Q: OK Doc, I saw that you write about men and women so maybe you can help. I’m a 19-year-old guy. I’m in college, working part-time, doing what I’m supposed to do. Last week, this girl said she didn’t want to date me and we should just be friends. She said I’m “too nice.” I get that a lot. Every girl I know seems to go after douchebags and macho idiots. They ignore nice guys like me. Why do women act like that? – Matt
Gentility is a serious quandary for the modern Western male. Society tells us to be sweet or else face the wrath of sensitivity trainers. Unfortunately, the sensitive man often sleeps alone. But before we blame society or criticize women, let’s look at our own male behavior and see if we can identify what might be driving women away from nice guys like you.
Last year, when I asked men what frustrates them about women (among other questions) they were forthcoming on the topic of bad boys. There were several comments like this:
“I often see nice, attractive women choosing boyfriends who treat them badly, and then they complain about men. There seems to be a mismatch between what women are attracted to and what would actually make them happy.”
Others aired the age-old complaint that young women seem blind to good male traits, opting instead for flashy jerks:
“All men have the same experience as teenagers: the really hot girls always end up in the arms of the bullies, jocks, and other guys who are typically losers in adult life.”
According to at least one study, there is truth to the old trope that nice guys finish last. Urbaniak and Kilmann (2006) found that agreeableness actually works against men in most relationship scenarios. According to their research, women are attracted to men of lower agreeableness for casual flings, preferring physical attractiveness instead. Even when women are seeking a long-term mate, agreeableness doesn’t add to a man’s chances of finding a wife. It may actually work against him.
You may have noticed that the researchers weren’t examinine “nice” guys, but “agreeable” guys. Agreeableness is one of the big five personality traits that serve as well-defined, commonly-accepted constructs that researchers can easily measure. (The others are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and neuroticism.) A person who scores high in agreeableness is trusting, straightforward, altruistic, compliant, and tender-minded (Costa and McCrea, 1992). Women might not appreciate those qualities in a potential mate. In fact, they may find them downright unappealing.
Psychologists don’t know a great deal about how men and women choose long-term partners, but we do know a bit about how people narrow the field. When we scan potential mates at the soda fountain, or the grange dance, or whatever you kids do these days, we make snap judgements about who would make a good partner. We measure a few surface characteristics based on behavior and appearance, and anyone who doesn’t clear that first hurdle will find it hard to win our affection. (I’m sure this is nothing new to you. Overcoming the first cut in the draft picks of love is fodder for any number of Hugh Grant movies.)
In a classic study on the subject, Buss and Barnes (1986) found that physical attractiveness is one of the first things men look for in women. Women, in contrast, seek out men who have good earning capacity. Of course those aren’t the only considerations. Both genders reported a need for qualities like kindness, understanding, and intelligence. We are all nuanced thinkers with sophisticated desires, yada, yada.
Apologetic qualifications aside, good earning capacity is much more important to women than it is to men. But that is not a reflection of feminine shallowness. Quite the contrary, I think.
Buss and Barnes didn’t say so, but I believe that good earning capacity is a proxy for larger character traits that our female ancestors would have found attractive and necessary. Though it’s not so true today, women long ago would have needed a man who could provide safety, provisions, and social standing. She would have wanted the kind of stand-up Cro-Magnon who was willing to help slay a large, dangerous animal, and then be assertive enough to claim his share for the family.
Today, a man with good earning capacity is likely to be a man whose character is forceful enough to thrive in a competitive social environment. In fact, men who are highly agreeable make less money and are less frequently considered for advancement than men of low agreeableness (Judge, Livingston, and Hurst, 2012).
That doesn’t mean that the low-agreeable man is a disagreeable jerk. People who score low in agreeableness can be perfectly thoughtful and amicable; they just don’t allow themselves to be run over. They’re willing to stand up for what’s important. Good earning capacity, I think, is a reflection of that trait.
Let’s get back to your question, Matt. If women frequently reject you because you are “too nice,” I wonder if you are displaying an overly compromising nature that suggests you may be unwilling to fight for what’s important – including your own interests and the interests of those you love. That would have been repellent to our female ancestors, and it’s easy to imagine that women today have inherited some measure of that sensibility.
I think it’s us men, not women, who create the false dilemma: either I can be nice and I’ll be lonely, or I can be a jerk and the ladies will dig me. That dichotomous thinking showed up in survey comments like these:
“Women say they want a nice guy but they always go for the a**hole.”
“If more women would take a chance with a nice guy, the world would be a happier place indeed.”
It’s understandable that men think they must pick a side, naughty or nice. People tend to see the world in black and white, and it’s human nature to overlook the third option. But maybe the third option is your salvation, Matt. Maybe you can strike a balance between sensitivity and assertiveness. In fact, one woman who answered my survey asked men to do precisely that:
“Men who are strong and ambitious are frequently arrogant and sexist. They certainly don’t want to deal with the emotional terrain of a relationship. On the other hand, nice guys complain that they never get ahead, but they rarely ask for what they want. Sensitivity and guts [in men] seem to be mutually exclusive.”
Clearly she appreciates a nice, assertive guy. So here’s my dating advice, Matt: be thoughtful and compassionate; be a good man and a good listener; be great at changing tires and opening doors. Just don’t be a submissive wimp. It’s not good for you or the people you love. Instead, be a nice, assertive guy who’s willing to stand up for what’s important.
Buss, D.M., and M. Barnes. 1986. “Preferences in Human Mate Selection.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50: 559-570.
Costa, P. T., and R.R. McCrae. 1992. The NEO PI-R Professional Manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
Judge, T.A., B.A. Livingston, and C. Hurst. 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: 390-407.
Urbaniak, G.C., and P.R. Kilmann. 2006. “Niceness and Dating Success: A Further Test of the Nice Guy Stereotype.” Sex Roles 55: 209-224.