating details about how "light" and "dark" personality traits shift over the course of our lifetimes.
But the most important takeaway is basically a pep talk for anyone who has ever wondered if they're just too nice to succeed: Don't be tempted to cut ethical corners or dial back your empathy to rise in the world. Those strategies sometimes lead to short-term wins, but a boatload of research shows they lead to long-term disaster.