We like being with agreeable people. They provide comfort without the drama. As a personality trait, agreeableness is expressed through empathic, considerate, friendly, generous, and helpful behaviors. Generally, most see high agreeableness as desirable. However, just like all personality traits, excessive agreeableness also has some harmful side affects.
John D. Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire warns “a troublesome trait often has a positive side” (2014). Conversely, positive traits typically have darker, and often ignored, elements.
Agreeableness is no different. Moderate amounts of agreeableness traits is beneficial. But sometimes, a little antagonistic stubbornness, helps assert our rights, draw boundaries, and protect us from unscrupulous predators.
The Big Five Personality Traits
“Big Five Personality Traits is a five dimension classification system that illuminates the vast experience of being human. Trait theory reduces human diversity by narrowing personality to five basic groupings” (Murphy, 2020).
The Big-Five traits identifies five dimensions of personality:
- extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
- agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. critical/rational)
- openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
- conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
- neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)
Many remember the five factors using the acronyms “OCEAN” or “CANOE.”
MIT scholar Steven Pinker explains “most of the 18,000 adjectives for personality traits in an unabridged dictionary can be tied to one of these five dimensions, including such sins and flaws as being aimless, careless, conforming, impatient, narrow, rude, self-pitying, selfish, suspicious, uncooperative, and undependable” (2003).
Description of Agreeableness
Dr. Brian R. Little, a major innovator in the field of personality assessment and motivation, describes highly agreeable people “as pleasant, cooperative, friendly, supportive, and empathic.” He contrasts these qualities with some with low scores in agreeableness who he characterizes as “cynical, confrontational, unfriendly, and mean-spirited” (2016).
We probably all know the agreeable type and like them. They are easy going and likable. Extremely low agreeableness scores, on the other hand, likely include characteristics similar to those found in the abrasive personality disorder. We also all know some of these types, and prefer to keep our distance.
If you ever peruse a dating site, most profiles magnify agreeableness characteristics as a lure to perspective dates. “I’m kind, considerate, and thoughtful.”
Agreeableness is one of the ‘big five’ personality traits. People that score high in agreeableness possess traits such as cooperativeness, politeness, kindness, and friendliness.
Benefits and Dangers of High Scores on the Agreeableness Scale
Each personality dimension has benefits and dangers associated with high or low scores. Extremely high and low scores in any of the personality dimensions leads to maladaptive behaviors.
There is no perfect score. Life, however, flows best when we land somewhere within a window adaptiveness.
High scores on agreeableness are generally seen as positive. Agreeableness is associated with kindness and sociability. These traits lead to an ease in connecting with others. Higher scores in agreeableness tend to increase a person’s social capital, creates likable first impressions, and is associated with better health.
Little says that “highly agreeable people are more likely to create social networks, which provide an important resource for enhancing health” (2016).
With moderate levels of agreeableness, people experience more stable emotions, less inner turmoil than more disagreeable persons. “agreeableness is of fundamental importance to psychological well-being, predicting mental health, positive affect, and good relations with others” (Laursen, Pulkkinen, & Adams, 2002). There is some evidence suggesting that agreeableness is associated with resiliency. Studying children they found high agreeableness has a protective factor.
Meredith Wiley and Robin Karr-Morse wrote that “the resilient child is the child who emerges competent and confident from a family when everyone else seems to be a victim of ‘risk factors’ or negative circumstances such as chronic poverty, alcoholism, criminality, community violence, or child abuse” (2014, Kindle location 2,739). Wiley and Karr-Morse explain that the agreeableness help resilient children with “generating relationships and collecting glimpses of a different sort of world, which they integrate into a very different life for themselves than that from which they are emerging. They are empathetic and their connections with people enable them to internalize socially constructive behavior” (location 2,761).
Agreeableness and Loneliness
People with higher scores in agreeableness also tend to fend off loneliness because of their ease in connecting with others.
John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick wrote “we need these subtle abilities to facilitate not only our own ‘fit’ within the group, but the group’s fit overall, which is to say, a workable level of social harmony” (2008). These abilities to ‘fit’ can be exhibited through agreeableness. Those lacking skills to fit are more likely to suffer from loneliness.
