Children aren't the only ones who harbor resentment toward a teacher's pet. Overachievers, it seems, are resented in the workplace too, according to a group of studies conducted by Washington State University.
Through a battery of experiments, researchers found that despite a worker's willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty to achieve a greater goal, their co-workers secretly wanted the do-gooder off the team.
"People feel driven to outdo the group member who is setting the standard," Craig Parks, social psychologist and lead author of the study, said in his bluntly-titled report, The Desire to Expel Unselfish Members From the Group. "To compete with such a person means that one would need to give even more and take even less, not a very desirable prospect. Removal of this person would eliminate that competitive standard."
Interestingly, Parks and Co. initially set out to explore the opposite social phenomenon. Their initial test was designed to investigate an individual's tolerance of group members who abuse a public good, not those trying to selflessly achieve it.
The participants, a group of introductory psychology students, were asked to play a video game with four other team members, who unbeknownst to them were actually computer programs. Each team member, whether real or virtual, was given 10 points each round. They had the option of keeping their points for themselves or donating them to the group bank account, where their value would be doubled. A quarter of the points initially donated could in turn be withdrawn back into a player's bank account. The points in each bank account would be converted into campus meal tickets, but if the players managed to keep a certain amount of unspecified points in the group account by the game's end, which was left unspecified, they would all split a monetary award.
The study was designed so that three of the four virtual players would contribute reasonably, while the fourth went rogue. Sometimes the rogue computer program would behave greedily, taking more than his fair share. This was, after all, the behavior whose tolerance was being measured. However, as a control, researchers programmed the rogue player to also do the opposite, and donate more than necessary. Once the game was complete, they asked the students who they would like to play with again.
As predicted, participants were clearly unwilling to wrangle with the greedy player. However, oddly enough, they were quick to dismiss the benevolent one as well, explaining that Johnny Do-Gooder was making them look bad.
Believing that the findings may have been a statistical anomaly, Parks repeated similar versions of the study three more times, adding new elements to each to validate authenticity. In one version, participants were allowed to vote off members of the team. And guess who most of the participants selected to bite the dust?
Parks also explained in a press release that many participants also viewed the do-gooder as a social deviant intent on breaking the rules. "They represent a threat to the stability of the group norm, and that others see removal as an effective method of dealing with the problem."
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