Do nice guys really finish last? Well ...

Judith Kleinfeld

My brother Mike is a "sweet guy" but he doesn't get the money that his ruder colleagues command. Whenever I have problems at work, I give him a call. I can count on him to listen with sympathy and come up with a strategy that wouldn't make others mad. His wife brags that Mike never says something mean about anybody.

"Nice guys finish last" is the derisive slogan applied to people like Mike. The phrase comes from baseball manager Lee Durocher, who was referring to an opposing team, the New York Giants. "Take a look at them," Durocher supposedly said (he disputes it). "They're all nice guys but they'll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last."

Less agreeable people do make higher incomes, found researchers Timothy Judge, Beth Livingston and Charlice Hurst in research just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ("Do Nice Guys -- and Gals -- Really Finish Last?") Other studies show the same pattern.

Judge and the other researchers studied 10,317 men and women, comparing those working in similar occupations with similar status and responsibility.

Those men who described themselves as "nice" -- altruistic, modest, forgiving, friendly and kind -- earned less, more than $12,000 a year less, than their colleagues. Nice women also earned less, though the difference for women is smaller -- about $1,000 -- and does not quite reach statistical significance

Why do nice guys earn less? The nice guys more often said that pay isn't as important to them as other features of the job, such as good social relationships.

Others have more critical views. Nice guys aren't apt to be as good at negotiating salary, researchers have found. Nice guys are more apt to be passive and seem less masculine.

"You have to be more aggressive," my father constantly admonished my brother Mike, a genuinely nice guy.

When it comes to well-being, not income, my brother may have it right. Agreeable men score higher in satisfaction with life, the researchers found. They have more friends, are more involved in the community and suffer less stress than their hard-charging, disagreeable counterparts.

"Nice people finish last only when it comes to money," said one person commenting on this study on the Internet.

"The really nice people I know of are the ones who believe that there are different way to measure success that have nothing to do with money or promotions.

"The nicest guy I ever worked with had the biggest retirement send-off I saw in the nearly 30 years I worked at the company. He's been gone more than 15 years now and everyone who worked with him still remembers him fondly.

"As for one of the most successful people I worked with in terms of promotions and money, he retired as a company VP and the announcement of his retirement was the only time in my life I've ever seen grown people spontaneously start singing, 'Ding, Dong, the Witch is Gone.' He wasn't missed."

People who are rude do gain more power, according to other research, which just appeared in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. In a series of studies, people broke rules, like taking coffee from another person's can, violated basic rules of bookkeeping, dropped their cigarette ashes on the floor or put their feet on the table. Rule-breakers were seen as more powerful than those who followed the rules.

Nice guys get less money and power. That's the discouraging message of this research. But there's an upside. When it comes to satisfaction with their lives and other people liking them, nice guys finish first.

Judith Kleinfeld holds a doctorate from Harvard and is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Judith Kleinfeld