Updated: Nov 17
[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
I stumbled upon this video of professor Jordan Peterson waxing poetical about agreeableness; how excessive agreeableness can be harmful, how a greater percentage of men are highly disagreeable whereas more women are highly agreeable, and how the most highly agreeable among us often can't articulate what we want because we often don't know what we want. I found myself nibbling the edges of my proverbial conscience: am I too agreeable? Perhaps. The very fact that I was asking the question of myself may indicate excessive agreeableness, as uncertainty is one of the signs of a too-agreeable person. But then I did what any thriving millennial woman would do and Googled: "Am I too agreeable?" only to have the worldwide web spoon feed me sundry quizzes to take (I took this one, it's likely a sham). My results came back: moderately agreeable, and I was slightly relieved. There's a small but significant difference in getting along well with others and letting others walk all over you, which is apparently what excessively agreeable people are apt to do.
Agreeableness is one of the five personality traits of the Big Five personality theory. A person with a high level of agreeableness is usually warm, friendly, and tactful. They generally have an optimistic view of human nature and get along well with others. A person who scores low on agreeableness may put their own interests above those of others. They tend to be distant, unfriendly, and uncooperative.
Big Five personality theory was formed by several sets of researchers who defined five broad traits based on empirical, data-driven research. The five big traits are: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. A brief breakdown of each appears below.
Openness: People who score high in openness like to learn new things. They are insightful, imaginative, and have many interests.
Conscientiousness: People with a high degree of conscientiousness are reliable, prompt, organized, and thorough.
Extroversion: Extroverts become energized by being around others, while introverts re-energize by being alone. Extroverts are often energetic, talkative, and assertive.
Agreeableness: Agreeable people are friendly, cooperative, compassionate, affectionate, and sympathetic. People with low agreeableness may be more distant and/or cold
Neuroticism: Neuroticism is also called "Emotional Stability," and relates to one's degree of negative emotions. People with high scores in neuroticism often experience emotional instability and may be moody or tense.
[If you're paying attention, the first letter of each trait spells "OCEAN," which means next to nothing.]
I took a Big Five test (take it here), and my results are below. Openness to experience: 83
Maybe I was in a sour mood, but my agreeable score was fairly low. I'm obviously no expert, but being too agreeable is negative for a few reasons, some of which Peterson touched on.
Conflict is often not enjoyable, and those who are highly agreeable will go out of their way to avoid it. Avoiding conflict feels good in the moment because it allows us to avoid the stress, anxiety, guilt, or other negative emotion that may accompany conflict. Eventually though, unresolved conflicts become bigger and more stressful. It's important for agreeable people to dissociate negative emotions from conflicts and learn the tools to managing conflicts, such as being calm/non-defensive, empathizing with your opponents point of view, compromising, moving past the conflict, and growing/learning.
Agreeable people go to great lengths to maintain social harmony, so it makes sense that they are often hyper-aware of how their words or actions influence or impact others. This level of self-awareness can be good, but it can also be detrimental if we start to worry too much about what others think. Studies show that most of us consistently overestimate how much, and how badly, others think about our failings. Most people aren't thinking that much about other people because humans as a species are wildly self-centered. And while it might not be possible or even beneficial to not care what anyone thinks ever, it is freeing to let go of unnecessary worry. You cannot control the thoughts or perceptions of others, even if you think you can.
3. Susceptibility to "Groupthink"
Being too agreeable can also make you susceptible to something called “groupthink,” which is the backbone of cults, MLM's, organized religions, political parties, businesses, creative endeavors, and more or less, any group of people. Groupthink is not always bad, but does result in groups ditching independent thought in favor of collective agreement. Teams with too many highly agreeable people on them tend to fall into this trap more often. In group situations, being disagreeable can actually make you think more independently and look beyond the obvious for other solutions, which is why those who are disagreeable in the workplace often rise to the top. Those who prioritize social harmony over creativity or innovation probably work best independently.
4. You Don't Have Clear Boundaries
Because agreeable people don't want to "rock the boat," they often agree to do whatever everyone else wants to do, or see the movie their partner wants to see, or live where their partner wants to live, or study whatever the world tells them to study. Agreeable people are often easily influenced and don't have clear boundaries. As anyone who has read any book ever knows, boundaries are important if you'd like to live a healthy, toxic-free, fulfilling, and overall objectively not bad life. Setting boundaries can be hard though. To create boundaries, you have to be direct, self-aware, unapologetic, and most of all, you must know what you want, which brings us to point 5. (Check out one of my past blogs about expressing your needs and setting emotional boundaries.)
5. You Don't Know What You Want
As Peterson says in the video I referenced at the beginning of this oh-so-insightful-blog, agreeable people often spend so much time living for others that they can't live for themselves because they don't know what they want. This strikes me as a wee bit sad: taking the time to figure out exactly what you want is unilaterally empowering and probably the best way to find real and lasting happiness. So how do you do it? According to Jennice Vilhauer, Ph.D., a good way to figure out what you want is to first clarify the things you don't want, because most of us find that easier. Then flip the "don't wants" into wants. For example, "I don't want to work a dead end job that isn't fulfilling" could be flipped into "I want a fulfilling job that offers opportunities for growth."