Nice Guy

Stefan Klein

Nice guy is a term in the general public discourse and in popular culture describing an adult or teenage male with friendly yet unassertive personality traits in the context of a relationship with a woman. A typical nice guy believes in putting the needs of others before his own, avoids confrontations, does favors, gives emotional support, tries to get out of trouble, and generally acts nicely towards women.

There is an active debate about whether the nice guy personality profile may actually make a man less desirable to women romantically or sexually. Part of this debate includes speculation about hypocrisy among women in the dating world: that women may say they want a nice guy but won’t date him or have sex with him, and rather subconsciously prefer men who are more confident and assertive but less considerate.

The terms ‘Nice Guy’ and ‘nice guy syndrome’ are used in feminist circles to describe men who view themselves as prototypical ‘nice guys,’ but whose “nice deeds” are in reality only motivated by manipulating women into a relationship and/or sex In early 2002, the website ‘Heartless Bitches International’ (HBI), which ’employs irony as a strategy to offer humorous explorations of contemporary gender relations’ published several short essays (which they labelled ‘rants’) on the concept. Central to the theme of these essays is that a genuinely nice male is desirable, but that many Nice Guys are insecure men unwilling to articulate their romantic or sexual feelings directly. Instead they choose present themselves as their paramour’s ‘friend,’ and hang around doing nice things for her in hopes that she will telepathically pick up on their desire for her. When she inevitably fails to divine their secret feelings, Nice Guys become embittered and blame her for ‘taking advantage’ of them and their ‘niceness.’

A common aphorism is that ‘nice guys finish last.’ The phrase is attributed to baseball manager Leo Durocher in 1939, though a) Durocher’s remark was specific to the context of baseball, and indeed to the context of that set of players, rather than intended as generally applicable to male/female relationship dynamics or in any other context, and b) his allegation of a cause-and-effect relationship between being nice and finishing last was at most merely implicit. The full quote is ‘Take a look at them. They’re all nice guys, but they’ll finish last. Nice guys. Finish last.’ Simplistically, the term ‘nice guy’ could be an adjectival phrase describing what appears to be a friendly, kind, or courteous man. The ‘nice guys finish last’ phrase is also said to be coined by American biologist Garrett Hardin to sum up the selfish gene concept of life and evolution. This was disputed by Richard Dawkins, who wrote the book ‘The Selfish Gene.’ Dawkins was misinterpreted by many as confirming the ‘nice guy finishing last’ view, but refuted the claims in the BBC documentary ‘Nice Guys Finish First.’

The ‘nice guys finish last’ view is that there is a discrepancy between women’s stated preferences and their actual choices in men. In other words, women say that they want nice guys, but really go for men who are ‘jerks’ or ‘bad boys’ in the end. Stephan Desrochers claims, in a 1995 article in the journal ‘Sex Roles,’ that many ‘sensitive’ men, based on personal experience, do not believe women actually want ‘nice guys.’ According to McDaniel, popular culture and dating advice ‘suggest that women claim they want a ‘nice guy’ because they believe that is what is expected of them when, in reality, they want the so-called ‘challenge’ that comes with dating a not-so-nice guy.’ Urbaniak & Kilmann write that: ‘Although women often portray themselves as wanting to date kind, sensitive, and emotionally expressive men, the nice guy stereotype contends that, when actually presented with a choice between such a ‘nice guy’ and an unkind, insensitive, emotionally-closed, ‘macho man’ or ‘jerk,’ they invariably reject the nice guy in favor of his ‘so-called’ macho competitor.’

Another perspective is that women do want ‘nice guys,’ at least when they are looking for a romantic relationship. Desrochers (1995) suggests that ‘it still seems popular to believe that women in contemporary America prefer men who are ‘sensitive,’ or have feminine personality traits.’ Women have differing opinions about whether ‘nice guys finish last’ sexually or not. Another view is that while ‘nice guys’ may not be as successful at attracting women sexually, they may be sought after by women looking for long-term romantic relationships (however, ‘nice guys need not lose all hope, with studies showing that while women like ‘bad boys’ for flings, they tend to settle down with more caring types’ – the ‘bad boys’ having ‘the self-obsession of narcissism, the impulsive, thrill-seeking and callous behavior of the psychopath and the deceitful and exploitative nature of Machiavellianism’). It is a possibility that women leave to escape their circumstances of abuse, disease, or pregnancy to seek a chance with the nice guy (they rejected previously), afterwards. Another study indicates that ‘for brief affairs, women tend to prefer a dominating, powerful and promiscuous man.’ Further evidence appears in a 2005 study in Prague: ‘Since women can always get a man for a one-night stand, they gain an advantage if they find partners for child-rearing.’

One difficulty in studying the ‘nice guy’ phenomenon is due to the ambiguity of the ‘nice guy’ construct. Participants in studies interpret ‘nice guy’ to mean different things. In their qualitative analysis, Herold and Milhausen found that women associate different qualities with the ‘nice guy’ label: ‘Some women offered flattering interpretations of the ‘nice guy,’ characterizing him as committed, caring, and respectful of women. Some women, however, emphasized more negative aspects, considering the ‘nice guy’ to be boring, lacking confidence, and unattractive.’ There is also a negative phenomenon associated with the ‘nice girl’ in the same respect. She may be considered to be prudish, boring and overly submissive. The ‘jerks’ were also divided into two categories, ‘as either confident, attractive, sexy, and exciting or as manipulative, unfaithful, disrespectful of women, and interested only in sex.’

Bogaert and Fisher (1995) studied the relationships between the personalities of university men and their number of sexual partners. They found a correlation between a man’s number of sexual partners, and the traits of sensation-seeking, hypermasculinity, physical attractiveness, and testosterone levels. They also discovered a correlation between maximum monthly number of partners, and the traits of dominance and psychoticism. Bogaert and Fisher suggest that an underlying construct labelled ‘disinhibition’ could be used to explain most of these differences. They suggest that disinhibition would correlate negatively with ‘agreeableness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ from the Big Five personality model.

A condition very similar to the ‘nice guy syndrome’ was described by the late Harriet Braiker in her 2001 bestselling book ‘The Disease to Please – Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome.’ Like the ‘nice guy,’ the ‘people-pleaser’ will suppress their own needs in order to satisfy the perceived needs of others. However, while the nice guy syndrome was clearly elaborated as a men-only problem, the ‘disease to please’ focuses more on women who can have very similar behavior patterns.


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