Capital Ideas Blog

Does it pay to be nice? Only to a point

By Alice G. Walton
December 12, 2013

From: Blog


With the giving season upon us, you may be wondering how best to make an impression on those around you. Of course, generosity for the sake of generosity is the best motive, at this or any time of year. But when it comes to making impressions of another kind—say, meeting or exceeding the expectations of your boss or even your family—it can be hard to determine whether we should go beyond the call of duty, and if so, how much.  

A recent study by Chicago Booth’s Nicholas Epley and PhD student Nadav Klein set out to answer these very questions: Does it pay to exceed expectations, and if so, by how much? Do the people around us even realize when we’re going above and beyond? At the end of an elegant series of experiments, the team comes to the somewhat unexpected conclusion that, “It pays to be nice, but not to be really nice.”

In the first experiment, Epley and Klein found that people “liked” a fictitious character well enough when he gave a suggested donation to a free concert, but they didn’t like him any more when he gave double the amount. This may seem counterintuitive, but another experiment found a similar phenomenon when people were doling out portions of jellybean stashes. Although the givers thought the receivers would like them better if they gave more, this wasn’t the case at all. Receivers who were given half a jellybean stash rated givers as being just as likeable as those who received a majority of a stash.

The team thought this trend might be occurring because only one setup was presented at a time, but that things might change when multiple scenarios are compared against one another. And this is exactly what they found. When people were asked to rate fictitious donors on multiple occasions, versus just one, the perceived generosity of the donors increased right along with the amount of money they gave.  

So, it’s all relative, says Klein, and in business, knowing whether you’re being evaluated in isolation or against peers matters. For example, if you’re competing against colleagues to impress your boss, it’s wise to put in a little more effort to really exceed his or her expectations. “But if you’re the only game in town,” says Klein, “or the only employee working on a project, then it actually doesn’t matter that much.”

Of course, the other reality is that your own opinion of yourself matters, too, which is what Klein and Epley’s work will focus on next. It’s nice to be perceived well by those around you, but if you’re falling short of your own expectations, then what’s the point? Though it may not always matter to others whether you’re being merely nice or really nice, it may make a difference to the most important critic of all: Yourself.

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