The road to Hell really is paved with good intentions

Nice People Are More Likely to Follow Orders that Hurt Others
[Via Big Think]

A new psychology study published this month in the Journal of Personality has revealed a dark truth about the nicest and friendliest people in our society — they are probably more capable of doing the most horrific things if ordered to.


The title of the paper tells all: Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm.

Communities of nice people can be made to do awful things. If everyone is nice, no one will be impolite enough to tell the community it is doing wrong.

We all need to find ways to value the rude, contrarian and disagreeable people in our communities. They may be the ones who prevent the community from doing great harm.

Nice people are usually the ones that follow the social norms best. They get along with everyone because they follow the rules. That is why they are seen as nice. No disruptive behavior for them.

It is easy to be seen as agreeable if you never question others or their behavior. 

As the researchers state:

Those who are described as ‘agreeable, conscientious personalities’ are more likely to follow orders and deliver electric shocks that they believe can harm innocent people, while more contrarian, less agreeable personalities are more likely to refuse to hurt others.

It is easy to be seen as disagreeable if you question others or  their behavior.

Amazingly, those who are seen as less agreeable  are less likely to harm others. They dug their heels in and refused to submit to authority or social norms.

I expect part of the reason they are seen as less agreeable is that they are rude enough to shirk social norms, the same social norms the agreeable people follow so storngly.

A community with only nice people can suffer from epistemic closure,where all those nice people can be made to do really awful things

Because they do not want to appear rude and thus be less likable by telling everyone else they are doing something harmful. It will never realize that the Emperor has no clothes.

It may be that rude people are the most important ones in a community, needed to keep it on an ethical path.

Yet they are often the ones cast out first, because they are so ‘rude.’

If this research holds up, it would suggest that trying to create a community where everyone is nice and no one is rude could well produce a community capable of doing great harm.

So value and support a few disagreeable people in your organization – the ones that upset some people – in order to have a well-balanced community that will not do something harmful or stupid.

Try to determine why they are disagreeing and engage with that, rather than dismiss them because they act contrary to social norms.

Some rude people are purely disruptive and disrespectful because the attention makes them feel important. But many are actually trying to help the group see where the danger lies, to prevent the group from doing harm.

It takes more work to deal with disagreeable people – it is part of what makes them disagreeable – but they may be critical for the community’s success.

Value those committed yet disagreeable people. They will help the community best in the long run.

Image: Paul Downey