Nice guys (and gals) finish last. Well, not quite, but a working paper due to be published in the Journal of Political Economy did find that intelligence – not personality traits such as agreeableness and conscientiousness – is the biggest indicator of how cooperative or not an individual is and, in turn, how successful they'll be.
"We wanted to explore what factors make us effective social animals,” Eugenio Proto, a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Bristol, UK, said in a statement. “In other words, what enables us to behave optimally in situations when cooperation is potentially beneficial not only to us, but to our neighbors, people in the same country or who share the same planet.”
To find out, researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Minnesota, and Heidelberg recruited volunteers to take part in four high-strategy games, including Prisoner's Dilemma, Stag Hunt, and Battle of Sexes. The tasks were repeated so that participants had time to observe the behavior of the other player and adjust their strategy as needed.
Those who worked together were able to earn more money in the long-term, but this strategy of cooperation sometimes meant losing out on short-term gains.
Whereas more intelligent players tended to be more consistent in their strategies and were better able to predict the outcomes of their actions, less intelligent players found it difficult to find and pursue a good strategy. Instead, they flip-flopped, changing tactics over the course of the study. Thus, it was the more intelligent players who cooperated and, consequently, earned more overall.
Players who scored highly in the personality trait agreeableness also showed signs of greater cooperation – but the effect tended to be small and short-lived. In contrast, players high in the personality trait conscientiousness were less cooperative because they tended to act more cautiously.
"People might naturally presume that people who are nice, conscientious and generous are automatically more cooperative,” explained Proto. “But, through our research, we find overwhelming support for the idea that intelligence is the primary condition for a socially cohesive, cooperative society. A good heart and good behavior have an effect too but it's transitory and small.”
These findings could prove useful not just for individuals looking to make their fortune, but for society too.
"With education, our results suggest that focusing on intelligence in early childhood could potentially enhance not only the economic success of the individual, but the level of cooperation in society in later life," Andis Sofianos, from the Department of Economics at the University of Heidelberg, said in a statement.
The lesson here: Next time you need a person you can trust, check their IQ score.