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Yes, That Jerk Really Does Make More Than You (And Research Might Prove It)

Anyone who's harbored suspicions that only mean people seem to get ahead in the business world may be glad (or perhaps not) to learn that a new study agrees with them.

While such beliefs are often whispered in the office — and declaimed at volume during happy hour — new research quantifies just how much the nasty seem to profit by the (non-) virtue of their nastiness.

For men, the gain is around 18 percent in annual pay. Men who were rated as "highly disagreeable" on personality tests were paid an average of $9,700 more annually than men rated as "most agreeable," according to The Globe and Mail.

For women, the gain is only 5 percent — seemingly because it's not seen as a weakness for them to be pleasant. Wall Street Journalblogger Rachel Emma Silverman spoke with one of the study's authors, Beth Livingston of Cornell:

Dr. Livingston told me that more agreeable men may be penalized in the workplace because they might not be living up to longstanding expectations that men be aggressive, combative or even rude. "Nice guys are getting the shaft," she says, even in firms that claim to value teamwork. Women, meanwhile, are expected to be nice, so they aren't penalized much for being so.

The study, titled "Do Nice Guys — and Gals — Really Finish Last?" looked at data compiled from around 10,000 workers over nearly 20 years, drawing on three surveys that sampled a range of ages and professions.

The study's findings are pretty clear — but does that mean we would all do better on payday if we started mixing it up with co-workers and bosses?

Don't try it, says Charlice Hurst, another author of the study. Here's what she told The Globe and Mail's Wallace Immen:

We want to caution people that this doesn't mean that if they go in to work tomorrow and act like a jerk, it's going to be really great for their career and make them more likely to get a raise.

Instead, Hurst says, the researchers' findings should encourage people to stand up for themselves and argue on their own behalf, instead of trying to keep everyone else at work happy.

And it doesn't seem to matter what kind of job you have, either. As Hurst tells Immen, "we didn't see much difference in different age groups, races or social classes or complexity of jobs."

Of course, other criteria are more difficult for workplace studies to measure — things like job satisfaction, office friendships and workers' stress levels. And it's possible that the "highly disagreeable" among us are more willing to transfer to new departments or cities to further their careers.

"Or it could be that the higher earners are nice guys on a daily basis, but know how to negotiate more aggressively when it comes time to advocate for a better salary," Hurst tells Immen.

The study's findings will be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The research was conducted by Beth A. Livingston of Cornell University, Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario, and Timothy A. Judge of the University of Notre Dame.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.