Mind & Body

This Unpleasant Personality Trait May Earn You More Money

We've all heard the old saying, "Nice guys finish last," but the kind and decent among us generally hope it's not true. Sadly, however, new research seems to confirm the old adage — at least as far as it applies to the professional success of well-educated men over 40.

Being Nice Could Cost You

Say two baby boys are born into families with similar demographics at around the same time. The boys have about the same IQ and drive, but they differ markedly in personality. One boy is the nicest one on the street, while the other is all sharp elbows, unafraid to annoy or even anger others. When these two boys grow up, how will their personality differences affect their careers?

To figure out the answer to this question, you need a massive dataset following vast numbers of young people through their entire careers. Only then can you try and tease out the effects of personality on achievement and earnings. University of Copenhagen economist Miriam Gensowski recently dug up such a dataset.

For her latest study published in Labour Economics, Gensowski analyzed data from the Terman study, a massive psychology study that followed more than 1,000 Californians with super high IQs of more than 140 from age 18 to 75, starting in 1922. All of the subjects were similarly gifted, but how much they earned, Gensowski discovered, varied greatly based on their personalities.

The data comes from an era when few women worked outside the home, so Gensowski couldn't draw any conclusions about how personality may affect women's careers. But for men, the results were clear — a trio of personality traits is linked with higher earnings.

The first two are unsurprising: conscientiousness (being hard working and dependable) and extroversion (being a people person). But the last trait will be harder to accept for some. Grenowski found that the less agreeable a man was (i.e. the less nice he was), the more he earned, especially later in his career when he was likely to be pursuing leadership roles.

"Men who are more conscientious and extroverted, as well as less agreeable, reap large benefits between their 40s and 60s," she says in her HBR write-up of the findings. "More agreeable men, who tend to be friendly and helpful to others, have significantly lower earnings than less agreeable men. The man who is very agreeable (in the top 20%) will earn about $270,000 less over a lifetime than the average man." The effect was particularly large for highly educated men with graduate degrees.

Why Does It Pay to Be a Jerk?

This is clear scientific evidence for that old chestnut about nice guys finishing last, but why exactly does the capacity to be a jerk pay off when and in whom it does? Grenowski doesn't offer any definitive answers — beyond the obvious truth that, athletes and models aside, we generally reap most of the rewards of our advantages later in our careers — but others are happy to speculate.

"Other data suggests that agreeable people — especially agreeable men — are less likely to hold leadership positions," writes Business Insider's Shana Lebowitz, commenting on the study. "In his 2013 book Habits of Leadership, psychologist Art Markman suggests that employees appreciate a boss who can give frank feedback — and agreeable people may have a hard time providing criticism," she adds.

But whether nice guys have a hard time getting promoted or their kindness gets in the way of their effectiveness once they've become leaders, the cold hard fact remains: if you want to ascend to a top white-collar position in the prime of your career, then being a good guy will probably hurt your chances. If that's your aim, you probably shouldn't study up on being an all-around jerk, but learning to tell less-than-popular truths and deliver frank feedback will likely improve your chances.

If you have trouble being frank and forthcoming, check out the book "Not Nice: Stop People Pleasing, Staying Silent, & Feeling Guilty ... And Start Speaking Up, Saying No, Asking Boldly, And Unapologetically Being Yourself" by Dr. Aziz Gazipur. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

The Big 5 Personality Traits

Written by Jessica Stillman May 17, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.