16 October 2012

Despite Being a Nice Guy He Did Something Really Bad... It’s Not Despite; It’s Because! (7)

Last week in Romania a known stock broker suddenly disappeared and most of the media started speculating that he ran or lost his clients’ money and so on.  It was (and partially still is) a real time live soap opera. The element that brought attention to this case was the profile of the broker. He was (and still is) well known in the mass media and most importantly was a really agreeable person to see on TV. Most TV producers were eager to invite him since he was charismatic, funny, competent (or at least he seemed so) and kind of cute, well… as cute as a person who works in financial speculations can be. 

Everyone was surprised about this person’s disappearance and everyone said “He was such a nice / charming / funny guy, how could he have done it?”.

Another situation of nice guys that did something wrong was at the university where I did my Research Master. In 2012 a high profile professor was found to have done some unethical things in some of his research projects and he had to resign. I don’t intend to develop the story, but one thing that was on everyone’s lips was that this professor was a really nice person. I had the opportunity to have met him and I can say that he was really nice, diligent, helpful and agreeable. Moreover, this person was an exceptional teacher. When the ethics commission has concluded its investigation, everyone was more than surprised that the really nice professor did something so bad (at least by academic standards).

As you see people are highly surprised by the fact that nice, charismatic, pleasant people do things that are dishonest, unethical or unprofessional. Now, this surprise is justified, but at the same time what do niceness, charisma and being pleasant have to do with honesty, ethics and professionalism?

Now, really, has no one seen a charismatic crook? Or a pleasant cheater? Of course it is not easy to mentally process these associations of highly positive and highly negative words that seem like an oxymoron. At the same time, if you make a (mental) effort, you’ll see that you’ll be able to find some examples.

Why do we find it so hard to believe that nice people are not necessarily honest? The assumption of equality between niceness and honesty (or competence) is supported by two psychological effects, namely the “halo effect” and “attribute substitution”. I’ll present each of them briefly.

The “halo effect” means that someone identifies that a person scores high (or low) on a certain trait and subsequently infers that that person scores high (or low) on all other traits. For example if someone sees that a person in good looking, he or she will infer that the person is also highly intelligent, kind, agreeable, competent etc. In the case of “nice guys” we realize that they are nice and infer that they are also honest (smart, good professionals etc.). 

What is very important in understanding the halo effect is that there is a “spill-over” phenomenon. In essence our good impression on one trait spills-over or propagates onto other traits. There is an interesting thing with regard to the types of traits that are evaluated and on which the initial evaluation spills over. Usually we first evaluate a trait that is highly visible such as physical attractiveness, agreeableness or kindness. In general these are traits that are easy to evaluate having very little information available. It is easy to see if a person is attractive and it is easy to perceive if someone is agreeable or kind. On the other hand, the traits on which the initial evaluation of, let’s say, attractiveness spills over are less visible and much more difficult to evaluate.

The second psychological effect that leads us to think that there can’t be nice cheaters is “attribute substitution”. What is going on in this case can be summed up into one idea: When asking a difficult question, it’s much easier to answer a simple one.

To better understand this you need to accept one truth, which is that the brain is inherently lazy. If something can be done with the least effort, it will be done so. This means that when answering the easy question, we don’t do it consciously. The “lazy brain” does so without us being aware. But let me explain how the “Attribute substitution” works.

When we ask ourselves a question such as “is this person honest?” or “is this person competent?” it is rather hard to find the answer. Things like honesty and competence are hard to assess and one would need to put in a lot of mental effort and gather information which is not easily available in order to evaluate these attributes. Of course it is possible to evaluate them, but then one would need to put in a lot of work and in many instances in life we don’t bother to do so or simply we find it not to be that important to objectively evaluate these attributes. After all who even thinks that the good looking neighbor could be a cold blooded killer and the nicely dressed (financial) consultant could have been in the bottom 10% of his class in college?

When faced with a hard question the “lazy brain” finds it much more convenient to answer an easier one such as “is this person good looking?” or “is this person agreeable?” or even “is his watch expensive?”. As I said when discussing the halo effect, these traits or attributes are easy to assess. We can tell in less than one minute of interaction if a person is agreeable, good looking or if a watch looks expensive.

What the attribute substitution does is that instead of answering the hard question of “Is this person honest?” we answer the easier question “is this person agreeable?”. Thus in our evaluation we substitute the attribute of “honesty” with the attribute of “agreeableness”. I repeat, we do so without any awareness.

Up to this point I have demonstrated that “being a nice guy” has virtually nothing to do with “not doing bad things”. The feeling of surprise that people experience when saying “despite being a nice guy he did a bad thing” comes from realizing the truth of the lack of relationship between being nice and not doing bad things.  But this is only the first part of the title “Despite being a nice guy he did something really bad. It’s not despite, it’s because!”. How about the second part – “It’s not despite; It’s because”? I have to admit that being nice has no causal relationship with doing bad things. However, there is a factor that favors “nice guys” to do “bad things” and I’ll explain what it is.

If we assume through attribute substitution that “being nice” is equivalent with “being honest” or “being competent” then in our minds nice people are honest and competent. This belief influences our personal, group and organizational behavior. Having the feeling of being surrounded or simply having to do with honest, competent people (that are in fact only nice) leads to a weakening of control and vigilance. It is easy to accept a not so thorough control on the nice, charismatic and funny stock broker. After all, how can he be dishonest or incompetent? Why waste his and our time on controlling his activity when there are other things to do?

Little by little the system in which a “nice guy” activates becomes more loose and permissive. This will in turn lead to more opportunities for doing “bad things”. As I wrote in Badapples or Bad barrels, it is not only the person’s characteristics that lead to “bad behavior” it is also the system and environment in which one is active. If this environment is permissive it will encourage (or at least not discourage) negative behavior.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating for keeping all “nice guys” under very close surveillance and be suspicious about their activity. At the same time it is not a good idea to loosen the control mechanisms simply because someone is agreeable and makes nice jokes.

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