Why And How Nice Guys Strategize To Screw Themselves Out Of Sex And Happiness

I’ve finally figured the Nice Guy thing out and why it’s such a trap as a relationship strategy. I’ve not talked about Prisoners Dilemma as a framework for a while, so you can read my longer earlier post on that topic, or just plow ahead with this one.

So assuming a basic “Nice or Mean” matrix between a husband and a wife for say completing basic household tasks that need to be done, the matrix would look something like this…

Now it seems fairly obvious that having both husband and wife be nice to each other is the ideal setup. Obviously both being mean to each other is pretty unpleasant too. But the options where one half plays the nice card and gets screwed for it while the other plays the mean card and wins a servant for a day can be…. well tempting, if only for once in a while.

In a real relationship this game is played over and over. It’s slightly over simplifying things to say that a couple coming home from work each day decide to be either nice or mean to each other, but in general it’s true. As even well below average intelligence humans are extremely bright compared to other mammals, both husband and wife learn each others playing strategies very quickly.

The Nice Guy strategy is simple – always play the nice card. No matter what happens, whether the wife is nice or mean, he will just continue to play the nice card.

Very quickly the wife will learn that her husband is using the Nice Guy strategy and will always play the nice card. That allows her to very safely use a strategy called “Whatever I Feel Like” where she on her own whim can either choose to be nice and have a pleasant time with her husband, or simply choose to be mean and be waited on by him.

Over time the husband gets increasingly frustrated with this combination of strategies. He is being nice and she is not. He rationalizes that she should be nice back to him, but she isn’t always or even terribly often, though she is sometimes. The obvious solution to an impartial observer is to tell the Nice Guy to stop his strategy and adopt a “Tit for Tat” strategy. Unfortunately the Nice Guy nearly always refuses this advice. The question that had being bugging me was why. Now I figured it out, read on…

An easy answer is that Nice Guys are simply psychically damaged from some sort of childhood trauma and can’t break free of the early programming. Though that may indeed be true, that helps us little as an actual tool for change. The way I believe it is best understood as an adult is that the Nice Guy gets hooked into a behavioral response pattern to being given a random reward.

Imagine a lab rat in a cage and with a lever on one wall. If every time the lever is pushed a food pellet is given, the rat will only push the lever when it wants a food pellet. The rest of the time it will ignore the lever. If the lever does nothing, the rat will play with it, figure out it’s useless and then ignore it. However if the lever randomly drops a food pellet into the rage, the rat will spend a lot of effort working the lever to ensure it has a supply of food pellets. It’s the same basic principle that addicts people to gambling on the one armed bandit slot machines. You may pull the lever nine times and get nothing, but the tenth time might be a winner, or maybe not until the 100th pull. It’s random.

So for the Nice Guy, the problem isn’t that he never gets what he wants, the problem is that he sometimes gets what he wants. Assuming… well this is a sex blog, so lets just assume he wants sex… assuming he wants sex, it’s not that she never has sex with him, but that he gets it drip fed to him.

Rather than understanding that the Nice Guy strategy is a losing strategy, he mistakenly believes that it is in fact a winning strategy. Rather than altering the strategy he resolves to be even nicer to her. The thought process is that nice does effect her and that by being even nicer that she will reward him more frequently (i.e. “be in the mood”). After all he thinks to himself… on the nights that she did have sex with him he was being nice, so nice must have an effect, so therefore… increase the nice! It’s the same approach as someone buying not just one lottery ticket but dozens in the belief that more chances to win are better.

Ultimately though his being nice has minimal effect on her. He’s always going to be nice, so she can do whatever the hell she wants. She can drip feed him sex once every 2-4 weeks for years on end if she carefully manages his frustration level and thereby avoid a great deal of the more mundane tasks of everyday life. More than likely this is all completely subconsciously done on her part and stems from her overall sexual disinterest in him. If the Nice Guy is putting in endless effort to be nice to her, it’s essentially a totally Beta approach with no Alpha at all. Not good. Not good at all.

