science of us

I May Be Drowning in Student-Loan Debt, But at Least I’m Nice

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I love being alive, and hope to do it forever, but sometimes, when I have a hypochondriac moment, or the U.N. releases especially troubling climate change news, I think: At least if I die young, I won’t have to repay my student loans. I don’t even know if this is true, really — surely the lenders would go after my parents — but when it comes to the debt hanging over my head, it’s the only silver lining I’ve got. Or it was, until today, when I read a new study that said people with no savings and lots of debt are more agreeable than people with lots of money and no debt.

For their study (called “Nice Guys Finish Last: When and why agreeableness is associated with economic hardship,” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology), researchers gathered personality data on millions of people in the U.S. and the U.K., as well as community-scale bank data from the regions where those people lived. The authors, Sandra Matz and Joe Gladstone, found that the nicer a county’s people were on average, the worse off they were financially, and hypothesized that this correlation could mean that agreeable people don’t care as much about money.

While I agree that I’m incredibly agreeable, I also care about money, and would love to have more of it. If I were to get it, though, would I get meaner? Or is it that if I were meaner, I’d get more money?

Matz and Gladstone’s study doesn’t establish a causal relationship in either direction, but their findings may speak to why nicer people tend to have emptier bank accounts. Agreeable people, the authors suggest, may be likelier to pick up the tab at dinner, or to loan money even when they need it themselves. If that’s one end of the friendly/frugal spectrum, I’m not sure where, say, deciding to go to graduate school entirely on loans you’ll spend decades repaying (with your earnings from an unrelated career) fits in. I’m going to assume the authors would say that decision makes me extremely agreeable, and for that I thank them kindly.

I May Be Drowning in Student Loans, But at Least I’m Nice