Leadership Oct 31, 2011

Nice Guys Fin­ish Last

Altru­ism may be reward­ed with pres­tige, but sel­dom with leadership

Based on the research of

Nir Halevy

Eileen Chou

Taya Cohen

Robert W. Livingston

Listening: Interview with Robert Livingston


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Altru­ism is a key com­po­nent of a func­tion­ing soci­ety, but it is con­stant­ly in dan­ger of being exploit­ed. Self­ish peo­ple can eas­i­ly live off the kind­ness of oth­ers and, in doing so, harm the group by siphon­ing valu­able resources. Social sci­en­tists have long sought a rea­son­able expla­na­tion for why altru­ism exists. One wide­ly accept­ed assump­tion is that groups rec­og­nize altru­is­tic con­tri­bu­tions by con­fer­ring sta­tus on the gen­er­ous per­son, whether that be through high­er social rank, recog­ni­tion, or sim­ply respect. Yet this the­o­ry is not per­fect, as it fails to explain why lead­ers who behave self­ish­ly make it into power.

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Robert Liv­ingston, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment, and co-authors Nir Halevy, an act­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty, Eileen Chou, a lec­tur­er at the Kel­logg School, and Taya Cohen, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at Carnegie Mel­lon Uni­ver­si­ty, are the lat­est to weigh in on the debate about the role of altru­is­tic behav­ior in human soci­ety and its ori­gins. Altru­ism, they argue, may be ben­e­fi­cial or detri­men­tal to a person’s social sta­tus, depend­ing on how it is defined. It can also serve as a bar­ri­er on the path to leadership.

The orig­i­nal hypoth­e­sis — that altru­ism leads to high­er sta­tus — is based on an over­ly broad def­i­n­i­tion of sta­tus. Sta­tus can be bro­ken down into two com­po­nent parts, dom­i­nance and pres­tige, Liv­ingston and his col­leagues argue. Both refer to a person’s rank and posi­tion with­in a group, and both can lead to social influ­ence and pow­er — but the sim­i­lar­i­ties end there. Dom­i­nance,” Liv­ingston says, involves the use of intim­i­da­tion and coer­cion to attain a social sta­tus based large­ly on the effec­tive induc­tion of fear.” Pres­tige, on the oth­er hand, is often based on altru­is­tic achieve­ments or hav­ing a sound char­ac­ter, or even just being a great per­son,” he adds. More impor­tant­ly, pres­tige is freely con­ferred by oth­ers, not imposed on others.”

Liv­ingston cites Al Capone and the Dalai Lama as two real-world exam­ples that illus­trate the two sides of sta­tus. Al Capone gar­nered respect, but only because peo­ple tend­ed to wind up dead if they crossed him. The Dalai Lama is the oppo­site. Respect­ed for his teach­ings on non­vi­o­lence and views on democ­ra­cy and reli­gious har­mo­ny, he receives freely con­ferred admi­ra­tion and def­er­ence,” Liv­ingston points out.

Rat­ing Dom­i­nance and Pres­tige

Curi­ous about how altru­ism might affect the two sides of sta­tus, Liv­ingston and his col­leagues con­duct­ed three sep­a­rate stud­ies. Par­tic­i­pants were divid­ed into four-per­son groups and were giv­en ten game chips worth a total of $20, which they could allo­cate how­ev­er they chose, includ­ing keep­ing the chips to them­selves. The dif­fer­ent exper­i­ments var­ied the lev­el of con­tri­bu­tion as well as whether con­tri­bu­tions helped an individual’s group, helped an individual’s group and a sep­a­rate group, or helped the individual’s group but hurt the oth­er group.

In each study, par­tic­i­pants were asked to rate their fel­low group mem­bers on dom­i­nance and pres­tige. In the sec­ond and third stud­ies, they were also asked what type of per­son they would like to lead them in a with­in-group task or a com­pet­i­tive inter­group task.

