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Empirical evidence that nice people don’t always finish last



Enlarge / Look at this jerk.

Think your boss is a jerk? Wonder why the management of your organization consists of sociopaths? Some academic researchers suspect you’re not alone, and they start their new paper with the statement, “We suffer no shortage of jerks in power.” And they go on to ask the obvious question raised by this fact: “Does being a jerk help people attain power?”

To find out, the researchers set up a very long-term experiment. After administering personality surveys to undergrad and MBA students, they waited over a decade to follow up and find out which personality types had accrued power in the world of employment. The results suggest that jerks don’t necessarily get ahead at work; instead, some of the consequences of being unpleasant offset the benefits that it might otherwise provide.

The technical definition of “jerk”

Believe it or not, scientists have not developed a technical definition for “jerk.” But they do have one for the next best thing: disagreeable personalities, which the researchers describe as “the tendency to behave in quarrelsome, cold, callous, and selfish ways.” It’s a set of tendencies that tend to remain stable over time and can be identified through some basic personality surveys. And it’s those later two features that enabled the researchers to think long-term.

Starting around the turn of the century, the researchers started giving undergraduate and MBA students personality tests each year. Then, in 2018—an average of 14 years later—they got back in touch with some of the same students, with a third of them agreeing to do follow-up surveys, giving the researchers a total of about 670 participants. The studies they performed (a study and a replication of the result) were both preregistered, which ensures the researchers don’t just search for an analysis that produces a significant result.

The intervening years allowed these people to start careers and, in many cases, accrue some degree of authority and power in the companies they were working in. The authors defined power as “the capacity to influence others by providing or withholding resources or administering punishments.” The authors describe a number of ideas about how people end up with power, some of which overlap with disagreeableness. These include aggressive and coercive behavior that intimidates others or through calculated, political behavior that actively pursues power.

But there are other proposals where power is largely separate from whether someone’s disagreeable. These include power gained by being generous and participating in communal activities (which may require an agreeable personality) or simply by behaving competently and advancing through achievement.

The actual experiment

In one of the follow-up surveys, the researchers asked people a series of questions that got at how much power they’d accrued in their current place of employment, such as rank in the company hierarchy and number of employees supervised. And, in the replication experiment, they got the participants to get people they work with to rate the amount of power they had. They then compared the power rating to the outcomes of the personality test taken over a decade earlier.

The only major personality trait that was clearly associated with power was extroversion; disagreeableness didn’t correlate with power at all. The researchers then checked whether there might be a threshold effect, where a certain amount of manipulation and intimidation gets people ahead, while too much of it was a hindrance. But there was no indication that disagreeableness at any level had any relation to gathering power. There was also no connection if the data was also adjusted for things like race or gender, and there was no link to the degree people had obtained.

There was even no connection in organizations that have aggressive, intimidating cultures. Also having no effect: switching jobs often, years in the current organization, and the size of the organization. Being disagreeable just didn’t seem to get people into positions of authority.

This isn’t to say that it hurt people. There wasn’t a negative correlation, either. “Organizations place disagreeable individuals in powerful positions at the same rate they do agreeable individuals,” the authors write. “Nasty individuals reach the top just as often as nice individuals.”


For the replication study, the researchers got into the actual behaviors previously proposed to influence the accrual of power. They asked each participant’s co-workers to rate how often the subject engaged in intimidating behavior, relied on forming political connections, worked for others’ well being, and/or displayed competence. Extroverted people, who were best at accruing power, were rated as engaging in all of them. Disagreeable people, in contrast, were great at the aggressive behavior but undercut any gains that provided by being less communal and generous to their co-workers.

The good news here is that, as the researchers put it, “individuals who were more selfish, combative, and deceitful did not, subsequently, attain higher power.” So, nice people do not necessarily finish last. But, at the same time, nobody seems to be held back by displaying that list of behaviors on the job.

