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Are You Too Nice?

Mark Tyrrell
Article by Mark Tyrrell
Therapist trainer of 25 years
Co-founder of Hypnosis Downloads

The snake was vicious, snarling, and dangerous. He terrified the villagers, biting the children and scaring all the adults. But sometimes he felt lonely and craved companionship.

One day, a wise man wandered into the village. He clearly saw the chaos the snake's actions had brought.

Because this is a story and he was wise, he could speak to the snake and, on gaining the reprobate's trust, said, "Listen up, snake. You're not only making the people here unhappy, but you yourself are clearly miserable. Practice some kindness and gentleness to improve the lot of everyone here, including you." And so the wise man went on his way.

Years later, the wise one happened to pass again through that same village. To his surprise, he saw an inert, passive plaything being kicked by the children. He realized that this was, in fact, none other than the formally aggressive serpent he'd had words with years before. The snake managed to free himself from his tormentors and slide up to the man.

"Your advice was disastrous!" he hissed faintly. "Practicing gentleness has brought me complete misery! Now I'm used as a toy, laughed at, and taken for granted. I was better off before!"

The old man replied, "You took my advice too literally and without reflection. I said that you shouldn't bite... but I didn't say you should never hiss!"

Is Clark Kent just too nice?

Okay, I know this isn't scientific, but let's face it: Lois Lane just didn't fancy Clark Kent, did she? But why not? He was good-looking, gentle, kind, thoughtful, sensibly dressed...

But she did fancy Superman - and not just because he wore his underwear outside his tights! Sure, Superman is kind (sort of); but mainly he's brave, assertive, willing to take risks, powerful, unpredictable, and a cheap form of avian transport. Superman is cool.

It's not that women don't value kindness in men at all or that men just want to be with manipulative jezebels - it's that men and women like to be excited by someone. People like to be kept on their toes to stop them dozing off. But why are nice guys and girls valued less by others?

How we assign value

When something is too available, its perceived value drops. We take water for granted when it's gushingly plentiful, but it becomes more valued than gold during severe drought. In the same way, when someone is reliably nice, their niceness loses value because it's so plentiful. But when someone is sometimes but not always 'nice', we value their niceness as a scarce resource.

We are more likely to become addicted to gambling (or anything) when the rewards from that behaviour are inconsistent (1). If gamblers won every time, the act of gambling would, believe it or not, become less compelling for them and feel less meaningful.

Don't blame me; I didn't invent human nature! (Although, this principle holds good for other animals, too (2).)

But what does being too nice really mean, anyway?

Is being too nice really being too nice?

I reckon when we describe someone as 'too nice', we don't mean that at all. What we really mean is:

  • Too ready to give us what we want (whether it's in our real best interests or not).
  • Too predictable.
  • Not assertive enough.
  • Not brave enough.
  • Too eager to please.

'Being nice' might mean being easily pushed around and manipulated. Of course, it is possible to be tough, direct, clear, strong, and genuinely nice.

Sexual chemistry v. niceness

In a now famous study entitled, "Who dares, wins", two researchers conducted experiments on attraction and found that women prefer risk-prone brave males to risk-avoidant non-brave males.

The 'nice' risk-avoidant man is pushed to the back of the reproductive queue, it seems. Male bravery was the biggest influence on women's choices when selecting short-term and long-term partners and even male friends.

Kindness turned out to be a much less important factor. When bravery was pitted against unselfishness, the surprising result was that women put much more weight on courage than kindness - and this was despite their protestations to the contrary. (We all know the type of people we 'should' be attracted to or even the types we kid ourselves we like.)


I don't believe that women 'prefer bastards', but courage would have been prized in a male mate in times gone by. And men may prefer women with a 'naughty glint in their eye' to the too cozy types who may seem sexually unexciting.

On learning to hiss

So what are we to make of all this? Well, if we are not to be taken advantage of at work or in relationships, becoming more assertive will help. At work, I think people should be consistently nice to clients and customers as part of showing professionalism; but not to the point that they are abused like our friend the snake. The opposite of being horrible isn't to be too nice (unless you think as simplistically as the snake).

The snake wasn't really being nice after he'd misapplied the wise man's advice. I say this because the effect of his niceness was to make the children worse people. The kids had become cruel, disrespectful, and insensitive. Being too nice can deny others the chance to behave well.

The antidote to TNS ('Too Nice Syndrome') isn't to become a vicious curmudgeon (Ebenezer Scrooge wasn't the most popular guy on the block), but simply to remember how to 'hiss' sometimes. 'Cruel to be kind' is not a new idea.

Other tips on not appearing too nice include:

  • Be prepared to upset other people sometimes. It might even do them good.
  • Don't always put yourself last, because pretty soon others will do so, too.
  • Have your own point of view without always waiting to see what others think.
  • Don't always say yes to everything immediately. If something is really not okay with you, say no. Or let people know it's something you're going to have to consider carefully. You are not some kind of a favours whore.

We should treat others well, avoid selfishness when we can, and be considerate and decent, but never be pushed around or taken advantage of. And when you need to hiss... then hiss!


  1. B.F. Skinner, the psychologist who founded 'behaviourism', studied inconsistent reward and showed that it was more likely to lead to addiction than consistent reward.
  2. Skinner found that dogs who sometimes got food when they sounded a bell and sometimes didn't became much more addicted to bell ringing.
  3. "Who dares, wins." Human Nature (2001). 12:89-105, June 01, 2001.
Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Communication Skills