Research suggests that “agreeableness is associated with real-life prosocial behaviors, such as helping and volunteering, as well as prosocial behaviors at work” (Stavrova, Evans, & van Beest, 2022). Agreeableness may be a survival mechanism that can be used in both positive or damaging ways.
Agreeableness also has some notable disadvantages. Little explains, “despite its importance in the way we form impressions of others, agreeableness is not associated with success.” Little continues, “compared with the other Big Five traits, agreeableness is one of the weakest predictors of organizational success. In fact, there is even evidence that agreeable people are less successful in their working life, as indexed by their salaries. This is particularly the case with men, for whom agreeableness may run counter to norms of masculine conduct” (2016).
While one can be assertive and agreeable, it appears at some level these conflict, and the more agreeable person, bows out of possible conflicting situations early in order to not create waves—because it is in their nature to do so. Challenging others or the norm is more uncomfortable for those that are attuned to be agreeable, so they quietly go along. Little adds, “assertiveness involves a trade-off between ease of relationships and goal achievement” (location 677).
Need for Balance
The balance, of course, is dependent upon the level of agreeableness and the significance of the trade-off. People with moderate levels of agreeableness have limits, seeking peace rather than conflict but only up to a certain point. When important goals or ethical standards are challenged, they will draw a line. Perhaps, their need for agreeableness may mediate their response in an effort to maintain peace while still engaging assertiveness to protect personal standard.
John Gottman made an interesting discovery in his relationship research. He found that agreeableness had a greater impact on marriage relationships when possessed by men. However, with women their assertiveness positively influenced the relationship.
Gottman wrote, “being agreeable was associated with increasing marital satisfaction over a number of years, but only for men.” He speculated that “being agreeable for women was not a good thing for the long-term happiness of the relationship. Agreeability for women is all about compliance, whereas agreeability for men is associated with being nice and sharing power” (2011, location 2,326).
High agreeableness scores shares similarities to a protective defense referred to in psychology as “the Autonomy Survival Style.” This style defends against conflict in a placating way. In abusive environments this is protective against emotional and physical abuse.
People who adopt the autonomy survival style are afraid “to expose their true feelings. Instead, they play the role of the ‘good boy’ or the ‘nice girl’ because they feel that since playing this role won their parents’ ‘love,’ it will win other people’s love as well” (Heller & LaPierre, 2012).
Agreeableness as a Survival Style
This survival style requires repressing personal needs in order to placate aggressive others. While protective from outside violence, this style creates inner discord. One must learn to disavow personal needs as important. These repressions often lead to accumulating of frustrations “until they reach a point where they can no longer tolerate the accumulated resentments” (Kindle location, 1,218). Repressed anger has many unlikable consequences, from disease to uncontrollable explosions.
Sometimes, the need to present oneself as agreeable may present itself in obtaining personal needs with round about methods. Perhaps, passive-aggressive behaviors belong to this category. I sometimes wonder if a neurotic need for agreeableness may motivate violent acts. Perhaps, the motivation for some that murder a spouse may be their neurotic fear to face their spouses disappointment and hurt associated with divorce. So the neurotically driven husband or wife kills their spouse instead of facing the difficulties of expressing their desire to leave.
Lawrence Heller and Aline LaPierre suggest that these individuals “usually have escape strategies that allow them to leave relationships without confrontation: they withdraw without explanation, or they make their partner miserable so that the partner rejects them” (location 1,218).
Some research has found strong correlations between high scores of agreeableness and disorders of obsessive-compulsiveness and dependent personalities (Samuel & Gore, 2012).
Causes for High Agreeableness
Biological programming strongly influences Agreeableness. However, personalities, while stable, are not unchangeable. Accordingly, our DNA sets on a path to who we will become but does not predetermine all the circumstances of our lives.
There is a reciprocal determinism factor involved in the development of personality. Our DNA coding leads to behaviors which influence responses from environments, which in turn influences our development. As a child, we have little influence over this feedback cycle of innate personality and parental responses. As an adult we can intervene, making changes that impacts environments, improving situations that heal our broken souls.
