In a recent New York Times article, “Be Nice — You Won’t Finish Last,” author Sarah Maslin Nir reflects on having been a generally kind and amiable person, which served her well as a child and then seemed to link to a lower social status as a teenager. She then considers her experiences in the context of work by Dr. Mitch Prinstein, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor, who has studied the phenomenon of popularity. Dr. Prinstein draws a distinction between likability and status, and has researched their respective trajectories. The kind of friendly and altruistic behaviors that Nir displayed from early childhood link to positive outcomes in adulthood, including in romance and business. The status of Nir’s cooler teenage peers, however, which may have emerged from a combination of power and dishonorable behavior, is actually associated with negative long-term outcomes. In particular, high-status teens are at increased risk for going on to engage in dangerous behaviors.
Dr. Prinstein notes that being open and kind fosters likability, which in turn facilitates opportunities for enriching experiences and learning, which then contribute to advancement. “Be nice” is clearly good advice from a moral standpoint, and following the Golden Rule should be encouraged for its own sake.
It is worth keeping in mind, though, that social skills are also important for academic and lifelong success. This is why here at The Yellin Center, we include social cognition among the various areas that we look at and discuss as part of our assessments. A student could have plenty of intellectual resources, but without being able to understand, relate to, and get along with others, one’s learning and achievements could only come so far. With collaboration having become an integral part of the classroom experience, students generally have ample opportunity to hone and utilize skills that will be vital in the rest of their lives, across settings.
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has been a key figure in synthesizing and sharing research regarding introversion. Introverts, representing one-third to one-half of the population, are not necessarily shy, but prefer and thrive in environments where social stimulation is relatively low. They tend to listen more than they talk, to think before speaking, and to have careful, sensitive temperaments. These qualities, all aspects of social cognition, can foster achievement, creativity, and a valuable kind of leadership. Being an extrovert or an introvert is not better or worse; often what is most important is finding the right fit between personality and niche. Keeping this in mind, educators should be careful not to encourage class participation to an extent that is at the expense of identifying and nurturing students’ differing natures and assets; but certainly “Be nice” is a goal worth having, for many reasons, for everyone.