Tales abound of jerks who changed the world with their brilliance.
Most notably, the late Steve Jobs led Apple to become one of the most successful companies in the world, despite being known as someone who shouted and cursed at employees and made derogatory remarks about their work.
You might assume that these relatively unlikable people are successful because they’re smarter and more creative — better at coming up with original ideas than their more affable peers.
But new research suggests you’d be wrong.
Instead, it seems, jerks are better at getting their ideas heard — even when it might be scary to submit a relatively new or different thought.
For the study, cited on Research Digest, researchers Samuel Hunter and Lily Cushenberry focused on individuals low in a trait called “agreeableness.” Disagreeable people, according to the definition they used, tend to be argumentative, egotistical, aggressive, headstrong, and hostile — a.k.a. jerks.
In the first of two experiments, about 200 undergrads took a series of tests that measured their personality and their ability to come up with novel uses for common objects; they were also asked to submit their GPA and SAT scores so researchers could measure their cognitive ability and academic achievement.
All students were asked to work alone for 10 minutes and come up with a solution to a marketing problem. Researchers then put them into groups of three and asked them to spend 20 minutes coming up with a marketing plan together.
As predicted, disagreeableness had nothing to do with how creative students were while generating ideas on their own. But when it came to groupwork, disagreeable students were significantly more likely to have their ideas used in the final product — especially if the other group members were disagreeable, too.
In the second experiment, researchers wanted to find out whether disagreeable people would fare worse in certain group contexts. This time, nearly 300 students spent time alone coming up with ideas for a gift for their university; then they were seated in front of a computer and told that they would be interacting with two other participants in an online chat room.
What the participants didn’t know was that their chat partners were actually working for the researchers — and were instructed to give either supportive or unsupportive feedback to the participants’ ideas. Then participants were asked to work in those same groups and come up with ideas for the “dorm room of the future.” Again, the fake partners were instructed to give either supportive or unsupportive feedback, and to submit creative or uncreative ideas of their own.
Once again, disagreeableness didn’t have an effect on students’ ability to come up with ideas on their own. But disagreeable students were more likely to share their ideas when the fake partners had smart ideas and gave negative feedback.
In other words, the jerks weren’t so phased by the possibility that someone wouldn’t like their ideas. Interestingly, that also suggests that in supportive environments, agreeableness may be useful because agreeable people will be more receptive to positive feedback.
These findings add some more nuance to recent discussion about whether jerks or nice guys do better in business. According to this research, it’s not necessarily that unlikable people are smarter or more creative, but that they won’t back down in the presence of other creative or tough coworkers.
At the same time, the researchers acknowledge that this study does have some limitations — namely, that it focused on young adults at a university, so the findings may not apply to the general population. It’s also unclear whether disagreeableness is useful in the long term, or whether jerkiness starts to grate on people over time and makes them less receptive to your ideas.
Pending future research that addresses these concerns, it’s somewhat empowering to know that jerks aren’t necessarily creative geniuses you should cower in fear before — they’re probably just pushier.
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