The solution is as I said earlier a “Tit for Tat” strategy. It’s in my earlier post and outlined on Wikipedia…   (I edited “nice” below to “peaceful” to avoid confusion with the Nice Guy strategy)

Peaceful: The most important condition is that the strategy must be peaceful, that is, it will not defect before its opponent does (this is sometimes referred to as an “optimistic” algorithm). Almost all of the top-scoring strategies were peaceful; therefore a purely selfish strategy will not “cheat” on its opponent, for purely utilitarian reasons first.

Retaliating: However, the successful strategy must not be a blind optimist. It must sometimes retaliate. An example of a non-retaliating strategy is Always Cooperate (aka Nice Guy). This is a very bad choice, as “nasty” strategies will ruthlessly exploit such players.

Forgiving: Successful strategies must also be forgiving. Though players will retaliate, they will once again fall back to cooperating if the opponent does not continue to defect. This stops long runs of revenge and counter-revenge, maximizing points.

Non-envious: The last quality is being non-envious, that is not striving to score more than the opponent (impossible for a ‘nice’ strategy, i.e., a ‘nice’ strategy can never score more than the opponent).

In the end the Nice Guy just has to try bumping back on the abuse and gauge the results. There’s almost no point trying to ask the wife to be nicer and offer up sex more often. Like I’ve said many times talk is near pointless in changing behavior while action is a much faster route and often the only thing that does anything. The solution to not being taken advantage of is simple self assertion. It will feel weird and awkward at first, but it’s never too late to learn.

Give it a whirl. If you were only going to get sex once this month for a hundred hours of domestic service, you may as well just take the month off and see what happens. I have a hunch that the poker machines are rigged to pay out better when you’re closer to the door.


  1. Anonymous says

    Totally off topic but Peaceful/Retaliating/Forgiving/Non-envious sounds like an excellent foreign policy strategy.

  2. Athol Kay says

    It's not actually all that off topic really. Whether it's two countries or two people, the matix of interaction isn't that different.

  3. Russel says

    PUAs advocate sparse and erratic rewards in long term relationships to put the woman in the lab rat position. Based on your description, it sounds like you think this works. I'm guessing you don't advocate it, though. What do you think?

  4. Ellen says

    Athol, I've always wondered why men married to, well, bitchy women seemed to try so much harder with them than men with nice wives. I think you've solved the mystery!

  5. Louie says

    I am a recovering nice guy myself. The reason that so many of us fall into this terrible strategy is because we are afraid of what will happen if we ever stop being nice. To a nice guy, it looks like you have three options:

    1 – Continue as you am now and get hardly any sex
    2 – Work harder and maybe get more sex
    3 – Stop being a nice guy and get no sex at all

    The fatal flaw here is that the nice guy assumes that his trickle of sex is only happening because of his nice guy behavior and will stop as soon as he stops working hard to earn it. It does not occur to him that maybe the nice guy thing is part of the problem and his wife would find him more attractive if he starting setting boundaries and sticking up for himself.

    The only way to break out of this cycle is to eventually face your fears and decide that maybe no sex is better than working your ass off for a trickle. After that, a man can start to restore his own self respect and force the relationship to change as a result.

  6. Athol Kay says

    Russel – the random rewarding does work until such time as she realizes you are playing her. After that she may just walk or seek revenge on you. In LTR / Marriage I suggest a variety of your own behavior where you can be both Alpha and Beta in your approach towards her. It is "pleasingly random" but not at her expense.

  7. David says

    This model is similar, with some differences, to the game theory model known as the Prisoner's Dilemma. ("Game" here in the sense of the mathematical analysis of warfare and other types of conflict, not the Roissyan sense)

    In the Prisoner's Dilemma, two guilty criminals are being separately interrogated. If you are one of them, your choices are:

    –If you squeal and the other crook doesn't, you get an easy sentence: 1 year
    –If neither of you squeals, you both get off completely
    –If he squeals and you don't, you get 20 years.
    –If you both squeal, you get 10 years

    Your model is most similar to the "iterated Prisoner's Dilemma," in which the same players must make the choice multiple times.

  8. Miles Anderson says

    The poker machine with a certain pay structure in NV can't pay out dependent on their location room. If a game depicts physical things (like cards) then the probabilities must be like that thing. But the pay structure (e.g. pay less for a flush) can vary. And casinos can vary pay structure in the room.

