People who are generous and cooperative can get punished by others for being ‘too good’, new research finds.
Humans in all cultures can be suspicious of those who appear nicer or better than the rest.
Also, the top cooperators and nicest people make others look bad, so bringing them down a peg or two can be attractive.
That is why some of the nicest people can attract social punishment and even hatred.
The effect is even more pronounced in a competitive environment, like the workplace, the researchers found, where being shown up could have financial consequences.
Professor Pat Barclay, study co-author, said:
“Most of the time we like the cooperators, the good guys.
We like it when the bad guys get their comeuppance, and when non-cooperators are punished.
But some of the time, cooperators are the ones that get punished.
People will hate on the really good guys.
This pattern has been found in every culture in which it has been looked at.”
Even relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies demonstrate this phenomenon: the top hunters are socially targeted to stop them dominating the group.
Professor Barclay said:
“In a lot of these societies, they defend their equal status by bringing down somebody who could potentially lord things over everybody else.
You can imagine within an organization today the attitude, ‘Hey, you’re working too hard and making the rest of us look bad.’
In some organizations people are known for policing how hard others work, to make sure no one is raising the bar from what is expected.”
The results come from a study in which people played a cooperation game.
The top cooperators got ‘punished’ the most to avoid making the others look bad, the scientists found.
Professor Barclay thinks the punishment of cooperators may hinder people in protecting the environment or changing the status quo:
“It is a way of bringing those people back down, and stopping them from looking better than oneself in their attempts to protect the environment or address social inequality.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Pleasant & Barclay, 2018).