12/19/2011 07:05 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2012

Nice Guys Finish Last -- Or Do They?

Recently I received an email from a friend with the attention-grabbing subject line: When I hear a gal call a guy "sweet" I wanna puke. Let's just say that my friend and I don't always see eye to eye. Speaking for myself, I wish more men were sweet -- not sickly sweet, mind you, but sweet as in sensitive, empathetic, considerate, kindhearted, peace-loving.

Still I was intrigued to find out what had elicited this urge to puke in my buddy. So I opened his email in which there was an article titled provocatively: Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

The aphorism "Nice guys finish last," is attributed to Leo Durocher, the feisty manager of the old Brooklyn Dodgers. Durocher was talking about the Dodger's subway rivalry back in the middle of the twentieth century with that other hometown team, the New York Giants, but his words have since taken on a larger significance. They have come to mean that you just go out there and get your own, whoever and whatever you have to trample on along the way.

This, of course, is the reigning ideology in large sections of corporate America. You will find it being played out daily on Wall Street, in political campaigns, not to mention in the halls of the U.S. Congress. Some notable recent avatars of this creed are a screaming Steve Jobs, the Strangelovian malevolence of a Dick Cheney, the full frontal narcissism of Donald Trump, and the sociopathic greed of just about everybody who is anybody in the financial sector. None of these icons of American success could be accused of being "nice guys"

But does it follow that nice guys finish last? This is a hot topic for sociologists nowadays. So I did a quick survey of the research which is out there to find out whether this bleak assessment of human nature is really accurate.

On the sexual front, some cite data to support the claim that men who are accommodating, tend to avoid conflict, give emotional support, are empathetic and generally treat woman with respect have fewer sexual partners during the course of their lives than "bad boys" who are callously self-seeking, manipulative and aggressive. In a 2003 study by sociologists Urbaniak and Kilmann, the researchers summarize the commonly held belief 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."

But is this stereotype true? Another study by Herold and Milhausen concluded that, while woman do tend to choose men who are macho and domineering for one night stands and brief affairs, they look for kinder, gentler mates to settle down with and rear their families. So, while nice guys may lag behind at the beginning of the race, they are like the slow, but steady tortoise who ends up beating his cockier, but less stable competitors to the finish line.

What about in the world of work -- who wins the race for dollars and jobs? This was the theme of the post which my friend had emailed me. It reported on a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which the researchers concluded that people who characterized themselves as being "agreeable," and who valued character traits like modesty, altruism, tender-mindedness and straight-forwardness earned an average of $7,000 less than their more combative colleagues.

Interestingly, the wage differential was far less for agreeable woman who earned only $1,100 less than their disagreeable female counterparts, reflecting no doubt the stigma attached to aggressiveness and unbridled ambition in women, traits that are applauded and considered indispensable for males in the world of business.

I have to admit, I find these results depressing. A civilization which values -- and indeed consistently rewards -- aggression and reckless self-seeking rather than team work, ethical conduct, conciliation and compassion will end up despoiling the earth for short term profit, going to war for oil and economic dominance, creating an obscenely rich 1 percent at the expense of an increasingly impoverished 99 percent -- and, perhaps worst of all, it will produce unprecedented levels of human misery and spiritual unfulfillment.

Researchers point to rising levels of incivility and rudeness in the workplace, often perpetrated by bosses and managers. In a study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Meredith Ferguson writes that:

"Employees who experience such incivility at work bring home the stress, negative emotion and perceived ostracism that results from those experiences, which then affects more than their family life -- it also creates problems for the partner's life at work."

And it isn't just the employees who suffer. The bosses themselves, who are compelled by corporate avarice to achieve ever-higher levels of profit, push others around in ways that are ultimately not healthy for their own peace of mind and self esteem. Everyone loses when the singleminded obsession for the bottom line trumps all other human needs.

So, while it does appear to be true that not-nice-guys may be successful, at least in the short term, it would be a stretch to call them "winners." They are not winners, they are just pointlessly successful "losers."

But there are winners in my experience. They are not necessarily the ones with the biggest pay checks and the most exalted positions on the corporate anthill. They are also not always the ones with the largest number of sexual triumphs notched upon their belts. They are the nice guys (and gals) who may possibly earn a little less, have fewer sexual adventures, hold marginally less prestigious positions in the world of work, but who have managed to maintain a semblance of their humanity in a world on steroids.

They may be on the top of the heap in strictly material terms, but they have a far better chance of finding a love that lasts, experiencing joy and contentment in their lives, living at peace with themselves, and sleeping soundly at night. That is why I'd argue that -- in everything that truly matters -- nice guys finish first.