How it’s possible to be too nice

Posted in news by jenapincott on October 24, 2009

A few weeks ago, my friend G. went out on a date with a man she met online. She had liked the guys’s profile: mid-thirties, lawyer, yogi, middle child (like herself), vegetarian. He was cute, too, with green eyes and a boyish grin. In his profile photo he included a shot of himself hugging his niece. And when G. met him, he hugged her, too — a great bear hug. He held the door open for her when they went to the restaurant and picked up the check at the end of the meal. All this she liked, but she said certain things about him annoyed her. When pressed, she said sheepishly: “I know this sounds weird, but he was just too nice.”

G.’s date not only opened doors for her, but also for the women behind her. He struck up conversation with the people at the next table and helped them get the waitress’s attention. Strolling together in the park after dinner, she caught him smiling at people who passed.

That’s odd, I thought. Studies show that kindness is one of the top qualities that men and women seek in a partner. But then I found a new study by University of Santa Barbara evolutionary psychologists Aaron Lukaszewskia and James Roney that offers a little more nuance.

Yes, the psychologists found: people prefer partners who are kind, altruistic, and trustworthy. In fact, people desire as kind a mate as possible. But what most studies fail to take into account is to whom the kindness is directed. Most people agree that prospective partners must be kind and generous with their companions, friends, and family. But what about people in the larger social context?

Lukaszewskia and Roney embarked on their investigation by asking nearly 60 women and more than 70 men to rate various personality traits in their ideal partner: kindness, trustworthiness, and dominance. Do you want your ideal partner to be less, equal, or more (kind, trustworthy, dominant) than the average man/woman? Do you want you partner to be less, equal or more (kind, trustworthy, dominant) than the average with other men or other women?

Here are the results:

Both sexes preferred very high levels of kindness and trustworthiness only when considering behaviors directed toward self or close friends and family, and much lower levels of these traits when considering behaviors directed toward other classes of individuals. In fact, people may actively prefer that their partners not be too kind or too trustworthy toward people who are not companions, friends, or family.

My friend G. hated it when her date expressed as much kindness with strangers as with her. A turn-off, she said. Men apparently don’t like it either. Nice guys and gals appear to finish last when they’re too nice to everyone.

Women preferred higher levels of dominance when considering behaviors directed toward other men than when considering behaviors directed toward self. Although not predicted in advance, men’s dominance preferences showed the same pattern as women’s preferences, with higher levels of dominance preferred when considering behaviors directed toward other women than when considering behaviors directed toward self.

Curiously, many studies suggest that women value kindness over dominance in long-term relationships, but this only applies to their partner’s dominance in a broader social context. Men also prefer women who are dominant among other women (but not dominant in the context of the relationship). As an interesting side note, the evolutionary psychologists suggest that men in ancestral environments may have benefited from having partners who were dominant within female status hierarchies (offspring more likely to survive).

Going on what G. told me about her date, I suspect there’s another explanation for why excessive kindness to others can be a turn-off in a partner. We all want to feel special, sought out. As other studies I’ve described in BLONDES have shown, homing in on one person and making that one person feel unique and exemplary is key. G.’s date may have been an extremely nice guy, but he didn’t make her feel special. Who knows how he’d be as a boyfriend — would his eye wander?

He who loves all may not love one. It’s as George Orwell said: “Love means nothing if it does not mean loving one person more than others.”

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