To achieve success — as both individuals and as a society — we often have to be good team players. But who is best at “playing ball?” Should you be nice to people, or should you act with intent? What kind of people are most likely to succeed?

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Should you act nice or smart to succeed? A new study may hold the answer.

Going to a job interview, you may have heard that many employers tend to look beyond an employee’s skills to what kind of person they are.

They might covertly ask, “Will this person fit our team spirit?” Naturally nice and accommodating people may leave a good first impression, with open smiles and instinctive dislike of conflict.

But will just “being nice” serve us just as well in the long run?

Turns out, there may be some truth behind the notion that “nice guys finish last.” This is not to say that you shouldn’t aim to be collaborative — it’s just that it’s a little more complicated than just “be nice and you’ll do well.”

At least, that’s what researchers from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and the University of Heidelberg in Germany say.

“We wanted to explore what factors make us effective social animals. 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,” explains Prof. Eugenio Proto, co-author of a recent study asking what makes us successful team players.

In a paper published in the Journal of Political Economy, Prof. Proto and colleagues explain that we may need more than just a generous nature to thrive in a social context.

Scientists have repeatedly argued that, in a social context, it pays to be nice because kindness can “go viral,” and because not being nice may actually take up more emotional energy and lead to poor psychological and pragmatic outcomes.

But there’s more to that story, argue Prof. Proto and his co-authors in a recent study, and simply being a baseline good person may not help you to succeed in your endeavors. Why? Because, surprisingly, it may stand in the way of cooperation.

“People might naturally presume that people who are nice, conscientious, and generous,” says Prof. Proto, “are automatically more cooperative. But, through our research, we find […] 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.”

Prof. Eugenio Proto

To confirm the main qualities of a successful team player, the researchers asked study participants to play four games, each illustrative of a particular strategic situation.

These games — some of which are a staple of game theory — are: Prisoner’s Dilemma; Stag Hunt; Battle of the Sexes; and a developed spinoff of the latter, which the researchers dub “the Battle of the Sexes with Compromise.” They all explore patterns of cooperation and successful decision-making.

In all the games, participant interactions occur repeatedly, ensuring that individuals engaged in the same game get a chance to evaluate their partners’ developing behavior and choices.

Prof. Proto and colleagues noticed that in situations where participants have to decide whether current gains or future achievements may be more valuable, the individuals with a higher IQ tended to win more money, on average, per round.

This suggests that in a scenario that calls for cooperation, it is important to be able to come up with an appropriate strategy, as well as to accurately predict the consequences of current choices and actions.

Interestingly, the researchers also saw that more conscientious people were also, generally, more cautious in their actions, which had the surprising effect that they tended to be less cooperative.

Prof. Proto and team explain that the two traits that we may think of as playing an important role in strategic, cooperative behavior — namely, conscientiousness and agreeableness — can help us somewhat in making good decisions.

In order for such traits to be truly effective, however, they need to be backed up by strategic intention, which comes with being smart and assessing situations correctly.

“An additional benefit of higher intelligence in our experiment,” notes Prof. Proto, “and likely in real life, is the ability to process information faster, hence to accumulate more extensive experience, and to learn from it.”

In short, intelligence ensures that you learn from any past mistakes, pick the correct strategy for cooperation, and apply that effectively.

“This scenario can be applied to the workplace, where it’s likely that intelligent people who see the bigger picture and work cooperatively, will ultimately be promoted and financially rewarded,” he adds.

These results, the team argues, suggest that we should teach children to be smart and act with intelligence. That’s the best way forward if we want them — and our society — to thrive in the future.

“With education,” explains study co-author Andis Sofianos, “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.”