People Hate When You’re Petty, According to Science

3 minute read

Counting dollars and cents won’t make you any friends, according to a new study.

A paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology examined how pettiness — being intentionally attentive to trivial details — affects relationships and the way people perceive one another. The researchers repeatedly found that petty behaviors made people seem less likable, even when the actions objectively benefitted others.

“Being precise isn’t always a good thing for the quality of relationships,” says study co-author Tami Kim, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “Sometimes, leaving a little room for error might be a good idea.”

In one experiment, people were shown two transaction histories from the payment app Venmo. In one, a person paid back acquaintances in round amounts ($10, $35 and $20), while another person paid $9.99, $34.95 and $20.06. When asked which person they’d rather be friends with, the vast majority of study participants picked the person who paid round amounts. This suggests that being petty — in this case, by accounting for every last cent — is considered a negative quality, the authors say.

Apps like Venmo make this sort of pettiness easier to stumble into. Before Venmo, “people may have had other ways that they relied on to settle the bill: things like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll get you next time,'” Kim says. “The rise of digital platforms like Venmo and Paypal are encouraging precision in the way that people exchange resources.”

The researchers even found that “generous” pettiness, both in terms of money and time, is unconsidered unattractive.

In another experiment, single people were shown fake dating profiles that included a response to a question about how long that person would help a friend move furniture. A third of the profiles indicated that they’d help for exactly an hour and 56 minutes (from 1 p.m. to 2:56 p.m.); a third said they’d help for two hours (from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.); and a third said they’d help for two hours and four minutes (from 1 p.m. to 3:04 p.m.). People were most willing to date the person who offered the middle option, even though the third person was technically more generous with his or her time — again, suggesting that being too exacting is a turnoff.

These results don’t only apply to potential friends and dates, Kim says. In another survey included in the study, people in relationships were asked questions about their partner’s pettiness and their relationship satisfaction. Researchers found a correlation between reported partner pettiness and unhappiness in a relationship, Kim says.

“The downfall of pettiness can happen across many types of relationships, even amongst people who have been together for a long time,” she says. “Pay attention to the ways even the simplest behavior can be interpreted.”

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