“Do-gooder” is a strange term. In the workplace, for example, it’s the label stamped on people who—well, who best cooperate with their colleagues. It’s the generous, less-than-ruthlessly competitive ones who find themselves dismissed as “do-gooders.” As if there’s something obviously, offensively wrong about being nice.
So what makes people so eager to hate the do-gooder? A new study suggests it’s a competitive tactic—and one that people may engage in without fully knowing why. Think about it this way: If you’re competing for a partner (in dating, say, or at work), your ability to cooperate is probably an important criterion. No one wants to partner up with someone who can’t get along. So to get the best partner, you want to appear as cooperative as possible. Or—on the other hand—you can sow doubt about your competition, by implying there’s something suspect about their apparent niceness. In other words, you can label them a do-gooder.
“Most of the time we like it when the good guys are rewarded and the bad guys get their comeuppance,” says Pat Barclay, a professor at the University of Guelph and the study’s co-author. “But sometimes the good guys also get punished. Or the good guys get criticized.”
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It seems counterintuitive, but it’s a phenomenon noticed across fields—in economics and social psychology—and across societies, Barclay says. It’s called “antisocial punishment” or “do-gooder derogation”—criticism aimed at someone for supposedly being too cooperative. It seems to occur most often when people compete for partners, and according to the new study, it’s a way of diminishing their competitive advantage. It doesn’t elevate the person doing the labeling, but it might just succeed in tearing down the one who then seems too virtuously cooperative—too good to be true.
“You can sum it up with the sentence, ‘Hey man, you’re making me look bad,’” Barclay says. And rather than try to be better, the losing competitor reaches for the “do-gooder” label.
To test their hypothesis about competition increasing antisocial punishment, Barclay and his co-author, Aleta Pleasant, set up two scenarios. In both, participants played a game that tested their willingness to cooperate, and allowed them to “punish” other players. The experimental scenario added an observer who would, at the conclusion of the game, choose a partner and reward him or her accordingly.
As the researchers expected, antisocial punishment was higher in the competitive scenario. But that doesn’t mean the participants were consciously choosing to punish do-gooders. “Very few people are carefully calculating the effect of their actions,” Barclay says. Instead, he says, emotions such as valuing other people’s welfare and, conversely, jealousy when someone looks too good, likely affect how people respond.
In some respects, that’s good. Barclay suggests those emotions are there for a reason—that can ultimately be beneficial. “The reason we have emotions is that they cause us to act in ways that bring benefits in the long term,” he says. But understanding how they work can also help us better direct them.
How should we help the embattled do-gooder, for example? Barclay says we can think of ways to blunt antisocial punishment. For those receiving it, he says, maybe the answer is to surround themselves with better people. “Let the good people pair up with the good people,” he says, “and in the end they will be much better off than their critics. Let’s figure out ways to let goodness pay off, because then it will proliferate."
This article originally appeared on Tonic.