Do Nice Guys (and Gals) Finish First or Last?

You have all heard the axiom “Nice guys finish last”. But is that true?

Eric Barker examined this question in his recent book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree. Barker likes to look at what science has to teach us about things like success.

Wharton School professor Adam Grant looked into the research on this question. He divided people into three categories: Givers, Takers and Matchers. Givers were people who most often gave to others and helped others – they were nice guys. Takers more often took from others and Matchers tried to balance their giving and taking.

In studies of professionals he first found that givers (nice guys) often finished poorly. The missed deadlines, got lower grades and closed fewer sales. But this was not all he found. He also found that on the other side of the spectrum givers did best. People who constantly found ways to help others were the ones who scored best on success metrics. Takers and Matchers he found scored in the mid-range. So some nice guys finished last but some finished first.

Grant found that the difference between givers who succeed and those that fail is not random. He found that in the very short term Takers can succeed. Being a bully or a cheat may work for a little while. It does not appear to be an effective long term strategy though. Givers trust others and can create an atmosphere of trust in a social group. People working together with trust can accomplish much more than one person working alone. The research also showed that people who “chunk” their giving so they are not giving all the time do better. Volunteer three hours a week on one day and reserve the rest of your time to meeting your own needs rather than volunteering every day, for example. So to be a Giver who succeeds you should budget your giving – that is not do it all the time. We have all known those people who give all the time and neglect their own needs.

Barker also found that givers were most often rich. Arthur Brooks studied the connection between charitable giving and wealth and found that the more people gave the more wealth they earned. The question then arises, are Givers getting rich because they are Givers, or are they Givers because they are rich and can afford it. This raises the question about cause and effect.

All of these studies are based on correlations. Correlations can point to a cause and effect dynamic but they do not necessarily do so. The kinds of rigorous studies that would actually demonstrate genuine cause and effect have not been done in this area. Scientists agree that if you have enough correlations, if they repeat over and over, they probably are showing some form of cause and effect.

I hope that most of us think it is proper to be a Giver or a nice person because it is morally correct. If it pays off with more success for us that is a bonus.

You can read more about this and a lot more about what science tells us about success in Barker’s book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Wishing you well,

Daniel R. Murphy
Educating people for building wealth, adapting to a changing future and personal development.

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