Daniel Sigel, an internationally acclaimed author, award-winning educator, and renowned child psychiatrist, wrote, “but even in the face of the tenacious habits of mind that we find ourselves trapped in as adults, there is a great deal of hope that, with intentional effort, deep changes can be created. The developing mind does not have to become fixed with one pattern of traits or another.” He concludes that we don’t “have to ‘settle’ for some innate temperament or personality that is unchangeable” (2020).
Understanding of all behavioral and personality styles begins in the brain. Our DNA inherited from our parents, creates the foundation of our being. For example, science has discovered natural foundations of agreeableness or disagreeableness in neural structures.
Richard J. Davidson PhD., Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and director at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, explains, “emotional style can be traced to a specific, characteristic brain signature. To understand the brain basis of agreeableness, then, we need to probe more deeply into the underlying emotional styles that comprise it” (2012).
Colin G. DeYoung connects serotonin to agreeableness. he wrote, “serotonin acts to limit negative affect and aggression, while maintaining behavioral and motivational stability, and it has been directly linked to conscientiousness, agreeableness, and low neuroticism, the traits constituting stability” (2017).
Basically the hormonal flow of chemicals motivates behavioral reactions. Our biological hardware reacts certain ways based on DNA.
Cacioppo explains further, “signals that the senses receive from the environment trigger changes in the concentration and flow of these hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals serve as internal messages to prompt specific behavior—and this is when the genetic instructions at long last appear as individual differences in levels of anxiety, or agreeableness, or sensitivity to feelings of social isolation” (2008, location 1,175).
Possible Environmental Influences
While DNA structure is the beginning, it certainly doesn’t create a determined future. DNA structures change through exposure to environmental conditions. T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “our DNA sequences do not unbudgingly create who we are. A gene is subject to external influences that may activate gene expression” (2021).
Siegel elaborates on this process, “the expression of genes leads to the production of proteins that enable neuronal growth and the formation of new synapses. Experience—the activation of specific neural pathways—therefore directly shapes gene expression (i.e., ‘epigenesis’), and leads to the maintenance, creation, and strengthening of the connections that form the neural substrate of the mind” (2020, location 720).
Research suggests that “agreeableness holds the strongest environmental component of the Big Five traits” (Laursen, Pulkkinen, & Adams, 2002). Our environment is essential to healthy development. As we mature, we can see more objectively, correcting harmful environments, replacing them with helpful others and healing surroundings to alter gene expression, leading to a optimal level of agreeableness, neither self-diminishing or relationship destroying. In this way, we can enjoy many of the benefits without suffering from the most damaging consequences.
Cacioppo, John; Patrick, William (2008). Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. W. W. Norton & Company.
Davidson, Richard, J. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—and How You Can Change. Avery; 1st edition.
DeYoung, Colin G. (2017) Impulsivity as a personality Trait. In Handbook on Self-Regulation, editors Vols, Kathleen; Baumeister Roy. The Guilford Press; Third edition.
Gottman, John (2011). The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. W. W. Norton & Company; Illustrated edition.
Heller, Lawrence; LaPierre, Aline (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition.
Karr-Morse, Robin; Wiley, Meredith, S. (2014). Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. Atlantic Monthly Press; 1st edition.
Laursen, B., Pulkkinen, L., & Adams, R. (2002). The Antecedents and Correlates of Agreeableness in Adulthood. Developmental Psychology, 38(4), 591-603.
Little, B. R. (2016). Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being. Public Affairs; Reprint edition
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Murphy, T. Franklin (2020). Big Five Personality Traits. Psychology Fanatic. Published 11-7-2020. Accessed 10-18-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Epigenetics. Psychology Fanatic. Published 11-9-2021. Accessed 10-20-2022.
Pinker, Steven (2003). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Penguin Books; Reprint edition.
Samuel, D., & Gore, W. (2012). Maladaptive Variants of Conscientiousness and Agreeableness. Journal of Personality, 80(6), 1669-1696.
Siegel, Daniel, J. (2020). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Third edition.
Stavrova, O., Evans, A., & van Beest, I. (2022). The Effects of Partner Extraversion and Agreeableness on Trust. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, OnlineFirst, 1.