The Nice guy
Nice guy is a term in the general public discourse and in popular culture describing an adult or teenage male with friendly yet unassertive personality traits in the context of a relationship with a woman. As a description “nice guy” is used both positively or negatively. When used positively (and particularly when used as a self-descriptor), it is intended to imply a male who puts the needs of others before his own, avoids confrontations, does favors, gives emotional support, tries to get out of trouble, and generally acts nicely towards women. In the context of a relationship it may also refer to traits of honesty, loyalty, romanticism, courtesy and respect. When used in a negative context (usually capitalised) a “Nice Guy” implies a male who is unassertive, does not express his true feelings and uses acts of ostensible friendship with the unstated aim of progressing to a romantic or sexual relationship.
The “nice guys finish last” view
A common aphorism is that “nice guys finish last.” The phrase is attributed to baseball manager Leo Durocher in 1939, though a) Durocher’s remark was specific to the context of baseball, and indeed to the context of that set of players, rather than intended as generally applicable to male/female relationship dynamics or in any other context and b) his allegation of a cause-and-effect relationship between being nice and finishing last was at most merely implicit. The full quote is “Take a look at them. They’re all nice guys, but they’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last.”
Simplistically, the term “nice guy” could be an adjectival phrase describing what appears to be a friendly, kind, or courteous man. The “nice guys finish last” phrase is also said to be coined by American biologist Garrett Hardin to sum up the selfish gene concept of life and evolution. This was disputed by Richard Dawkins, who wrote the book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins was misinterpreted by many as confirming the “nice guy finishing last” view, but refuted the claims in the BBC documentary Nice Guys Finish First.
The “nice guys finish last” view is that there is a discrepancy between women’s stated preferences and their actual choices in men. In other words, women say that they want nice guys, but really go for men who are “jerks” or “bad boys” in the end. Stephan Desrochers claims, in a 1995 article in the journal Sex Roles, that many “sensitive” men, based on personal experience, do not believe women actually want “nice guys”.
According to McDaniel, popular culture and dating advice “suggest that women claim they want a ‘nice guy’ because they believe that is what is expected of them when, in reality, they want the so-called ‘challenge’ that comes with dating a not-so-nice guy.”
Urbaniak & Kilmann write that:
“Although women often portray themselves as wanting to date kind, sensitive, and emotionally expressive men, the nice guy stereotype contends that, when actually presented with a choice between such a ‘nice guy’ and an unkind, insensitive, emotionally-closed, ‘macho man’ or ‘jerk,’ they invariably reject the nice guy in favor of his ‘so-called’ macho competitor.”
Another perspective is that women do want “nice guys,” at least when they are looking for a romantic relationship. Desrochers (1995) suggests that “it still seems popular to believe that women in contemporary America prefer men who are ‘sensitive,’ or have feminine personality traits.” Women have differing opinions about whether “nice guys finish last” sexually or not.
Herold and Milhausen found that 56% of 165 university women claimed to agree with the statement: “You may have heard the expression, ‘Nice guys finish last.’ In terms of dating, and sex, do you think women are less likely to have sex with men who are ‘nice’ than men who are ‘not nice’?” A third view is that while “nice guys” may not be as successful at attracting women sexually, they may be sought after by women looking for long-term romantic relationships (however, “nice guys need not lose all hope, with studies showing that while women like ‘bad boys’ for flings, they tend to settle down with more caring types” – the “bad boys” having “the self-obsession of narcissism, the impulsive, thrill-seeking and callous behaviour of the psychopath and the deceitful and exploitative nature of Machiavellianism”). It is a possibility that women leave to escape their circumstances of abuse, disease or pregnancy to seek a chance with the nice guy (they rejected previously), afterwards.
Herold and Milhausen claim that “while ‘nice guys’ may not be competitive in terms of numbers of sexual partners, they tend to be more successful with respect to longer-term, committed relationships.”
Another study indicates that “for brief affairs, women tend to prefer a dominating, powerful and promiscuous man.” Further evidence appears in a 2005 study in Prague: “Since women can always get a man for a one-night stand, they gain an advantage if they find partners for child-rearing.”
Researchers are also interested in the “nice guy” phenomenon. Empirical research exists on studying perceptions of the “nice guy” phenomenon (some of which is cited above), women’s self-reports or behavior, and comparisons of men’s personality traits with their sexual or romantic success. Studies that explicitly use the term “nice guy” also cite empirical research that does not use that term, but which addresses qualities that are often associated with “niceness.” Results of research are mixed and inconsistent. Herold & Milhausen conclude that “the answer to the question ‘Do nice guys finish last?’ is complicated in that it is influenced both by the measurement instruments used and by subject characteristics.”
The “nice guy” construct
One difficulty in studying the “nice guy” phenomenon is due to the ambiguity of the “nice guy” construct. Participants in studies interpret “nice guy” to mean different things. In their qualitative analysis, Herold and Milhausen found that women associate different qualities with the “nice guy” label: “Some women offered flattering interpretations of the ‘nice guy’, characterizing him as committed, caring, and respectful of women. Some women, however, emphasized more negative aspects, considering the ‘nice guy’ to be boring, lacking confidence, and unattractive.”
There is also a negative phenomenon associated with the “nice girl” in the same respect. She may be considered to be prudish, boring and overly submissive.
