Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Importance of Being Agreeable

Consider, for a moment, two very different people:

Neville is a friendly, warm person who tends to cooperate with and trust others. He generally expects the best of people, and tends to be generous and helpful towards others. He tries to be modest about himself.

Draco, on the other hand, is an aloof, rude person who tends to be competitive and suspicious of others. He’s cynical about people – he doesn’t expect them to return favors, so he’s not that likely to be helpful. He thinks modesty is overrated.

How would personality psychology say these two differ? Well, they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum of “agreeableness” – if you feel more similar to Neville, you’re probably high in agreeableness, and if Draco hits closer to home, you’re probably relatively disagreeable. Agreeableness captures how interpersonally warm, trusting, modest, altruistic, cooperative, straightforward, sympathetic, and easygoing you are, and is one of the building blocks of personality.

So what does being agreeable mean for your work life and parenting styles? How about your health outcomes and environmental behavior? Let’s see what the literature has to say.

Getting along, not getting ahead: Agreeableness at work (Judge et al., 2012)

How agreeable people fare in the workplace fits the “nice guys finish last” mentality (as Juli has written about here before): in general, being more agreeable is associated with making less money. This could perhaps be explained by the nature of salary negotiation: being agreeable, modest, and compliant may hurt one’s ability to demand a higher salary.

But there’s more to it: the salary consequences of being agreeable are three times worse for men. Why? Gender norms likely play a role here. Being disagreeable as a man pays off more than being disagreeable as a woman, perhaps because it fits our societal expectations of men being more driven and cutthroat than women. Moreover, being agreeable as a man in the workplace goes against these social rules, leading the affable, tenderhearted men among us to be punished, salary-wise. 

On a related note, disagreeable folks are also more likely to have been fired in their lives, but spend no more time than agreeable people being unemployed, suggesting they somehow make up for their antagonistic interpersonal style when it comes to job-hunting (perhaps spinning their qualities as useful workplace attributes).

The Agreeable Parent (de Haan et al., 2012)

Highly agreeable mothers and fathers are more likely to exhibit “warm” parenting behaviors – that is, being attuned, supportive, and responsive to your child’s needs, and providing a safe, warm, nurturing environment for your child – and less likely to exhibit “overreactive” parenting behaviors, which include ineffectively responding to parenting challenges with anger, frustration, meanness, and irritation. Agreeable adolescents are also more likely to receive these parenting behaviors, suggesting that warmer, more easy-going children elicit warmer treatment.

The Agreeable Physique (Sutin et al., 2011)

agreeable healthy girl!
Being low in agreeableness (that is, antagonistic, cynical, aggressive, and arrogant) is associated with greater increases in BMI across the lifespan. This trend is stable across developmental stages, as being antagonistic is associated with faster weight gain starting in adolescence and continuing through old age. But why?

Well, for some reason disagreeable people tend to continue eating after they feel satiated, and exhibit more prolonged bodily responses to stressors, both of which are associated with more weight gain. Cumulatively, these behaviors and trends may contribute to the cardiovascular problems that plague antagonistic folks. 

Agreeable Environmentalism (Milfont & Sibley, 2012)

Greater agreeableness is linked to more pro-Earth values and conservation behaviors, both among individuals – more agreeable people are more likely to value protecting the environment and to report conserving electricity – and countries: more agreeable nations (yes, you can analyze national personalities – more on this as the Olympics approach) score higher in the Environmental Performance Index. Why? Valuing self-transcendence (wanting to understand others, having concern for others’ welfare) may play a role, making agreeable folks and nations more concerned with helping others and moving beyond their own selfish interests.

The good news: Agreeableness across the lifespan (Srivastava et al., 2003)

So now we know that more agreeable people make warmer parents, have healthier weight trends, and are more environmentally inclined. But what happens to you, dear reader, if you identified with Draco’s (disagreeable) profile at the outset of this post?  Well, besides making more money than your agreeable buddies, you may also find yourself becoming more agreeable as you get older…

    For men and women alike, agreeableness – relatively low among surly teenagers – increases throughout early and middle adulthood, with a rapid increase in the late twenties, a steady increase throughout the thirties, and a slower increase in the forties. And yes, this increase corresponds directly to the years in which people typically bear and raise their children, putting folks into nurturing roles that encourage greater levels of warmth, altruism, and sympathy.

Luckily, now that you know all the perks of being agreeable, you won’t think you’re merely losing your edge with your newfound sympathetic nature. Think of it instead as being beneficial for – if not your pocketbook – your family, your health, and your planet.

The articles:

de Haan, A., Deković, M., & Prinzie, P. (2012). Longitudinal impact of parental and adolescent personality on parenting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (1), 189-199 DOI: 10.1037/a0025254

Judge, T., Livingston, B., & Hurst, C. (2012). Do nice guys—and gals—really finish last? The joint effects of sex and agreeableness on income. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (2), 390-407 DOI: 10.1037/a0026021 

Milfont, T., & Sibley, C. (2012). The big five personality traits and environmental engagement: Associations at the individual and societal level Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32 (2), 187-195 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2011.12.006

Srivastava, S., John, O., Gosling, S., & Potter, J. (2003). Development of personality in early and middle adulthood: Set like plaster or persistent change? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (5), 1041-1053 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.5.1041

Sutin, A., Ferrucci, L., Zonderman, A., & Terracciano, A. (2011). Personality and obesity across the adult life span. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (3), 579-592 DOI: 10.1037/a0024286


  1. Excellent article! Thank you for sharing a bright side to being agreeable!

    1. Thanks for reading! I'm glad there are good things out there for the kind-hearted people, too.

  2. Yes Draco makes more money but family is probably more important to Neville. That's why Neville will more often than not be a better parent. There's more to life than money for some people. I find it interesting people are agreeable the more they get older. Altruism probably increases as well. Thanks for sharing agreeable people are better in some areas than Draco!!

    1. I think you're right that agreeableness is probably fostered more in warmer families, and may indeed affect/prioritize valuing family and being a good parent. Glad I could help show that nice guys don't always finish last!

  3. As an interesting aside, it appears the other thing, besides income, where Draco is going to be much more successful than Neville is his love life, or rather sex life, especially if he is full “Dark Triad” (Narcissism, psychopathic traits, Machiavellianism). I don’t know how much to trust the figures I’ve read, but the difference is supposedly quite large.

    By the time someone finally agrees to let Neville do his "Agreeable Parent" thing with her, he may very well finish up raising Draco’s child.

    1. I haven't heard of the Dark Triad before, but that sounds like a pretty dangerous mix. I don't know what kind of predictions I would make for one's love life based on possessing those qualities, but it may predict more success in terms of quantity rather than fulfilling, intimate relations. Interesting point, though!

  4. I wonder why Draco is fatter. Is low Agreeableness linked to high Sensation Seeking?

    1. I wonder about the BMI findings, too, and why it is that low-A people may carry their calories and regulate their immune systems differently. I don't think Agreeableness is connected to sensation seeking - that's more a matter of Extraversion...

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