    BF Skinnerish response isn't all that crazy. Being predictable and good is a common and positive behavior for an LTR. The wheels fly off otherwise. But occasionally interjecting a little randomness is exciting. Don't do it when you need to deal with an errant child or an interesting financial situation. But make her work a little every once in a while in other spots. Some birthday/Anniversary don't do what is obvious but show up with a PBR for you and a teddy for her. Or have a surprise date where you don't take her to a cool new restaurant but instead to a rodeo. It depends on what is a little far out for you. Personally I thinking like a nude hop-n-pop sky dive over the desert. But you get the drift. I might also just take her to the library :)

  9. R. Stanton Scott says

    What an intriguing application of game theory to marriage and relationships!

    You had me wondering who you were making fun of toward the end–and I think Roissy's dot is on the line between "Women are Submissive" and "Women are Dangerous."

    But this has me thinking of this in a new way.

    Thanks, and nicely done.

  10. Anonymous says

    While the solution you get to in the end is valid, the reasoning you used to get to it is off.

    Humans are not rats, and they are motivated by other things than just rewards/food/sex. Most of the really incurrable "nice guys" are that way not because they think that strategy works(it doesn't, so they'd find that out pretty early), but because for them, being "nice to woman" is a value in itself; a moral goal.

    With the most die-hard "nice guys" whose belief that "man has to be nice to woman" is the strongest, you can do just about anything to them – deny them sex, heap guilt on them, terrorize them mentally and physically etc., yet they will still persist in their stance that "man has to take it",destroying themselves in the process.

    In the end, the phillistines who are "nice" because they think it will get them more sex are much better off and easier to cure.

    But the real way out for all of us is to completely socially discredit the ridiculous notion that "man has to be nice to a woman". He doesn't, and shouldn't. He should be to her such as she deserves at the moment. There is no glory in being nice to a woman that treats you badly – it's just wrong.

  11. Athol Kay says

    Actually food and sex needs are the hardest issues to fix from a behavioral standpoint. I can very much assure you that people do act "like rats" far more than we care to admit.

    I do agree that there is a moral aspect to it as well. But at some point they learned that viewpoint and were rewarded for having it.

    I've come to see it as a dopamine effect for a randomized reward. People know that playing a one armed bandit in a casino is just going to take their money eventually, but plenty of people get hooked to them too.

    But as you say, you can't just tell a nice guy he's screwing himself over and except him to stop. They are addicted to their behavior.

  12. Anonymous says

    So what is the solution then? It's great advice but then ends on an inconclusive note. So if I'm too much of a "nice" guy, are you saying I should start to be a rude, obnoxious jerk to my wife? That sounds like fixing one problem by creating another.

  13. Athol Kay says

    Hi Anon 1/28/11 – you are doing a classic Nice Guy thought process here. The solution is not to do the "opposite" and switch from supplicating and weak into a bully, but simply to refuse to be taken advantage of and withdraw the nice.

    Example – say you're frequently picking you wife up from her work and she repeatedly yells at you about taking too long to get her etc. The solution isn't to scream at her / smack the ho, but to simply say "I don't enjoy being treated like this when I'm doing something for you. If this doesn't stop, you'll need to find your own way home".

    Then if it doesn't stop, you stop picking her up.

  14. frustrated househusband says

    Game theory for sex. D'oh – it's so obvious. And I actually use game theory for solving problems in my profession.

  15. Anonymous says

    Wish I'd found this site before I left my wife a year ago. She accused me of being "nice" just because I wanted something (sex, of course). I was nice, because that's who I am. If I saw the laundry needed to be folded, I folded it. I like to cook, so I cooked. I don't like dishes sitting for hours, so I did them. Not an issue of looking for sex, but an issue of being part of a marriage and sharing responsibilities.

    Problem was, my wife just accepted her "Queen" role, and I ultimately became her servant. I fell into the "well, if what I'm doing isn't enough then I need to do more!" Not a good ending, ultimately.

    I see the point you're trying to make, but wonder how to apply it. I guess I'm just not getting the "gaming". Is the bottom line that my participation in the day-to-day activities of a relationship should be a pleasant surprise, rather than an expectation?

