Is It Possible To Be Too Nice?

Evidently, you can be too nice. According to a study published in this month’s Journal of Psychology, people with those personality traits associated with niceness and relationship success are more likely to obey orders to harm others.

The study found that, when when placed in a competitive TV game show format, agreeable and conscientious individuals were highly likely to administer electric shocks to others when instructed to do so. Conversely, "more contrarian, less agreeable personalities" were more likely to refuse to follow orders to harm others.

"The irony is that a personality disposition normally seen as antisocial — disagreeableness — may actually be linked to 'pro-social' behavior,'" wrote Kenneth Worthy in Psychology Today . He went on to explain that “disagreeable” people were presumably more willing to sacrifice their popularity to act in a more moral way towards people —they privileged morality over reputation. Basically, disagreeable people may be more helpful than you might think.

Political orientation and social activism also had an influence on willingness to obey violent orders. In the study, individuals with left-wing political views were less willing to hurt others, as were women who had previously engaged in rebellious political activism.

If this doesn’t sound completely new to you, that’s because it is spin-off of Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments from the 1960's. In an attempt to understand general compliance with the Nazi regime in World War II, Milgram conducted a series of experiments to test man’s obedience to authority. The basic question was: was everyone involved in Nazism inherently evil, or were they just cogs in a wheel?

In Milgram’s experiment, lab coat-wearing individuals instructed a “teacher” to administer electric shocks to a stranger (or “learner”) who answered questions incorrectly. The teacher was told to increase the intensity of the shock by 15 Volts with each wrong answer, up to a deadly 450 Volts. They were instructed to keep going even when the learner howled in pain. Horrifyingly, Milgram found that 65 percent of participants shocked others at the full 450 Volts. The teachers were far from calm — they grimaced, cried, and asked to stop, but all continued, showing man's blind compliance to authority. Numerous experiments since have confirmed similar findings.

In short, agreeableness is a great thing when the person in charge is kind. But, when you have a raging sociopath running your country, school, or sports team, it's helpful to have some disagreeable individuals around.

While this most recent iteration of Milgram's study doesn't justify rudeness that arises out of arrogance, ignorance, or a lack of consideration for others, it does suggest we may need to be a little more tolerant of individuals who ruffle a few feathers while trying to do good. Climate change, for instance, is one realm where breaking away from routine behaviors (like mass consumption) can be a positive, productive thing.