Are Nice People More Likely to Hurt You?

Unhappy young woman holds her head in agonyCommon sense suggests that mean-spirited or aggressive people are more likely to hurt others. Results from a new study examining the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who told them to harm another person suggest that it could actually be nice people who are more likely to follow unethical orders.

The Classic Milgram Experiment

The new study was based on one of the best-known psychological studies, the Milgram experiment. Stanley Milgram devised the experiment to study obedience to authority in order to gain a better understanding of why so many German officers willingly carried out Nazi atrocities. Research subjects were told that they were participating in an experiment about learning. They instructed a “learner” on a specific topic and were told to shock the learner if he or she got a question wrong. An electric shock dial clearly noted that the shock would cause immense pain and, if the dial were turned up all the way, could result in death.

Subjects occasionally hesitated about shocking the learner, but researchers goaded them into continuing with the experiment by administering the shock. Despite hearing fake screams and pleas for mercy, the majority of subjects were willing to administer the highest possible shock. The study is widely interpreted as evidence that many—and perhaps even most—people will inflict harm on others if an authority figure tells them to do so. 

A New Milgram Experiment

Contemporary researchers wanted to know whether Milgram’s results would still hold true and how personality might affect a subject’s willingness to shock another person. They recruited 66 subjects and gathered information about the subjects’ personalities and political viewpoints. They repeated the Milgram experiment, and a significant portion of the participants were yet again willing to shock a stranger.

Researchers reviewed personality data and concluded that people viewed as nice, agreeable, or conscientious were more likely to shock a stranger. A right-leaning political orientation also increased their willingness to obey authority figures. Conversely, contrarians and people with left-leaning political sensibilities were more likely to object to the experiment and refuse to shock another person.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that nice people are more violent, though. Instead, it suggests that they’re more willing to defer to authority—a trait that, in some historical circumstances, has led people to turn a blind eye to atrocities, or even to commit atrocities of their own. 

References:

  1. Bègue, L., Beauvois, J.-L., Courbet, D., Oberlé, D., Lepage, J. and Duke, A. A. (2014, June 24). Personality Predicts Obedience in a Milgram Paradigm. Journal of Personality. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12104
  2. Encina, G. B. (2014). Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority. The Regents of the University of California. Retrieved from http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/ucce50/ag-labor/7article/article35.htm
  3. Weller, C. (2014, July 1). Polite People Aren’t More Violent, They’re Just More Passive: Finding the Situational Thinker in Us All. Retrieved from http://www.medicaldaily.com/polite-people-arent-more-violent-theyre-just-more-passive-finding-situational-thinker-us-all-290872

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  • gilly

    gilly

    July 9th, 2014 at 10:35 AM

    Great question!
    maybe these are the people who are more likely to follow orders because they don’t wish to go against anyone else? But why they would choose to do that when they know this will only hurt other people? Kind of confusing. Another thing that I thought about is that maybe you only think that it is nice people being more vindictive because you have come to expect more of them so even when they do something that is against the norm of how you would usually see them seems to hurt a little more because it is coming from someone whom you wouldn’t expect to do that.

  • Samuel A.

    Samuel A.

    July 9th, 2014 at 3:37 PM

    You have to kind of wonder what they thought that they would get out of this… was it the approval of another that made it so much more compelling to complete the experiment? Or was there something deeper, like they have been denying their true selves by being so nice all the time and they see this as an outlet to pent up anger or frustration that they could be feeling. It really is quite problematic because it goes against what we have thought about nice people and that they would never do anything to intentionally hurt us but apparently this is way off base in many cases.

  • Jo

    Jo

    July 10th, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    Kind of scary when you think about just how easily we could all potentially be manipulated

  • Georgia

    Georgia

    July 11th, 2014 at 2:33 PM

    The German country is the perfect example of this. And you would hope that we would all learn from the mistakes of the past but it seems to be happening today in the Middle East, where there are so many people willing to blindly follow these “leaders” who are no more than fanatics with tunnel vision and look at the lives being lost. I know that it isn’t everyone who lives there and there are more who are mortified by these actions, but you see a few people become willing to do that and it is frightening at just how many others may begin to follow along too.

  • Meg

    Meg

    July 12th, 2014 at 7:46 AM

    Not sure if they are more likely to hurt you, but it sure does seem to hurt a whole lot more when they do.

  • Glynnis

    Glynnis

    July 14th, 2014 at 11:29 AM

    So all this time I have been confusing people who are nice with those who are actually more gullible and more likely to follow the lead of what others have to say, willing to go against their niceness to please someone else? I am not willing to be that negative, would love to have a better understanding of the sample group and how they could have been affected buy other extraneous things that could cause this type of diversion.

  • Anon

    Anon

    July 18th, 2014 at 6:47 AM

    Can’t help but think of nice people with strong religious beliefs here. Strong religious beliefs that override their more tender feelings of compassion toward another – their own child, for example. Their need for compliance from that child, need to “teach” that child, need to make sure that child grows-up “correctly” and pleases God and stays out of hell – all due to their conditioned compliance to the authority of their religious community. Scary. Very scary stuff.

  • Kathy L

    Kathy L

    February 23rd, 2015 at 7:58 AM

    ummmm….seems it got off topic and stayed off topic. It would be interesting to hear responses to the original question. And then to consider why the responses jumped to this other track. ???

  • Christy

    Christy

    March 2nd, 2015 at 11:30 AM

    It is not surprising that people who were more conservative and more religious were also more likely to follow the instructions to harm others. To be conservative and/or active in any religion, one must be trained to defer his own instincts and personal opinions to the will of a higher-placed authority. They are trained to second-guess their own minds and wait for someone who is presumed to know more to tell them what to think and how to act.

    Both the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment are controversial not just because of arguably unethical methods, but because they revealed something about human nature that 99% of the human race did not want to believe. It’s much easier to point outward and blame something like Satan or insanity than it is to look inwards and see the darkness to which humans are capable of succumbing.

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