Every workplace has a name for them: The kind and virtuous majorette who regularly takes one for the team, goes that extra mile, is a dutiful, dependable, delightful co-worker — and gets roundly scorned for their trouble. For the singing Salzburg nuns trying to solve a problem like an excessively joyous Maria, the name was “flibbertigibbet.” In the halls of the Justice League’s HQ, the standard put down for the team relentless overachiever is “boy scout” (and actually, in the case of Superman, Batman’s emasculating jibe turns out to be somewhat on the money).
“They’re all variants of the same thing: do-gooder; champagne liberal; holy roller, if they’re overly religious; nerd… pick your favorite,” says Pat Barclay, associate professor of psychology at Canada’s University of Guelph. Barclay’s recent research, published under the title “Why Hate the Good Guy?,” looked into this quirk of social interactions, in which apparently kind and generous acts can provoke punishment rather than praise.
In 2017, Barclay and his colleague Aleta Pleasant studied a series of games in which players were given sums of money from which they could either contribute to a group fund, or withhold for themselves. After each round, participants were given the option to punish other players. “You know,” explains Barclay, “I’ll give up a buck to make that guy lose three.” In these control-condition games, he says, punishment played out just as you’d expect: “Most of the time people are punishing the low contributors, the free riders, the bad guys.”
But all this changed when the researchers amended the game by introducing an observer with the power to reward players for generous behavior. This person’s job was to take note of who contributed and who held back over the course of the game, then pick one player to join them in a final one-on-one round in which the selected player stood to win more cash (up to $15 Canadian) in a game of trust, in a similar vein to this one from an insanely brutal British game show:
The presence of a judicious observer had the effect of hiking up the element of competition in the earlier rounds, and according to Barclay, the impact on the players’ penalizing impulses was striking: “We thought there’d be a difference; we weren’t quite expecting there to be five times as much antisocial punishment” — that is, punishment meted out to the good guys in the game, the high contributors who showed they were willing to share their money so everyone might come out with more. What’s more, this time there was very nearly as much antisocial punishment going on as fines being handed out to the bad guys.
While targeting the admirable seems spiteful and counterproductive, Barclay points out that, in usually more muted and subtler forms, this is behavior we see all the time in the workplace. “Sometimes there’s implicit competition to look better,” he says, while “in other cases it’s very explicit — such as jobs where one person works really hard and makes other people look bad by comparison. They’re known for people saying, ‘Hey man, you’re working too hard!’”
In the world of social psychology, this kind of admonishment is known as “do-gooder derogation,” and according to Barclay, it’s come into play in all societies throughout human history. Whenever people are striving to look good relative to each other in the eyes of some form of recognized authority — such as a boss with the power of promotion, a tribal group granting inclusion or exclusion or public opinion in general deciding what counts as accepted behavior — you’ll see it in action.
“People are doing this because they stand to benefit from bringing down a competitor,” explains Barclay. “That doesn’t make it moral or acceptable, any more than if people benefitted from theft,” he adds. Nevertheless, the urge to diminish the status of the honorable is sometimes so strong it can extend well beyond our immediate social group to goody two-shoes with whom we’re not competing directly.
Barclay offers an example of someone selflessly doing something to save the environment. “Everybody else who’s not doing so might risk looking selfish by comparison,” he explains. “One way around that is to be more environmentally friendly, and the other way is to attack the very concept of ‘environmentally friendly’ and call them a dupe or do-gooder.”
Why, though, would a person who opts for the latter course even care about morally superior people they’ve read about in the news or seen on TV? “They [the aggressors] are attempting to shape the moral norms of others,” suggests Barclay. “Some argue that in expressions of moral condemnation or approval, a lot of it is attempting to shape what other people deem morally acceptable.” Which, in legitimizing your own lack of action, enhances your own moral status and so boils down to, “just a different way of competing against others.”
For Ashley Merryman, science journalist and co-author of the bestselling Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, looking good in the face of competition is only one aspect of why some people react badly to worthy acts. She points to other studies that have shed light on the phenomenon of the do-gooder takedown from different angles, such as that of “backup behavior,” which she illustrates with the example of a server in a busy restaurant who takes on extra tables to relieve the pressure on a rookie colleague who’s struggling to meet demand.
“When you’re doing that it seems kind-hearted, but you just communicated to your co-worker: ‘We don’t believe you can actually do your job on your own, so we’re going to step up for you.’” So even though it’s well meaning, doing colleagues this type of favor can easily result in their feeling inferior — and hence resentful. Magnify that sort of communication to a whole team of people, says Merryman, and in signaling, “that ‘I cover for everyone; that’s what I do,’ people will then expect you to continue that practice — and if you don’t they will be hostile.”
So with all this potential for making people hate you, is our only option to rein in our good intentions and adopt a strict every-worker-for-themself policy? Merryman’s answer is to stay focused on the task at hand, rather than other people’s perceptions of you. “A throwaway line in a study I recently read was that, ‘Superiors are interested in results. Subordinates are interested in relationships.’ And when the relationships become primary, that’s when teams don’t do well. That’s when I’m afraid to criticize my colleague, or I hold back my idea because I’m more interested in protecting the relationship than in what the team is actually tasked to do.” Stay tuned in to achieving results, she advises, and you’ll be helping everybody in any case.
From the point-of-view of the supervisor or team leader, she points out, “We absolutely want the person who’s willing to go above and beyond. We want the person who’s willing to stay late or train a new employee, or be the person who says, ‘Hey, I just bought everybody lunch just because we’ve all been working hard!’”
Despite his study’s results, Barclay also refuses to give up on being good. In his view, the way to deal with put downs unfairly aimed at the praiseworthy is to call out their critics. “It’s a strategy by low contributors who are trying to not look bad — to stop other people from raising the bar. Once we realize that, the next time a lazy worker attacks a good worker we can say, ‘Why are you so critical? Why don’t you just step up your game and work harder and be nicer?’ When we recognize that for what it is, we can make the nasty strategy less effective.”
Merryman, meanwhile, places the onus on the bosses to establish a fair — and observant — workplace culture: “If we were the supervisors at the company, we should look and see if people have been punished for doing the right thing. And then it’s our job as the boss to protect those people and encourage that behavior. If you get to choose whose behavior you reward, you may be choosing to create a more cutthroat environment or you may choose to say, ‘We don’t do that here.’ And I think that really matters.”
So that means you, Batman. And you, sister.