PNAS, 2020. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2005088117  (About DOIs).

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NASA delays flight of Boeing’s Starliner again, this time for parachutes



Enlarge / Starliner touches down in December 2019 for the first time.

NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

NASA and Boeing announced Wednesday that the first crewed flight of the Starliner spacecraft will now take place no earlier than July 21. This moves the vehicle’s flight, carrying NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore, from the previously announced timeframe of April.

The manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, Steve Stich, said the delay was attributable to the extra time needed to close out the pre-flight review process of Starliner and also due to traffic from other vehicles visiting the space station in June and the first half of July.

“When we look at all the different pieces, most of the work will be complete in April for the flight,” Stich said during a teleconference with reporters. “But there’s one area that’s extending out into the May time frame, and this really has to do with the certification products for the parachute system.”

Boeing has conducted more than 20 tests of its parachute system, including dropping the vehicle from different altitudes to test their deployment sequence and how the parachutes perform in different environments to simulate returning from space. Stich said there are no issues with the parachutes, which are installed on Starliner already. Mostly, it is about reviewing all the tests Boeing has done to ensure the parachutes performed as intended.

“It’s just a matter of going through all that data and looking at the data and making sure we’re really ready to go fly safely,” Stich said.

There is one final test to be completed on the ground, he said, of a parachute subsystem that pulls Starliner’s forward heat shield away and sets up deployment of the drogue and then main parachutes. That test is targeted for May.

The additional time needed to complete the review process of Starliner and its parachute system delayed the vehicle’s launch into June. However, at that time, NASA plans to launch SpaceX’s CRS-28 cargo resupply mission, which will tie up one of the lab’s docking hatches. This supply mission is bringing solar arrays to the station that NASA does not want to delay because it would delay planned spacewalks to install them. The lack of a docking port, therefore, pushed the Starliner flight into the second half of July.

NASA and Boeing must also balance schedules with United Launch Alliance, which is boosting the mission to orbit with its Atlas V rocket. The company presently has the USSF-51 mission scheduled for the Space Force this summer and also needs the Space Launch Complex-41 pad for the debut of its Vulcan rocket in May or later this summer.

This will be the third flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. The vehicle’s debut in December 2019 failed to rendezvous with the International Space Station after multiple issues, including software problems. After fixing these issues, Boeing flew the vehicle on a second test flight in May 2022. Although there were some propulsion issues with this flight, Starliner docked with the space station, setting the stage for a crewed flight test.

After Boeing completes this critical test flight and NASA certifies the vehicle as ready for operational missions, the company will fly approximately once a year to the space station for regular crew rotations. The first of these operational missions is planned for no earlier than the spring of 2024.

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California wants to build more solar farms but needs more power lines



Enlarge / Westlands Solar Park, near the town of Lemoore in the San Joaquin Valley of California, is the largest solar power plant in the United States and could become one of the largest in the world.

Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty

California’s San Joaquin Valley, a strip of land between the Diablo Range and the Sierra Nevada, accounts for a significant portion of the state’s crop production and agricultural revenues. But with the state facing uncertain and uneven water supply due to climate change, some local governments and clean energy advocates hope solar energy installations could provide economic reliability where agriculture falters due to possible water shortages.

In the next two decades, the Valley could accommodate the majority of the state’s estimated buildout of solar energy under a state plan forecasting transmission needs [PDF], adding enough capacity to power 10 million homes as California strives to reach 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. The influx of solar development would come at a time when the historically agriculture-rich valley is coping with new restrictions on groundwater pumping. Growers may need to fallow land. And some clean energy boosters see solar as an ideal alternative land use.

But a significant technological hurdle stands in the way: California needs to plan and build more long-distance power lines to carry all the electricity produced there to different parts of the state, and development can take nearly a decade. Transmission has become a significant tension point for clean energy developers across the US, as the number of project proposals balloons and lines to connect to the grid grow ever longer.

