Agreeableness: The Sacrifice of Self

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. 

Disposable Men

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. 

It’s worth noting that sex differences in personality have been shown to be larger in more gender equal countries.

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

Disagreeableness correlates strongly with competitiveness.

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:


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19 thoughts on “Agreeableness: The Sacrifice of Self

  1. I love women, I have an adult daughter that impresses me every day. The idea that men and women share anything but basic life function is lunacy. I couldn’t be more different and confused by my daughter. I’m pretty sure it’s mutual too. She likes being a girl though so I’m very happy to be a boring family.

    1. I have two young boys. I’ve not tried to influence them in anyway whatsoever, but they are obsessed with all things vehicle/car related. They have plenty of stuffed toys they show zero interest in. I don’t believe that’s down to conditioning. I have a neighbour with a young daughter who was obsessed with our youngest when he was first born. It was quite striking because I hadn’t seen any interest like that in my eldest son who was about the same age. Thank you for sharing 🙏

  2. Love this post; succinct and smartly written. I had to laugh at “When you consider that most games involve hitting ‘someone’…kind of target.” For some folks, I alternate between wanting to love with the love of the Lord and hugging them so hard they meet Him face to face. I don’t know who pulled the plug and drained the masses of good ‘ole common sense but I’d like to hug them. Hard. Thanks for the post, gonna have to share.

    1. You caught my glaring typo there! There’s always one 😂. Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for the share 🙏😊

  3. You’re ‘fake nice’ comment reminded me of these “Be Nice” signs I’ve been seeing around. It was as if I was listening to my thoughts and hearing your prose before reading it. Does this make me too agreeable? Thank you AP2.

    1. I’m moderately high in agreeableness. It’s not a bad thing to be high in agreeableness, just something to be aware of. Sometimes we need to show some teeth/not be so naive. Bad people like take advantage of nice. I’m glad my thoughts resonated. Thank you for sharing Ari Joshua 🙏

      1. So true. As am I. Some people should fake it till they make it with both agreeableness and being nice because they are low on the spectrum in that area. But as someone who has suffered from the disease to please and finding a middle way between being easygoing, conflict avoidant and oppositional- it is important for us to assert our personal authority so that we keep our power and don’t give it up to predators.

      2. Aye – It’s important to recognise where you strengths and weakness lie wherever you sit on the spectrum. Play to your strengths but work on your weaknesses. We need to do both.

      3. Right on. We all have blind spots that we should examine. Otherwise, they fall on deaf ears and remain unseen optical illusions, if you’ll pardon the pun.

  4. “the other end of ideological extreme” Yet total denial of biology’s roll in personality seems to be the accepted dogma of most of academia as well as the various identity movements.

    1. It’s gone too far in my eyes. It’s worth pointing out that you can’t simultaneously believe that gender is a social construct and that a man can be trapped in women’s body (or vice versa).

      1. The problem with identity politics is that one’s identity comes to replace one’s fundamental humanity. Where are no white rights or black rights or women’s rights or gay rights or trans rights. There are only human rights and trying to subdivide them only hurts everyone.

      2. Agreed. That’s the point of equality: equal treatment/opportunities. I worry about the perceived need to force equal outcomes – which is a very different thing. Thanks for adding your thoughts Fred 🙏

  5. This is brilliantly written with each aspect and argument thoughtfully expressed. Makes one think how much we fool ourselves on a day-to-day basis. If only living and behaving could be done naturally without the need to please, deceive, and reassess. The politics of life are messy, hurtful, and forever changing. The deeper we go, the more we may realize, it’s not a pretty picture. That’s the threshold of acceptance – cross at your own risk. Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

    1. It’s easy to forget that we evolved in a very different world to the one we inhabit today. The big danger I see is in trying to force equal outcomes. It’s very different to providing equal opportunities. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Terveen. I hope you’re doing well 🙏🙂

  6. This is very good. Jordan Peterson is very astute in his insights. I think this was part of his lecture series at Oxford.

    1. Yes, it’s his personality course I took. I decided to put this series of posts together to consolidate my learning/go a bit deeper. Dr Peterson has probably done more to change my thinking than almost anyone. Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙏

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