Don’t. Be. Nice.*

It’s such a truism that people have made fun of us for it, at least twice.

So this ancient article finally made its way through the blogosphere to roll across my FB feed this morning, and you’ve probably seen it already, but I’m going to share it with you anyway:

Psychologists Find That Nice People are More Likely to Hurt You (from io9.com)

People who are agreeable are also more likely to make destructive choices, if they think doing so will help them conform to social expectations. That’s the finding of psychologists, who suggest that disagreeable, ornery people may be more helpful than we think.

Being me, I followed the link back through other, earlier reports, including Psychology Today:

Are Polite People More Violent and Destructive?

Now a new study using a variation of Milgram’s experiments shows that people with more agreeable, conscientious personalities are more likely to make harmful choices. In these new obedience experiments, people with more social graces were the ones who complied with the experimenter’s wishes and delivered electric shocks they believed could harm an innocent person. By contrast, people with more contrarian, less agreeable personalities were more likely to refuse to hurt other people when told to do so.

If this is a complete shock to you, there are two possibilities:

  1. You are not Canadian. Canadians have a reputation for being “so nice!” and polite to the point of utter pointlessness. But if you are Canadian, you will know that it is entirely possible to be a very Nice, extremely Polite Asshole. It’s a national speciality. You smile and nod a lot, say sorry, please and thank you every third word, and treat people like crap while claiming to do it all for them because you care so much. It’s effective, if you’re looking for a strategy that lets you get away with murder for a long time.
  2. You are Canadian but are not possessed of critical thinking skills. Sorry.

But let’s keep working our way back to the original research:

Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm

Say, are you in the holiday spirit right now? All in a warm and fuzzy glow over peace on earth and the essential goodness of people? Right. Then get yourself a drink or a xanax, or stop reading until you’re in a less rosy frame of mind, because the Milgram experiments show a pretty grim side to human nature.

Extra-super-duper-short version:

The reportage of Hannah Arrendt on the Nazi war crimes trials, and her observations on the “banality of evil,” got Stanley Milgram wondering about what would make a person do something they knew was wrong and would kill people.

In his original experiment, participants were asked to deliver what they were told were potentially lethal electric shocks to someone else (who they were told was another participant, but was actually an actor) if they answered questions wrong. The actor was instructed to answer most of the questions wrong, and would then begin to scream convincingly as the “shocks” became stronger, and beg the person to stop. Eventually the actor would stop responding, simulating death.

Everyone in the original experiment (where the actor was in another room, and the participant could hear but not see him) went all the way to delivering severe shocks. No one stopped delivering shocks before 300 volts. (And 26/40 went all the way to maximum.)

Almost everyone delivered potentially lethal shocks to an innocent person because someone in a white coat told them to.

The experiment yielded two findings that were surprising. The first finding concerns the sheer strength of obedient tendencies manifested in this situation. Subjects have learned from childhood that it is a fundamental breach of moral conduct to hurt another person against his will. Yet, 26 subjects abandon this tenet in following the instructions of an authority who has no special powers to enforce his commands. To disobey would bring no material loss to the subject; no punishment would ensue. It is clear from the remarks and outward behavior of many participants that in punishing the victim they are often acting against their own values. Subjects often expressed deep disapproval of shocking a man in the face of his objections, and others denounced it as stupid and senseless. Yet the majority complied with the experimental commands.

In fact, it was so close to universal that in order to get usable data, they had to alter the experiment–bring the actor into the room, close enough to touch the participant, with the participant required to grab the actor’s hand and force it onto a plate to deliver the shock, before enough of the participants would refuse to continue that they could properly analyze the data.**

I won’t blame you if you need to stop, breathe deeply, get some chocolate and alcohol, and continue after a short break.

In this recent update to the Milgram experiments, they replicated the original structure in the format of a game show. The white-coated authority figure of the original was replaced with a broadcaster on a stage with a microphone, but the rest of it–questions, electric shocks, actor pretending to be shocked to death–remained the same. What the researchers did was look at both the personality traits and political leanings of the obedient vs. the disobedient.

I’m finding it hard to write this. Do you find it hard to read?

As with Milgram’s original experiments, the majority of participants shocked the actor to death, with the twist that all it took was a person on a stage with a microphone. That’s some pretty flimsy authority by which to murder someone, but it was sufficient for approximately 80% of the research subjects.

