top of page


Take THAT meanies: study finds it pays to be kind and generous

Dive In
  • Writer's picturePeter Harris

You know what they say: “nice guys finish last.” But the good news is they might be wrong, at least when it comes to making money.

We often have this idea as a society that selfish people who are willing to walk all over others to get what they want are the ones who get ahead. But new research suggests this isn’t always true, and that unselfish people actually earn more money than selfish ones.

Researchers at Stockholm University, the Institute for Futures Studies, and the University of South Carolina have found that unselfish people receive higher salaries in comparison to more selfish people. They also have more children, which is a cool bonus if you’re nice and you want kids.

The results of the interdisciplinary study “Generosity pays: Selfish people have fewer children and earn less money” were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Previous psychological and sociological research has shown that unselfish people are happier and have better social relationships,” says a media release. This one focuses on unselfishness from an economical and evolutionary perspective.

“The result is clear in both the American and the European data,” says Kimmo Eriksson, researcher at the Centre for Cultural Evolution at Stockholm University, and one of the authors of the study. “The most unselfish people have the most children and the moderately unselfish receive the highest salaries. And we also find this result over time – the people who are most generous at one point in time have the largest salary.”

Previous research has apparently suggested otherwise, and that selfish people have money specifically because they’re selfish. This flies in the face of that.

For the research, selfishness was measured partly through “attitudes” and partly through reported behaviours. Unselfishness is defined as the desire to help others because one cares about their welfare. “Attitudes” refer to how important a person thinks it is to help others and to care about their welfare. “Behaviours,” meanwhile, refer to how often and how much the person engaged in various helping behaviours, such as giving money or time to help others.

The researchers also looked at the expectations of ordinary people, and found that most people erroneously believe that selfish people make more money.

“It is nice to see that generosity so often pays off in the long run,” says Pontus Strimling, a researcher at the Institute for Futures Studies, and another of the study’s authors.

The authors think that improved social relationships may be the key to generous peoples’ economic success, but the studies don’t actually answer this question.

“Future research will have to delve deeper into the reasons why generous people earn more, and look at whether the link between unselfishness, higher salaries, and more children also exists in other parts of the world. And it is of course debatable how unselfish it really is to have more children,” says co-author Brent Simpson of University of South Carolina.

The notion of improved relationships makes sense, as networking is such a big part of career success. Employers also place a high premium on volunteer experience. Previous research shows that employers are significantly more likely to hire a candidate with volunteer experience over one without. It was also found in a study of 70,000 jobless people over eight years that those who volunteered had a 27% better chance of finding a job than those who didn’t.

bottom of page