In the first exper­i­ment, self­ish par­tic­i­pants — free-rid­ers who kept all of the chips and con­tributed noth­ing to the group — were rat­ed low­er in pres­tige but high­er in dom­i­nance than par­tic­i­pants who con­tributed to the group. In sub­se­quent stud­ies, par­tic­i­pants who harmed anoth­er group were also rat­ed high­er in dom­i­nance than peo­ple who con­tributed to their own group with­out harm­ing out­siders. Final­ly, the most gen­er­ous indi­vid­u­als — those who con­tributed to ben­e­fit both their group and out­siders — were rat­ed low­est in both dom­i­nance and pres­tige. In sum, indi­vid­u­als were seen as more dom­i­nant if they were self­ish and dis­crim­i­nat­ed in favor of their own group at the expense of others.

Altru­ism is a dou­ble-edged sword.” — Livingston

When it came time to select lead­ers, dom­i­nance and pres­tige played dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent roles, depend­ing on the type of lead­er­ship that was required. In instances where there was no inter­group com­pe­ti­tion, peo­ple pre­ferred indi­vid­u­als with more pres­tige. But when groups had to com­pete against each oth­er, dom­i­nant indi­vid­u­als rose to the top while benev­o­lent peo­ple were least like­ly to be elected.

Many — if not most — social con­texts involve more than one group and are inher­ent­ly com­pet­i­tive, Liv­ingston notes. This may give self­ish or dom­i­nant peo­ple an advan­tage in these cir­cum­stances and could be one source of cor­rup­tion in gov­ern­ments and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions. Pri­or the­o­ry and research has argued that pow­er cor­rupts, but what our data sug­gest is that peo­ple may be favor­ing indi­vid­u­als with a high­er propen­si­ty for cor­rup­tion,” he says. Lead­er­ship con­texts are not invari­ably about com­pet­i­tive strat­e­gy. Lead­ers also bal­ance bud­gets and make deci­sions that affect one’s own group alone. By def­i­n­i­tion, gen­er­ous and benev­o­lent peo­ple are more like­ly to behave fair­ly, and are less like­ly than self­ish and dom­i­nant peo­ple to oppress and exploit others.”

A Dou­ble-edged Sword

Do nice guys fin­ish last?” Liv­ingston rumi­nates. In com­pet­i­tive con­texts, the answer is often yes. The rea­son that they fin­ish last is because being nice, con­tribut­ing cost­ly resources to the group, acts of gen­eros­i­ty — these all increase your pres­tige. Oth­er peo­ple admire you and say, Oh, that’s real­ly great. This is a kind per­son who’s doing all these won­der­ful things.’ But it decreas­es your dom­i­nance. It makes you look not so tough.”

Altru­ism is a dou­ble-edged sword,” he says. On the one hand, gen­er­ous indi­vid­u­als are admired for their kind­ness, com­pas­sion, and will­ing­ness to help. On the oth­er hand, they may be per­ceived as fee­ble bleed­ing hearts’ who lack the guts to make tough deci­sions that might advance the goals of the organization.”

Tak­en at face val­ue, the study’s results paint a pret­ty dim pic­ture of our lead­ers. But things are not as bleak as they sug­gest. While dom­i­nance may be a defin­ing trait of many lead­ers, peo­ple do pay atten­tion to pres­tige as well. Pres­tige and dom­i­nance are not mutu­al­ly exclu­sive,” Liv­ingston says.

If you’re too soft — no mat­ter how com­pe­tent and able you are — peo­ple may not respect your author­i­ty. But if you only have dom­i­nance and you don’t have great ideas, and you use force to stay in pow­er, then peo­ple will resent you,” he con­cludes. Being suc­cess­ful as a leader requires one to have both dom­i­nance and prestige.”

Relat­ed read­ing on Kel­logg Insight

The Ted­dy Bear Effect: Does a baby­face ben­e­fit black CEOs?

Get Over Your­self: Why we think we’re forces to be reck­oned with

Stack­ing the Deck Against Racism: A psy­cho­log­i­cal expla­na­tion for impartiality

Featured Faculty

Robert W. Livingston

Member of the Department of Management & Organizations faculty until 2013

About the Writer

Tim De Chant was science writer and editor of Kellogg Insight between 2009 and 2012.

About the Research

Halevy Nir, Eileen Y. Chou, Taya R. Cohen, Robert W. Livingston. 2012. Status conferral In intergroup social dilemmas: Behavioral antecedents and consequences of prestige and dominance, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102(2): 351-366. .

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