April 20, 2008

What does "nice" in "nice guy" mean?

Alias Clio has started a series on encounters with nice guys to show that alpha male types can be nice guys, presumably to play down what most people think -- that nice guys finish last.

There are two main uses of the word "nice" to describe a person: 1) pleasant and agreeable, and less frequently 2) courteous and dutiful. In terms of the Big Five personality traits, 1) refers to being high in Agreeableness, while 2) refers to being high in Conscientiousness. I propose the phrase "nice guy" not be used, due to confusion, and that "pleasant guy" vs. "dutiful guy" be used instead. What "everyone knows" is that pleasant guys finish last, while dutiful guys like the one in Clio's story may succeed.

Importantly, the guy in Clio's story likely scores low in Agreeableness -- no alpha scores high in this trait. You can't be tough minded, want to compete against or shove away others (however tactfully), or deal with troublemakers if you're high in Agreeableness. The guys Clio is describing are like military figures: their high Conscientiousness gives them a sense of duty and structure, while their low Agreeableness lets them enforce codes and whip rule-breakers into shape. (Those who are low in Agreeableness and low in Conscientiousness are badboy alphas.)

It's no wonder that Agreeableness shows the largest average sex difference in personality traits -- the equivalent of 1.5 to 2 inches in height. Pleasant guys therefore appear too feminine, as well as sexually unappealing, since much of a male's appeal derives from his projection of control and authority. Next time your pleasant guy friend complains about girls only wanting him as a friend, tell him to shoot up some testosterone.


  1. Your post reads like Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are entirely heterogeneous traits, but this cluster has been widely studied in personality psychology: it's basically the inverse of "Psychoticism" in Eysenck's P-E-N model. The wiki article on the "nice guy" syndrome references studies which show that Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are both inversely correlated with sexual appeal or amount of partners.

    On the other hand, each factor in the Big Five model consists of a grouping of empirically correlated subfactors, each of which may have a separate effect on appeal. Anecdotally, the SC seems to draw many of its members from the unappealing "nice guy" population, and yet they're not seen as especially disagreeable; by contrast, someone who chose to heed the simplistic (if widespread) advice to "shoot up some testosterone" might well end up with the worst of both worlds.

  2. Agnostic, you just wait. I'm going to post about all kinds of "nice" guys, men who are nice in either or both of the senses you mention. I suspect, BTW, that this particular nice guy would have scored high in both your categories - he was dutiful and pleasant.

    His behaviour to the other men was perfect; there wasn't a hint of threat and he never raised his voice. His height and bearing probably helped; and his work - I mean, longshoremen are notoriously tough characters, are they not? He wasn't rough-spoken at all, but must have learned how to take care of himself in a job like that. He was just - in control, I suppose - of both himself and the situation.

    That's why he struck me even then as such a rare bird. Of course, I've realised as I've grown older just how rare a bird he was. But never fear - I've encountered equally surprising examples of male niceness in men who weren't quite so naturally gifted with Alpha qualities.


  3. Your post reads like Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are entirely heterogeneous traits,

    I know the personality literature, and I don't like the use of Psychoticism because although it provides insight, you can always construct P from the product of A and C, but you can't recover values of A and C if you've only got P. You lose so much information by using P instead of A and C.

    It also screws up the heritability estimates of personality -- P is much less heritable, since you need to score highly on two independently sorting traits to score high on P. It also screws with the normal curve distribution of personality -- P has a highly skewed distribution, which is what you'd expect if it results from multiplying two normal RVs (a log-normal curve).

  4. I suspect, BTW, that this particular nice guy would have scored high in both your categories - he was dutiful and pleasant.

    He was pleasant *to you*, a pretty young thing, as you say. To get an accurate read on his personality, you'd have to see how he behaved in a variety of situations. Trust me, anyone who shoves guys out of the picture, even if tactfully, is more tough than tender.

    Looking forward to the other examples.

  5. Wow. Agnostic is really bringing some fascinating insights to game recently.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."