Are People Nicer When They Are Exposed to Nasty Behavior?

According to a recent study led by Andrew Edward White of the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University, the more people experience unkind and threatening behavior, the nicer they are to those around them. This is in direct contrast to the belief that being the victim of violence and aggression leads to violent or aggressive behavior. Research in this area has shown that individuals exposed to threatening situations react differently to different people. For instance, some people tend to become withdrawn when they experience violence or threats. Others respond with anger and aggression.

To better understand the nature of this relationship both broadly and intimately, White and his colleagues assessed the effect of violent threats on three separate levels: situational, individual, and national. The participants were exposed to scenarios that involved increasing levels of threat relating to each dynamic. Accordingly, their levels of trust, helpfulness, and agreeableness were measured. White found that as the threats of violence increased on national, individual, and situational levels, the rates of agreeableness increased. However, in most instances, this agreeableness was only exhibited to members of the group. For instance, when individual threats increased, participants were more trusting and helpful to those within their group than the control participants were, but were less agreeable to those outside of their group. This was especially true for those participants from large families.

Taken as a whole, the results of these experiments demonstrate the varying ways in which people respond to threatening situations, whether they are violent threats, health threats, or threats relating to national safety and security. One of the reasons the participants were more compliant with group members than nongroup members could be due to the resilient and buffering effects provided by intimate group members compared to the unknown outcome of nonfamiliar group relations. White believes that the results of this study illuminate the multidimensional consequences of violent and threatening behavior. “Although disagreeableness and mistrust may often seem to arise from violence, it is not always the case,” said White. “Sometimes nasty breeds nice.”

White, A. E., Kenrick, D. T., Li, Y. J., Mortensen, C. R., Neuberg, S. L., Cohen, A. B. (2012). When nasty breeds nice: Threats of violence amplify agreeableness at national, individual, and situational levels. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029140

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  • Nancy Cartwright

    Nancy Cartwright

    August 2nd, 2012 at 4:29 PM

    I am a teacher and have often thought of what would happen if violence intruded my workplace. Although one never really knows what one’s reaction will be until placed in the situation, I have always thought my immediate reaction would be to circle the wagons and protect the children from the violence. What I hadn’t considered was the effect the violence would have on the children. Would my reaction dictate what their experience of the violence would be? I believe the findings from this study would indicate that the children would learn that a possible response to violence would be to protect the weak. That is a much more reassuring conclusion than believing they would learn more from the perpetrator than they would from the people they trust.

  • James


    August 2nd, 2012 at 6:59 PM

    I agree with Nancy in that I think that it would be that people learn more how to protect their own weaknesses and others that are weak. I would find it dubious to find that people that are around violence tend to be less violent and maybe even “Nicer”…

  • Silver Sledge

    Silver Sledge

    August 2nd, 2012 at 10:43 PM

    Well some people have a confrontational attitude while some others have one of agreement.These are people not looking to escalate violence or threats but are content with dealing with it peacefully.

    A lot of things can shape this if you ask me. The individual mental strength as well as physical strength(in some situations) can come into play. Imagine you have two men trying to mug you when you are alone in a park or something. Would you flee or stand up against them?Or maybe even reach a compromise by handing over your wallet?Mental strength and physical strength will dictate your decision.

  • Austin Regna

    Austin Regna

    August 3rd, 2012 at 5:01 AM

    Nancy, I think you are giving yourself a little too much credit. I’m not sure children would be effected as you think they would from your heroic actions. While I think your actions would define their perception of you, I’m not sure it would impact the effect the violence would have on them. Children who experience this sort of violence you are indicated would most certainly suffer from some extreme PTSD, no matter what someone did to intervene. Seeing someone intrude in a space they previously held as being safe and then having to return to that space over and over with basically no change to the space would create much insecurity and a feeling of being unable to predict the future and a lack of control over their destiny. These factors add up to create significant change in children as well as older teens and adults.

  • TP


    August 3rd, 2012 at 7:20 PM

    But this seems like such a paradox! How can somebody be nice if they experience nasty behavior? Well, unless they are the kind of people who scream at the mention of competition or a tough situation! ;)

  • shannon b

    shannon b

    August 5th, 2012 at 4:39 AM

    Well, I guess I got this one all wrong. I have always thought that the more violence or mean behavior that one experienced the more likely that they would be to turn this into behavior toward others. Nut I suppose that reading ti like this I now see that being exposed to this could make you more sympathetic to the plight of others and a little more in tune with what they are feeling, making you less likely to want to inflict this same sort of thing on them.

  • Nate


    August 6th, 2012 at 4:36 AM

    nasty never breeds nice, not in my experience anyway

  • alyssa d

    alyssa d

    August 7th, 2012 at 5:44 PM

    As far as I can tell when children grow up around violent behavior then this is the same kind of behavior that they will naturally exhibit toward others. Why would you even wnat to chance that? Why would you even want to expose a child to this kind of meanness at home when they are exposed to so much of it in other places? Ho,e should be a sanctuary, a place for calm, but instead for many children, too many of them in fact, it has become one thunderstorm after another. Don’t they deserve to have better than that?

  • Johnna


    August 8th, 2012 at 4:26 PM

    I suppose that you could view this as we are all weak in some ways, and that we have to all take care of one another and stop focusing only on the groups or familiy and friends that we are intimately involved with. We have a responsibility to look out for one another.

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