As expected, Conscientiousness and Agreeableness predicted the intensity of electric shocks administered to the victim. Second, we showed that disobedience was influenced by political orientation, with left-wing political ideology being associated with decreased obedience. Third, we showed that women who were willing to participate in rebellious political activities such as going on strike or occupying a factory administered lower shocks.

In other words:

  • Nice, reliable people delivered the strongest electric shocks.
  • People with strong-right wing values delivered the strongest electric shocks.
  • Women with a history of participating in left-wing activism delivered lower electric shocks. (There was no significant difference for men re: whether or not they had a history of political activism.)

There was NO relationship to emotional sensitivity. An emotionally highly sensitive person with low conformity values would not deliver the shocks. A very nice, very reliable person with low sensitivity would.

This is a subject I’ve written about many times over the years. Nice is not GOOD. Nice can be a good thing in some contexts, but it is not inherently good. Nice is a social strategy. GOOD is good, and good requires bravery–the willingness to be unpopular, to stand out, to do things other people don’t approve of, to take flack, to speak the truth when no one else is saying it. Highly sensitive people are just as capable of this as anyone else. Don’t blame your thin skin or weak stomach. If you can’t speak up, stand out, or take a risk of being unpopular for an opinion or point of view in the society we have right now–the safest one for dissent in the history of humanity, where the strongest penalty you’ll receive for most disagreement is an upset stomach and some broken weekend plans–you may be Nice, but mostly, you’re a coward.

It’s agreeable, conscientious people–nice, rule-following people–who merrily followed an authority figure down the path to murdering an innocent person, for no reason or reward at all. So if you take pride in how nice you are, how popular, etc., and like to upbraid people who are less conventional, who won’t go along to get along, who are NEGATIVE, heaven forbid, or CRITICIZE, or aren’t NICE–maybe entertain the idea that it’s those people who will risk their necks one day by sticking them out for you.

~~~~~
*Yes, that’s a needlessly provocative attention-seeking headline. Go ahead and be nice. Just don’t get it mixed up with being good, and don’t use it as an excuse for being a coward.

**Yes, I’ve heard the criticisms of the Milgram experiments. What they don’t explain to my satisfaction is how often the results have been replicated around the world since the 1960s. Sorry. Human beings are not a noble race, and blind obedience to authority and social convention is surely behind some of our worst atrocities.

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8 thoughts on “Don’t. Be. Nice.*”

  1. Interesting: never thought about it. How about being nice and good? Maybe there’s more to obedience than just being nice though? Perhaps a lot of other conditioning? Perhaps even, the ‘nice’ part isn’t even the crucial factor? Just throwing this out there because I have no idea what I’m talking about. 🙂

    1. 99% of the time, I think nice and good coexist well. It’s in those times where being good means standing up for something, making people unhappy or disappointed, being unpopular, etc. where you can’t be both nice and good. And some people use being Nice as a mask for being absolutely awful human beings, which if you treat being nice as a good thing in and of itself, means they get away with it for a very long time.

      Have you ever read anything about Five Factor Personality theory? It’s really fascinating. One of the things I gained from it was that friendliness and gregariousness (being sociable, outgoing, and having lots of friends) is completely and totally unrelated and uncorrelated with being nice (putting the interests of other people ahead of yourself). Sociableness/friendliness is a part of Extraversion, and niceness is part of Agreeableness, and the scientists studying this have tracked those differences down to different parts of brain anatomy. And what I found interesting about this study is that Agreeableness, which is the trait of putting the interests of other people ahead of yourself, also has this potential dark side of not being able to disappoint people when you need to.

  2. I am not always nice. I think I am always kind and compassionate, but sometimes I have to call people out for being jackasses, and it doesn’t go over well, especially here in the ridiculous southern US. People here are nice while they’re denying others their civil rights. Makes me ill.

  3. A few days ago I attended the funeral of a family member. Her friends (almost exclusively members of her church) repeatedly said she was the nicest person they ever met, while family members bit their tongues. Many people commented that they never heard her say a bad word about anyone, never knowing what she said about them as soon as they left her house. I learned very young that “nice” is a face people present to the world.

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