  16. Athol Kay says

    Probably the best move would have been to chew her out for being lazy around the house. Then stop cleaning up after her like a servant if she didn't pick up her slack.

    Once she starts doing her share, you can do your share too. But you can't do her share for her and expect her to have any respect for you.

  17. Nic says

    I'm just this guy who never conducted a study so I don't know how true this could be.

    My mother always told me, every time a relationship failed, this is YOUR fault. You treat them like princesses, they begin to believe they are princesses and start expecting "more" and "better" to the point where you are no longer good enough, stop doing it.

    Well, I'm 35 now and boy have I ever stopped doing it. As a recovered nice guy I confirm I would never like to go back to that life. Relationships are a lot easier to handle when they're not in control of you.

    Also, how did I end up that way when it was my mother that raised me, yet she's the one who knew where I was going wrong? Did she too grow older and wiser? I guess so.

  18. Anonymous says

    Nic: If you haven't figured this out already, you should NEVER accept dating or marriage advice from a woman, especially not your mother. My wife a few years ago once said to me "Why don't you stand up for yourself? when I'm wrong, why don't you tell me I'm wrong?" That made me take notice – she wanted me to lead her, to shelter her from her emotions, and to tell her to shut up when need be. Just a week ago she hung up on me when I told her something she did not want to hear. That needed to be slapped down. I told her in no uncertain terms that I did not appreciate being hung up on when I was talking to her on the phone and that I expected it not to happen again.

    Thing is, with a wife you can't do things like that every day. She's a wife, not a girlfriend, and you can't just leave a wife.

  19. Anonymous says

    Anonymous April 18, 2011 2:59 PM,

    The truth is the truth no matter who was the source that provided it. Nic's mom advise to him to stop treating women like princesses was right on the money.

    Have you ever heard of the 180 degree rules? they are used as an empowerment tool for betrayed spouses so they can get strong enough to move on with their lives with or without their cheating spouse. Of course one of the unintended consequences is that the cheating spouse panics that his/her consolation prize spouse is not going to be there if the affair with his/her lover doesn't work out like they want.

    If your wife is not doing her wifely duties of not treating with respect and giving you emotional support via sexual intimacy, then a couple of applications of the 180 degree rules will definitely shake her from her complacent behavior. The problem is that many spouses, men especially, cannot seem to grow a pair in order to implement it because they are afraid that their marriage will end. They forget that their wives also have veto power and can end the marriage if they are so inclined to do so.

    If we want to be treated like men, we have to act like men – i.e. take crap from no one and stop living in fear that our wives will leave us.

  20. Anonymous says

    My husband is the nicest guy I know, and we f$ck like rabbits. No need for all these silly calculations. He does his part around the house, I do mine, and we keep the lust alive. He is very Alpha in bed, though, so maybe that's where we keep the "nice" from being too nice.

  21. Anonymous says

    Your blog is great.

    Is there anywhere in the blog, or your book, where you talk about HOW you bump back? I recently realized that the fact my parents _never_ argued (though seem happily in love, very traditional relationship) has left me not knowing how to fight at all! I just grew up where if you were nice and reasonable other people were. This has worked terribly in my marriage, you'll be unsurprised to learn ;)

  22. Muscle Warfare says

    The simple way to getaway of this rotation is to ultimately handle your doubts and make a decision so as to perhaps no sex is far better rather than running yourself out for a dribble.

    I like the way you explained the situation about nice and mean husband and wife.

  23. Anonymous says

    What about when housework's completely unrelated? We're having immense problems basically because she just "feels differently" about me. I don't push her button any more. Doesn't mean she doesn't have one – I just don't push it. I am in the nice guy category, but she's no Queen. We share chores equally and don't have any household tensions, but she just feels differently and can't explain why.

    I've been through all of the usual, trying more, trying less, trying to discuss it openly, but we always end up in the same place: she doesn't feel it for me and she doesn't know why.

    I just don't know what the next step is and it tears me up inside.

  24. Neuren says

    I am also a Mr Nice guy, housework the lot – no sex. I realized it was getting me no where. Stopped clearing up after my wife even though the breakfast dishes on the table at dinner time was driving me nuts. Still no sex, and I had a fantastic sex life until I met my wife, and unfortunately she knows this and I think this has irrevocably damaged my chances. We have a son, amongst other reasons, I want it to work, but I must say the will to make it work is waning.

