Does Kindness Pay?

Stephen DeAngelis

September 14, 2011

Stephen Grellet, a famous Quaker missionary, wrote, “I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” Most people like to be around people like Grellet. They make life more pleasant. According to a new study, however, people like Grellet don’t make as much money as the ornery, nasty-tempered people of this world. [“Hey, You! Mean People Earn More, Study Finds,” by Rachel Emma Silverman, Wall Street Journal, 15 August 2011] Silverman reports:

“It may not pay to be nice in the workplace. A new study finds that agreeable workers earn significantly lower incomes than less agreeable ones. The gap is especially wide for men. The researchers examined ‘agreeableness’ using self-reported survey data and found that men who measured below average on agreeableness earned about 18% more—or $9,772 more annually in their sample—than nicer guys. Ruder women, meanwhile, earned about 5% or $1,828 more than their agreeable counterparts.”

I’m not sure that opposite of “agreeableness” is “meanness.” Pushy people, for example, are not necessarily mean; but, they’re certainly not agreeable. Frankly, I’m little surprised that disagreeable people are better paid in the business world. It could explain a lot about why customer service is so bad in most companies. It may be lamentable, but the study’s co-author Beth A. Livingston, an assistant professor of human resource studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, admits, “Nice guys are getting the shaft.” Silverman continues:

“The study ‘Do Nice Guys—and Gals—Really Finish Last?’ by Dr. Livingston, Timothy A. Judge of the University of Notre Dame and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario, … analyzed data collected over nearly 20 years from three different surveys, which sampled roughly 10,000 workers comprising a wide range of professions, salaries and ages. (The three surveys measured the notion of ‘agreeableness’ in different ways.) They also conducted a separate study of 460 business students who were asked to act as human-resource managers for a fictional company and presented with short descriptions for candidates for a consultant position. Men who were described as highly agreeable were less likely to get the job.”

Agreeability is not an oft-used word in daily conversation. We are more likely to call someone “nice,” “happy,” “pleasant,” or “kind,” than we are to call them “agreeable.” That may be the problem. Silverman reports that study findings concluded, “For men being agreeable may not conform ‘to expectations of “masculine behavior.'” I find the word “may” a bit off-putting when it comes to making conclusions. I tend to agree with another possible reason for the study’s findings: “People who are more agreeable may also be less willing to assert themselves in salary negotiations.” Silverman reports that while disagreeability may result in better paychecks for individuals, those individuals may not be good for company bottom lines. She writes:

“Other research shows that rudeness may not always benefit employees or their firms. A paper presented … at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association found that 86% of 289 workers at three Midwestern firms in the manufacturing and health-care industries reported incivility at work, including public reprimands and making demeaning comments. Incivility was bad for the organizations as a whole, though, increasing employee turnover, found the researchers, Jeannie Trudel, a business professor at Indiana Wesleyan University-Marion, and Thomas Reio, a professor at Florida International University.”

If being disagreeable is bad for business, why do bosses reward it? Livingston claims, “The problem is, many managers often don’t realize they reward disagreeableness. You can say this is what you value as a company, but your compensation system may not really reflect that, especially if you leave compensation decisions to individual managers.” A decade or so ago, the U.S. Navy realized that many of its top officers had bullied their way to the top, only to find that such tactics had left intolerable messes and low morale in the commands they left behind. The Navy made a conscious effort to uncover such leadership tactics and pass over such leaders. The same is true for some companies. Silverman explains:

“Lockerz, a 65-person Seattle, Wash., social-commerce company, has what it calls a ‘no jerks and divas’ policy that is stressed in its employee handbook and orientation, says Chief Executive and founder Kathy Savitt. She notes, though, that there is a difference between being respectful and being agreeable. ‘We are not about being “nice” or “agreeable” or “civil,”‘ she says. ‘We have a lot of robust debates about all kinds of things. But we do stress the notion of being respectful.’ Paul Purcell, chairman, president and chief executive of Robert W. Baird & Co., a Milwaukee financial-services firm, says that his 2,700-employee company ‘doesn’t hire or tolerate jerks. That’s frankly a large percentage of people in our business. They don’t get through the interview process.’ The firm has fired at least 25 offenders of its ‘no-jerk’ policy, he says.”

So maybe being unkind doesn’t pay off in the end. According to The Economist, “The extraordinary success of Homo sapiens is a result of four things: intelligence, language, an ability to manipulate objects dexterously in order to make tools, and co-operation.” [“Welcome, stranger,” 30 July 2011] In other words, being agreeable (often an essential component of cooperation) is one of the basic things that makes us human. The article continues:

“Over the decades the anthropological spotlight has shifted from one to another of these as the prime mover of the package, and thus the fundament of the human condition. At the moment co-operation is the most fashionable subject of investigation. In particular, why are humans so willing to collaborate with unrelated strangers, even to the point of risking being cheated by people whose characters they cannot possibly know? … Existing theories of the evolution of trust depend either on the participants being relatives (and thus sharing genes) or on their relationship being long-term, with each keeping count to make sure the overall benefits of collaboration exceed the costs. Neither applies in the case of passing strangers, and that has led to speculation that something extraordinary, such as a need for extreme collaboration prompted by the emergence of warfare that uses weapons, has happened in recent human evolution to promote the emergence of an instinct for unconditional generosity.”

Based on the numbers of conflicts ongoing in the world, clearly the instinct for “extreme collaboration” has bypassed a few million people. I find it fascinating that the terms “collaboration” and “trust” find their way into so many discussions about human activities. The article reports that not all researchers believe that humans have an instinct for “extreme collaboration.”

“Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two doyens of the field, who work at the University of California, Santa Barbara, do not agree. They see no need for extraordinary mechanisms and the latest study to come from their group (the actual work was done by Andrew Delton and Max Krasnow, who have just published the results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) suggests they are right. It also shows the value of applying common sense to psychological analyses—but then of backing that common sense with some solid mathematical modelling.”

The researchers set up mathematical models that used “software agents” capable of interacting with “a computer’s processor.” “Each agent had an inbuilt and heritable level of trustworthiness (ie, the likelihood that it would cheat at the first opportunity) and, in each encounter it had, it was assigned a level of likelihood (detectable by the other agent) that it would be back for further interactions.” The currency used to judge value in the model was an arbitrary “fitness unit.” The more fitness units an agent collected over its lifetime, the more successful it was judged. Agents that cheated early were found to have lost so much trust that they didn’t do well over their lifetimes. The article continues:

“After a certain amount of time the agents reproduced in proportion to their accumulated fitness; the old generation died, and the young took over. The process was then repeated for 10,000 generations (equivalent to about 200,000 years of human history, or the entire period for which Homo sapiens has existed), to see what level of collaboration would emerge. The upshot was that, as the researchers predicted, generosity pays—or, rather, the cost of early selfishness is greater than the cost of trust.”

Although it seems like common sense that establishing trust is a win-win situation, the business landscape is littered with the corpses of dead companies whose leaders believed that cheating was the best way to get ahead. To me that indicates that greed can often trump whatever inherent capacity for collaboration people may possess. Fortunately, for most of us most of the time, that is not true. The article concludes:

“An open hand to the stranger makes evolutionary as well as moral sense. Except, of course, that those two senses are probably, biologically speaking, the same thing. But that would be the subject of a different article.”

Nicholas Wade reports that part of our inherited sense of kindness may well be located in a chemical compound called oxytocin, which, he writes, “has been described as the hormone of love.” [“Depth of the Kindness Hormone Appears to Know Some Bounds,” New York Times, 10 January 2011] He explains:

“This tiny chemical, released from the hypothalamus region of the brain, gives rat mothers the urge to nurse their pups, keeps male prairie voles monogamous and, even more remarkable, makes people trust each other more. Yes, you knew there had to be a catch. As oxytocin comes into sharper focus, its social radius of action turns out to have definite limits. The love and trust it promotes are not toward the world in general, just toward a person’s in-group. Oxytocin turns out to be the hormone of the clan, not of universal brotherhood. Psychologists trying to specify its role have now concluded it is the agent of ethnocentrism.”

Since humans are social beings, this finding cannot be too surprising. It also explains why trust between strangers generally has to be earned. Dr. Carsten K. W. De Dreu, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, began studying oxytocin because he believed that no one “who placed unbounded trust in others could survive. … Thus there must be limits on oxytocin’s ability to induce trust, he assumed, and he set out to define them.” Like most studies in the area of trust, De Dreu used money distribution as way to judge trust and generosity. He also deliberately set out to test “in” groups and “out” groups. Dutch college students were the “in” group and Muslims and Germans were the “out” groups.

“These nationalities were chosen because of a 2005 poll that showed that 51 percent of Dutch citizens held unfavorable opinions about Muslims, and other surveys that Germans, although seen by the Dutch as less threatening, were nevertheless regarded as ‘aggressive, arrogant and cold.'”

You can read the article to learn about the methodology that De Dreu used to test students. There is one experiment, however, that is worth noting. Wade reports:

“In another set of experiments the Dutch students were given standard moral dilemmas in which a choice must be made about whether to help a person onto an overloaded lifeboat, thereby drowning the five already there, or saving five people in the path of a train by throwing a bystander onto the tracks. In Dr. De Dreu’s experiments, the five people who might be saved were nameless, but the sacrificial victim had either a Dutch or a Muslim name. Subjects who had taken oxytocin were far more likely to sacrifice the Muhammads than the Maartens.”

Those results don’t make oxytocin sound much like “the hormone of love.” The researchers indicate that the drug induced “feelings of loyalty to the in-group” rather than inciting “hatred of the out-group.” In other words, it creates an “in” group bias. Wade continues:

“What does it mean that a chemical basis for ethnocentrism is embedded in the human brain? ‘In the ancestral environment it was very important for people to detect in others whether they had a long-term commitment to the group,’ Dr. De Dreu said. ‘Ethnocentrism is a very basic part of humans, and it’s not something we can change by education. That doesn’t mean that the negative aspects of it should be taken for granted.’ Bruno B. Averbeck, an expert on the brain’s emotional processes at the National Institute of Mental Health, said that the effects of oxytocin described in Dr. De Dreu’s report were interesting but not necessarily dominant. The brain weighs emotional attitudes like those prompted by oxytocin against information available to the conscious mind. If there is no cognitive information in a situation in which a decision has to be made, like whether to trust a stranger about whom nothing is known, the brain will go with the emotional advice from its oxytocin system, but otherwise rational data will be weighed against the influence from oxytocin and may well override it, Dr. Averbeck said.”

In other words, we can learn to trust strangers. We can learn to cooperate and collaborate. What about those mean people at work? Ashleigh Brilliant once wrote, “Be kind to unkind people – they need it the most.” And if they continue to get paid more and fail to change their ways, remember what S. H. Simmons wrote, “Kindness is never wasted. If it has no effect on the recipient, at least it benefits the bestower.”