Agreeableness breaks down into Compassion and Politeness.
Compassionate people are the caring, loving types. They are sympathetic towards other people’s feelings and take an active interest in their friends and families lives.
Polite people are very careful with their words. They have a deep respect for authority and hate to seem pushy or impose their will on others.
On the surface agreeableness appears to be largely good, but we need to be alert to the costs that exist at any end of any personality trait spectrum.
In this case the word costs can be taken literally. There’s a reason why assholes make more money…
Let’s start by talking about what drives agreeableness, before examining those costs and why it is you might want to practise being less agreeable.
The Maternal Link
One of the biggest differences between men and women among the Big Five personality traits is in agreeableness. Women are a fair bit higher, on average, than men.
For fear of being lynched by the social constructionists, my feeling is biology is the overwhelming factor here.
Pregnancy has, especially historically, placed women in a far more vulnerable position. Even after childbirth, an infant didn’t have access to things like formula. The baby was firmly tied to the mother.
If you hadn’t noticed, infants are quite disagreeable little bastards. What’s particularly annoying is they have every right to be. They are completely and hopelessly dependant.
As a parent you must sacrifice yourself completely.
In the modern age the man can take on that role more and more, but as a tribal hunter-gatherer there really was only one woman for the job.
But someone had to be the one to go and hunt for dinner. Someone had to to go out and negotiate on behalf of the tribe.
I believe these self-evident biological underpinnings manifest themselves in perhaps the biggest difference personality psychologists have found between men and women. The interest in things versus people.
Male dominated industries include engineering and aviation. Female dominated industries (of which there are many) include teaching, nursing and childcare.
Now, none of this is to say that social conditioning has nothing to do with the difference, but to deny the role of biology seems to me to be at the other end of ideological extreme.
Still, it would be remiss not to point that there is far more commonality – far more overlap – between men’s and women’s personalities than differences. I have quite an effeminate set of personality traits, on paper at least. That’s not uncommon.
If you picked a man and woman off the street at random 4 times out of 10 the women would less agreeable than the man. That’s not insignificant either.
But these slight trends play out prominently at the extreme ends of the spectrum.
The vast majority of extremely disagreeable people are men. Extremely low agreeableness is a high predictor of incarceration. There are 15 times as many men in prison as women.
We tend to look up at those who hold all the power and wealth, of course, but men also dominate the lowest positions in society.
Disagreeableness cuts both ways.
One theory for this – called the greater male variability hypothesis – argues men are more disposable as they are less likely to reproduce successfully.
This theory also makes sense when you consider why women are more neurotic on average. Sensitivity to negative emotion is what keeps you alive, even if it does kill your quality of life.
And that’s what an infant needs from its mother most of all: to survive.
The Sacrifice of Self
Placing the gender debate aside, collectively we are much more agreeable than our ancestors among the primates. One assumes that as we evolved we realised there was far more to be gained from sacrificing on behalf of the tribe.
Of course, the more agreeable you are the more friends you’re likely to have, the more likely those friends will repay your kindness in turn.
In this sense compassion can be thought of as a negotiating strategy. I’ll share my spoils today so that you’ll share yours tomorrow. That way none of us have to go hungry.
The benefits here are obvious.
So a far more interesting question is to ask whether you can be too compassionate or too polite? Often it depends towards whom that compassion/politeness is directed, but the answer is most definatey yes!
One pathology associated with high agreeableness is dependant personality disorder – when someone develops a child-like dependance on authority figures because their unable to establish any autonomy of their own.
In any relationship you want a partner who is similar in temperament when it comes to agreeableness, otherwise it may be a very one-sided affair.
However, two highly agreeable people need to watch out! If you avoid conflict at all costs, you end up stewing in your own resentment. It builds over time.
Ultimately a relationship without conflict is doomed.
Then there’s the tricky issue of determining how much you should sacrifice for your kids. At some point the bird has to leave the nest. The only way a kid can learn to fly is by going solo.
If you over-coddle them, or over-structure their lives, they may fail to develop the necessary autonomy to stand on their own two feet.
This is a story that’s as old as time. Like the child who fights his or her nature to please the parents.
To some extent this is a struggle we all have. Our need to meet the approval of others at the expense of our own identity.
A Competitive Edge
One way to foster mediocracy among kids is to hand out participation medals at sporting events so no-one has to feel bad.
It defeats the point. So you ask, what’s the point of competition? Well, to get what’s best. Fundamentally, we compete so that we can eat. (When you consider that most games involve hitting some kind of target, it’s quite possible that sport derived from hunting. )
But competition works in reverse. It gets the best (and worst) out of us. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Competition does drive better results but so does working as a team. So, you might conclude, the very best results come from competing as groups.
This is why I believe sports is so important, especially for children/adolescents. It teaches you to both work as a team and how to negotiate on your group’s behalf.
If it’s in your nature to sacrifice yourself for others, finding a cause or a group that you’re willing to stand and fight for is a good way to teach you to be more disagreeable.
There’s always a way to stack the personality cards in your favour.
The other thing sport teaches you is how to lose, how to “take it on the chin.” We undermine that process by doing things like handing out participation medals. But we also undermine that process by instilling a cutthroat win-at-all-costs mentality.
The most important thing isn’t winning, it’s being allowed to compete again next time. In the game of life that’s what gives you the best chance of success.
The Dark Knight
Let’s finish this post by talking about those who don’t play fair. The so-called assholes who end up ruling the world. Many of them are, of course, but to lie the blame squarely at their feet is to miss the lesson.
One of the main reasons disagreeable people make more money is because they don’t take things so personally. Of course they might not have many friends, but who cares when you live on a luxury yacht!
Jokes aside, just because someone isn’t personable doesn’t mean they’re bad. And just because someone is nice doesn’t mean they’re good.
Perhaps it’s us agreeable types that need to develop a bit more backbone?
If you ask me, the world’s isn’t short of nice people. We don’t need more fake niceness in the world. What need are more good people willing to act like assholes.
What I mean by that is a willingness to upset/be disliked by other people. (Not actually be an asshole.)
The reason we avoid that difficult conversation is because we fear upsetting the other person. That’s what we tell ourselves, at least.
But the brutal and honest truth is – the real reason we don’t want to make other people feel bad – is because that would make us feel bad.
Yet, by avoiding that difficult conversation we become less resilient. We all feel worse (and are worse off) in the long run.
And none of us are awake.
As a society it seems we’ve forgotten that being offended is actually a choice. It’s not one that should be taken lightly.
Sticks and stones remember?
Being offended has little to do with the horrible things someone else has said, but what you believe. It has to do with the expectations you’ve placed on others.
I’ll finish with this thought.
I once heard the remark that success can be measured by the number of difficult conversations one has had. In an increasingly polarised world I believe the success or failure of democracy will be measured by the same yard stick.
The way to fight the forces of evil – both within and out – is through understanding. To do that we must be willing to have the difficult conversations.
Ultimately this is what the freedom of speech was designed to both protect and promote. It’s the one thing we should all agree on.
The complete freedom to disagree.
This is part of a series on the Big Five Personality Traits. Please find other posts below:
- Why Understanding Personality Is Key
- The Big Five Personality Model
- Extraversion: The Price of Now
- Neuroticism: The Cost of Consciousness
- Conscientiousness: The Pursuit of Order
- Openness: The Gates of Mind
- The Hand We’ve Been Dealt
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