  25. luke24 says

    I don’t really want to be nitpicky but this is not like the prisoners dilemma at all. In that scenario, neither party has access to the other. This is much closer to a game theory strategy generally called tit for tat. It involves a much deeper game strategy where the primary modes of operation are giving and retaliation. As long as both people give, both win. As each player realizes that they can cheat and obtain a higher reward they start a mode of retaliation. Retaliation becomes a losing strategy for both players and the game then becomes moving back to a giving game.

    With that said, the reason why this is not the prisoners dilemma is that in a relationship, choices are made in relation to other choices, she did this so I’ll do that. The prisoners dilemma clearly state that the two prisoners are in separate rooms and the choice is the same for each. The prisoners dilemma is about trust, not giving and retaliation.

    Although I only mostly agree with your post, this game is tit for tat and not the prisoners dilemma. Good post though, made me think.

  26. Tim says

    The solution is to tie her arms behind her back and have very good sex with her. Women love that bigtime.

  27. Kevin says

    Any response to the Anon post from Oct 17; to the “she does doesn’t feel it for me anymore”.

  28. Kickboxer Gal says

    Athol wrote – Email me Anon 12:52. Tell me the whole story.

    My heart melted reading that guys story. Did he email?

    Are they still together?

  29. The Econ Major Simp says

    luke24 obviously knows his game theory. tit for tat would indeed be the strategy from what I understand. I mean the thing to understand is that a lot of actions are sequential by nature, whereas a “prisoner’s dilemma” is played simultaneously with identical action choices. That’s not to say NO decisions you make in a relationship are done in a way consistent with this model. For instance, what you say to other people about your spouse behind their back would be an example of simultaneous interaction. To stand relatively better among family and friends, it would be very easy, then (up to a point where you’d just sound like a jerk!), to “rat the other person out” for their flaws: something you wouldn’t necessarily do to your spouse in person, because you’re indefinitely gonna get retaliated…unless they’re nice. :p But even in that situation, the prisoner’s dilemma can be oversimplifying, and it’s a trap that one thinks of all social interaction as this game, which is (thankfully) not always true…for one abstract reason or another.

    I mean the result of the paradigm, given certain assumptions, is half of the battle–arguably only a quarter or less of it. The other part is the assumptions we put in the model. Putting aside rational preference and information caveats, which exist in pretty much every game you play, what you’re gonna have to sort out in this model is what determines preferences. In a model where utility is determined purely by “getting what you want” without any sort of payoff for maybe…doing the “right” thing…well you’re gonna end up with an “equilibrium outcome” of mean, mean, in a relationship (hetero or homo), because you’re assuming that preferences are structured for everyone in the same way as a rather self-entitled (idiot! ooops! I meant) person.

    Let’s say there’s payoff for being a “nice guy” because the guy in question thinks it is a social cause worth fighting for, and thinks flipping off social darwinism is worth the sh*tty sex life (subtle syntax irony intended) that results, well you’re playing a different game, my friend, and it’s one that I play. Call it the “nice guy dilemma” if you will.

    I love the game theory modeling being put forth here, despite expressing a very elitist-jerk attitude about it. As much as game theory is a trap if you have too much faith in the model, it REALLY does make you think. And there is some moral sentiment to this article that I agree with, which is that being a nice guy, for one reason or another, most-likely results in a lousy sex life. But then again, so does really thinking about game theory–and trying to get good marks in the subject in college–to the point of not devoting time to get swole at the gym in a way that attracts a large proportion of women…or worse, not devoting time to partying out at nights and encountering the types of women down for some action.

    Yours truly,
    A loud and proud academic simpleton!


  1. […] Re: Ongoing jealousy and insecurity after unfaithful behavior Early on you were an Alpha and she pursued you. You got married, the Alpha went away, and she started to pursue other people. When she was messing around, the Alpha Disappeared, and now she is mocking you. Seriously. Read this page here: Why And How Nice Guys Strategize To Screw Themselves Out Of Sex And Happiness | Married Man Sex Life […]

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