The “jerks” were also divided into two categories, “as either confident, attractive, sexy, and exciting or as manipulative, unfaithful, disrespectful of women, and interested only in sex.” Researchers have operationalized the “nice guy” and “jerk” constructs in different ways, some of which are outlined below.
Results of research
Various studies explicitly try to elucidate the success, or lack thereof, of “nice guys” with women.
- Jensen-Campbell et al. (1995) operationalized “niceness” as prosocial behavior, which included agreeableness and altruism. They found that female attraction was a result of an interaction of both dominance and prosocial tendency. They suggest that altruism may be attractive to women when it is perceived as a form of agentic behavior.
- Herold and Milhausen (1998) asked a sample of undergraduate women “You meet two men. One, John, is nice but somewhat shy. He has not had any sexual experience. The other, Mike, is attractive, a lot of fun, and has had intercourse with ten women. Both wish to date you. Whom do you choose?” 54% reported a preference for “John,” 18% preferred “Mike,” and the rest had no preference.
- Urbaniak and Killman (2003) constructed vignettes of four hypothetical dating show contestants: “Nice Todd” vs. “Neutral Todd” vs. “Jerk Todd” vs. “Michael,” who was created to be a control. “Nice Todd” described a “real man” as “in touch with his feelings,” kind and attentive, non-macho, and interested in putting his partner’s pleasure first. “Neutral Todd” described a “real man” as someone who “knows what he wants and knows how to get it,” and who is good to the woman he loves. “Jerk Todd” described a “real man” as someone who “knows what he wants and knows how to get it,” who keeps everyone else on their toes, and avoids “touch-feely” stuff. “Michael” described a “real man” as relaxed and positive. In two studies, Urbaniak and Kilmann found that women claimed to prefer “Nice Todd” over “Neutral” over “Jerk Todd,” relative to “Michael” even at differing levels of physical attractiveness. They also found that for purely sexual relationships, “niceness appeared relatively less influential than physical attractiveness.” After acknowledging that women’s preference for “niceness” could be inflated by the social desirability bias, especially due to their use of verbal scripts, they conclude that “our overall results did not favor the nice guy stereotype.”
- McDaniel (2005) constructed vignettes of dates with a stereotypical “nice guy” vs. a stereotypical “fun/sexy guy,” and attempted to make them both sound positive. Participants reported a greater likelihood of wanting a second date with the “nice guy” rather than with the “fun/sexy guy.”
- A study at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces (2008) showed that “nice guys” claim to have significantly fewer sexual partners than “bad boys.”
- Barclay (2010) found that when all other factors are held constant, guys who perform generous acts are rated as being more desirable for dates and long-term relationships than non-generous guys. This study used a series of matched descriptions where each male was presented in a generous or a control version which differed only whether the man tended to help others. The author suggests that niceness itself is desirable to women, but tends to be used by men who are less attractive in other domains, and this is what creates the appearance of “nice guys finish last”.
- Judge et al (2011) concluded that “Nice guys do not necessarily finish last, but they do finish a distant second in terms of earnings yet, seen from the perspective of gender equity, even the nice guys seem to be making out quite well relative to either agreeable or disagreeable women”.
These studies also cite other research on heterosexual attraction that doesn’t mention the “nice guy” term. They interpret various studies on female attraction to various traits in men (e.g. dominance, agreeableness, physical attractiveness, wealth, etc.), and on the sexual success of men with different personality traits, to shed light on the “nice guy” phenomenon.
- Sadalla, Kenrick, and Vershure (1985) found that women were sexually attracted to dominance in men (though dominance did not make men likable to women), and that dominance in women had no effect on men.
- Bogaert and Fisher (1995) studied the relationships between the personalities of university men and their number of sexual partners. They found a correlation between a man’s number of sexual partners, and the traits of sensation-seeking, hypermasculinity, physical attractiveness, and testosterone levels. They also discovered a correlation between maximum monthly number of partners, and the traits of dominance and psychoticism. Bogaert and Fisher suggest that an underlying construct labelled “disinhibition” could be used to explain most of these differences. They suggest that disinhibition would correlate negatively with “agreeableness” and “conscientiousness” from the Big Five personality model.
- Botwin, Buss and Shackelford (1997) found that women had a higher preference for surgency and dominance in their mates than men did, in a study of dating couples and newlyweds.
Other viewpoints on the “nice guy”
The terms “Nice Guy™” and “nice guy syndrome” can be used to describe men who view themselves as prototypical “nice guys,” but whose “nice deeds” are deemed motivated by manipulating women into a relationship and/or sex.
In early 2002, the website Heartless Bitches International (HBI) published several “rants” on the concept of the Nice Guy™. The central theme was that a genuinely nice male is desirable, but that many Nice Guys™ are insecure men unwilling to articulate their romantic or sexual feelings directly. Instead they choose to present themselves as their paramour’s friend, and hang around doing nice things for her in hopes that she will pick up on their desire for her. If she fails to read their secret feelings, Nice Guys™ become embittered and blame her for taking advantage of them and their niceness. The site is particularly critical of what they see as hypocrisy and manipulation on the part of self-professed Nice Guys™.
The disease to please
A condition very similar to the “nice guy syndrome” was described by Harriet Braiker in her 2001 book The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome. Like the “nice guy,” the “people-pleaser” will suppress their own needs in order to satisfy the perceived needs of others. However, while the nice guy syndrome was clearly elaborated as a men-specific problem, the “disease to please” focuses more on women who can have very similar behavior patterns.