Study Finds Nice Guys Finish First

Harvard researcher David Rand randomly paired up students to play a prisoner's dilemma game, giving participants the option to "punish" their teammates for bad behavior. Those who did best in the game were those who punished the least.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We've all heard that the old truism that nice guys finish last. Well, it might not be so true after all. Believe it or not, nice guys finish first. At least, that's according to a new Harvard study to be released tomorrow in the journal Nature.

For more, we turn to David Rand. He's a biology graduate student at Harvard and he's one of the study's coauthors.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID RAND (Researcher, Harvard University): Thanks. It's great to be here.

NORRIS: Now, if you could, in simple terms, describe how the study works.

Mr. RAND: Sure. So we had 104 college students from around Boston. They came into our lab and they played games in pairs via the computer for about an hour. The game they're playing was an extended version of the classic "Prisoners' Dilemma" game. Every round, you have two choices. You can either cooperate with the other person, or you can defect, which is like stealing from the other person. So that's the classic "Prisoners' Dilemma." And then, in our study, we add a third option for a sort of costly or spiteful punishment, which means you pay one point in order to make the other person lose four points.

NORRIS: I just want to make sure I understand this. If you just sat it out, didn't punish your partner, how would you fare?

Mr. RAND: The people that punished in response to defection did very badly, and the people that did not punish did very well. But it's not just that you said, okay, well, I'm just going to keep cooperating no matter what. The idea is that if the other person defects, then you also defect. This is called tit-for-tat. So that's a good strategy. And the people that did poorly were the people that cooperated, but then punished when their opponents defected.

NORRIS: So what do you think the students took from this exercise?

Mr. RAND: We used completely neutral language in the games because we didn't want to sort of prejudice them in one direction or the other.

NORRIS: So you didn't call them punishers or nice guys or defectors?

Mr. RAND: Right. We just called the three options, A, B and C, and let them play. And then at the end, we had them fill out a questionnaire asking how they viewed each of the different options. And so one particularly stuck in my mind, which they called the cooperate option, you know, the nice guy or something like that, and then they called defection selfish, and then they called punishment evil.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Now, you conducted this exercise over a period of time, students played more than 8,000 games. The results were consistent?

Mr. RAND: Yeah. Yeah, it was really a clear pattern across all of the subjects.

NORRIS: So I'm trying to follow. It's almost like a who's on first dilemma or who actually gets ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: So what does the study tell us about general society?

Mr. RAND: The study says something about our, sort of, pairwise interactions where you work in an equal way with someone. So, say, you have, like, a partner at work and you're collaborating on a project, and you feel like the other person isn't contributing enough to the project and you're bearing the brunt of it. Our study suggests that as opposed to, you know, threatening the other person or insulting them and trying to make them start contributing, you should just say, okay, I'm just going to abandon this project, you stop contributing also, and you go and try and find someone else to work with who will contribute.

NORRIS: So, David, before I let you go, are you a nice guy?

Mr. RAND: I like to think so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: I mean, you were very cooperative in this interview.

Mr. RAND: Well, thanks. So are you.

NORRIS: Nice answer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAND: Thank you.

NORRIS: And nice to talk to you.

Mr. RAND: Great to talk to you also.

NORRIS: David Rand is a biology graduate student at Harvard. He coauthored the new study that found for once, at least in this case, that nice guys can finish first.

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