Disagreeable men in traditional marriages earn more — and their wives could be why

June 6, 2021
Disagreeable men may be more financially successful because they have stronger supportive resources at home. (Unsplash/Ryoji Iwata)

Disagreeable men may be more financially successful because they have stronger supportive resources at home. (Unsplash/Ryoji Iwata)

Men with disagreeable personalities who are in traditional marriages earn higher salaries, but only if they are supported by highly conscientious wives at home, new research involving roughly 1,750 married couples suggests.

Previous research has shown that adherence to traditional gender roles in marriage is strongly predictive of financial success for men. A similar relationship has been established between disagreeableness and higher earnings for men — but not for women. 

Seeking to explain these phenomena, the authors of a study published May 22 in Personnel Psychology theorized that disagreeable men are more financially successful because they have stronger supportive resources at home, Elizabeth Campbell, an assistant professor and a Lawrence Research Fellow in the department of work and organizations at the University of Minnesota and a co-author of the study, told The Academic Times

"It's not just because disagreeable men are being jerks and strategic at work. It's because they don't have to do as much in the home environment," she said. "So it's really about understanding how their orientation toward their wife and having to do less at home enables job involvement." 

Agreeableness generally refers to someone who is warm, sympathetic, kind and cooperative — basically, a nice person. And though the term "disagreeable" has a negative connotation, it's more of a mixed bag as a workplace trait, Campbell said. Disagreeableness in an employee can manifest as argumentativeness and lower consideration of co-workers, but it can also be positive in terms of self-advocacy: Disagreeable workers may be better equipped to negotiate higher pay and decline to take on tasks outside of their job descriptions. 

"If the default is 'no,' if your default is not being distracted by pings and requests and the millions of emails that come through, that is an increasingly valuable skill set if you can do it without being a jerk," she said. "You can be disagreeable, or you can be sufficiently rooted to your own self-interest. There needs to be a balance.

"Being disagreeable doesn't mean they can't get along with others and respect people's perspectives. It just means it's more effortful to do so," she continued. "On the other side of the coin, for an agreeable person, it doesn't mean they can't self-advocate or can't say no. It's just not their default, and it takes more energy." 

For the study, the researchers used Qualtrics, a third-party research company, to administer online surveys to 195 married couples who were demographically representative of the United States' population. The sample was limited to opposite-sex marriages because the researchers' theory of social exchange at home applies only to men who are employed full time and married to women. Participants answered questions about their income, job involvement and gender-role traditionalism, as well as the wife's household performance and conscientiousness. 

Conscientiousness is one of the Big Five personality traits, along with extroversion, agreeableness, openness and neuroticism. These traits are considered by many psychologists to be the basic building blocks of personality, and to be predictive of behavior. 

"The reason we aimed at conscientiousness is that we know it's a powerful predictor of how reliable you are, your natural detail orientation and whether you feel fulfilled by getting stuff done," Campbell said. "So we thought that conscientious wives would be more reliable resources in this capacity." 

The results showed that the positive association between disagreeableness and income was strongest among men who adhered to traditional gender roles and had more conscientious wives. A one-unit increase in disagreeableness, measured using nine items from the Big Five Inventory, was associated with $4,000 more in earnings among men in traditional marriages with highly conscientious wives, the authors found.

This finding was supported by an analysis of the British Household Panel Survey, a publicly available dataset compiled by the University of Essex that relies on a representative sample of British households to gather socioeconomic data. The researchers looked at 1,558 men whose wives had self-reported their personality traits. All men they surveyed were employed full time and reported monthly labor income from 2005 to 2008. Again, the disagreeableness premium was found to be strongest among disagreeable men married to more conscientious women.

"This finding suggests that the disagreeableness premium may be partially due to reliance on wives' services at home," the authors wrote.  

Notably, the relationship between disagreeableness and pay was not significant for traditional men with less conscientious wives. "If you've negotiated with somebody else to take care of your home life, and if your partner isn't very capable or that's not their natural bent, it's not that same supportive home environment," Campbell said.

The study underscores the importance of understanding how people's home lives affect their work, rather than thinking about careers in isolation, she said. If organizations better understood who was enabling the careers of their most talented employees, perhaps employers would place more emphasis on helping workers fulfill their broad responsibilities by offering on-site day care and meal service and arranging for transportation of their children and other family members. 

"The most critical resource is time," Campbell said, "and we need to be acknowledging that that's affected by your whole self that you bring to a professional workplace." 

The study, "Why disagreeableness (in married men) leads to earning more: a theory and test of social exchange at home," published May 22 in Personnel Psychology, was authored by Brittany C. Solomon, Matthew E.K. Hall and P. Cindy Muir (Zapata), University of Notre Dame; and Elizabeth M. Campbell, University of Minnesota. 

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