How science debunks “nice guys finish last”

It’s a familiar story. You’ve finally worked up the courage to approach the guy or girl you like. You take a deep breath and prepare to conquer your anxieties. Then, as you step forward, you see it: someone has beaten you to the punch. Even worse, this person is a jerk—he or she treats others without a shred of respect. This is a just another example of nice guys finish last, that sad inescapable truth. Except science says this is bogus.

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Contrary to popular belief, science shows nice people finish first.

According to research out of Harvard University, cooperative people are far more likely to achieve success than their unpleasant counterparts. In the study then post-doctoral fellow David Rand (now Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University) had subjects participate in an online game in which players were given a random group of friends. Players could pay to help one another or act selfishly and keep resources to themselves. After each round subjects updated their friend groups, creating new connections and cutting ties. The results? Generous players ended the game with large networks of cooperative teammates, while selfish players found themselves ostracized from the crowd. In other words, the mean guys finished last.

Though Rand’s experiment has been hailed as breakthrough for its experimental setup, these findings are hardly new. In fact, for years studies have shown that kindness and cooperation rank among the most important qualities of accomplished people. Those who treat friends or coworkers poorly end up isolated while their affable colleagues meet success. As Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has shown, people would rather do business with person they like and trust than a more skilled, unlikable competitor.

But why does it seem nice guys or girls finish last? Everyone can relate to the anecdote about a love interest falling for someone undeserving. Though many factors play a role, one of the biggest contributors is likely self-delusion. We envy those who have things we want, instinctively dislike them for possessing what we do not have. When someone receives that promotion we wanted or develops a relationship with a person we have a crush on, our minds accentuate his or her negative qualities while ignoring the positive ones. This allows us to avoid acknowledging our own shortcomings—instead of thinking about how we never show up to work on time or don’t brush our teeth, we accuse our competitor of being undeserving and assume we were perfect for the occasion.

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“That guy has a healthy relationship and I don’t? He must be a total bastard.”

It is important to note that kindness and cooperation do not guarantee success. Self-confidence and people skills are integral to achieving goals, especially in relationships and in the workplace. These qualities often rank higher than attractiveness and intelligence in surveys and studies. However, experiments show it is possible to have too much of a good thing—excessive self-confidence can alienate people, and being too agreeable can appear as a lack of personality or meekness. (While some studies claim to prove niceness hurts chances of success, they almost invariably define niceness as “agreeableness.” Most of these experiments find that extremely agreeable individuals—people who always say yes and go with the flow—fare poorly in business and relationships.)

So here’s to all you nice people out there—science is on your side. While it may often seem the mean and uncooperative people have it made in life, chances are those behaviors will catch up to them. Now go out and be nice!

So what do you guys think? I’m guessing some people will have already noticed nice people don’t always finish last. Share your thoughts in the comments section below! As always, please like, share, or reblog this post if you enjoy it. Be sure to check me out on Twitter and Facebook as well. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe for new content every Wednesday! IT’S FREE!

Other related articles:

13 Reasons Nice Guys Are the Worst (Buzzfeed)

Key to Career Success is Confidence, Not Talent (The Telegraph)

The Science of the Friend Zone (Vsauce)

Want to Achieve Your Goals? Science Says Stop Talking

How to Look Back in Time (Actually)


Comment question of the week

Any “Nice Guy” stories worth sharing?


6 thoughts on “How science debunks “nice guys finish last”

  1. Of course people who cooperate with no one are not as successful. I would put forward that even ruthless people generally have a group of “insiders” that they are cooperative with (And nice to) in order to forward their agenda. They may completely disregard outsiders but using the network of insiders be very successful.

    I think this study (and those like it) may be a good starting position but they ignore the evolution if relationships over a longer period of time where cliques, “working groups”, tribes even might form out of like minded individuals, some of whom would have been rated as “nasty” in the shorter term individual experiment.

    • I think you’re spot on about a lot of people who come off as ruthless. They probably do have a group of individuals (however small) that they can get along with–we’ve evolved to be social creatures, and it’s pretty difficult to go through life completely isolated!

      I would also be interested in seeing long term trials done for this type of experiment. Though I did not mention it in the post, Rand’s study actually did track uncooperative individuals’ behavior as the game progressed. Not surprisingly, many who were initially ostracized changed their behavior to be accepted back into a group. In fact, selfish individuals were twice as likely to change their behavior after being shunned. Here’s the link if you want to read more about it: . My hunch is that as the time period tested becomes longer, more and more selfish people will gravitate back to the group. That seems to be what the studies indicate, at least! Thanks for the comment! Great insight.

  2. I know of a sociopath that is a multi-millionaire and is nice to those that he needs and once he doesn’t need you anymore, is an asshole. One silverlining is that those type of people have to live with themselves, with their false friendships, but of course sociopaths have a sort of false-reality. Right?

    • Yes! I think that silver lining you mention is often overlooked–as demonstrated by Rand’s experiment, people who are mean or unpleasant tend to isolate themselves. I’d honestly be surprised if people like Donald Trump (who is an outlier in these studies) are truly happy in such a false world. Not only do not-nice individuals finish last, they also bear the burden of isolation they bring upon themselves. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Nice guys finish last because sociopaths – the epitome of a mean person – are better able to hide their desires and emotions and focus on manipulating their targets.

    • Very interesting… It’s true that sociopaths often excel in the art of manipulation. That said, I don’t think the majority of mean people are sociopaths! I think your theory may explain fringe cases of selfish or non-altruistic people finishing first, but I’m not sure it applies to a significant portion of cases (where these studies indicate that nice people finish first). Thoughts? Thanks for the comment!

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