Existing lines are not enough to accommodate the spike in large clean energy installations, planning new transmission has lagged, and regulators have struggled to keep up with studying and processing all the projects looking to hook up to the grid.

“It’s undeniable that we do need major funding for transmission buildout in California, and frankly, the West, to meet our clean energy goals,” said Dian Grueneich, a former commissioner on the California public utility commission. “The issue is where, how much, when, et cetera, … It’s probably the most complex area there is.”

Compared to other regions, California has been relatively proactive in assessing the grid needs of a decarbonized future, said Rob Gramlich, founder of consulting firm Grid Strategies LLC. But there’s still much work to do.

“It’s a systemic problem across the country. We have interconnection queue process problems in most regions,” said Gramlich. “The problem is more acutely felt in any region that is going faster on the energy transition. And California is second to no one on the pace and ambition of its clean energy transition.”

That challenge could cause particular difficulties in regions of California expecting a big scale-up in renewable energy, like the North Coast, where offshore wind developers are planning projects, or areas of the Central Valley eyed by solar companies and facing a potential downturn in the water available for crops.

“Short of water”

In coming years, more land in California once used for agriculture could host solar. In 2014, the state approved the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, an effort to reduce over-pumping from aquifers that had caused land in certain parts of the state to sink. The law requires local water managers to submit plans to the state that demonstrate how they’ll keep industries and people from pulling water out of underground stores more quickly than it can be replenished.

California farmers get water for their crops via a combination of underground supplies and diversions from reservoirs, lakes, and other stores managed by the state and the federal Bureau of Reclamation. The new groundwater regulations, combined with climate change and other environmental regulations, could lead to a 20 percent drop in annual average water supplies in the San Joaquin Valley by 2040, according to a February analysis from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

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Healthy adults don’t need annual COVID boosters, WHO advisors say



Enlarge / A vial containing Moderna COVID-19 booster vaccine at a vaccination center.

A vaccine advisory group for the World Health Organization said Tuesday that, at this point, it does not recommend additional, let alone annual COVID-19 booster shots for people at low to medium risk of severe disease. It advised countries to focus on boosting those at high risk—including older people, pregnant people, and those with underlying medical conditions—every six to 12 months for the near- to mid-term.

The new advice contrasts with proposed plans by US Food and Drug Administration, which has suggested treating COVID-19 boosters like annual flu shots for the foreseeable future. That is, agency officials have floated the idea of offering updated formulations each fall, possibly to everyone, including the young and healthy.

In a viewpoint published last May in JAMA, the FDA’s top vaccine regulator, Peter Marks, along with FDA Commissioner Robert Califf and Principal Deputy Commissioner Janet Woodcock, argued that annual COVID booster campaigns in the fall, ahead of winter waves of respiratory infections—such as flu, COVID-19, and RSV—would protect health care systems from becoming overwhelmed. And they specifically addressed the possibility of vaccinating those at low risk.

“The benefit of giving additional COVID-19 booster vaccines to otherwise healthy individuals 18 to 50 years of age who have already received primary vaccination and a first booster dose is not likely to have as marked an effect on hospitalization or death as in the other populations at higher risk,” the FDA officials wrote. “However, booster vaccinations could be associated with a reduction in health care utilization (e.g., emergency department or urgent care center visits).”

In a press briefing Tuesday, WHO advisors called the benefit of boosting those at low or even medium risk “actually quite marginal” and suggested that countries could roll back offering primary COVID-19 vaccination series to low-risk healthy children and teens based on country-specific conditions and resources.

Context and limits

These updated recommendations “reflect that much of the population is either vaccinated or previously infected with COVID-19, or both,” said Hanna Nohynek, chair of the WHO’s advisory groups, called SAGE for the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization. But the advisor’s updated guidance “reemphasizes the importance of vaccinating those still at risk of severe disease, mostly older adults and those with underlying conditions, including with additional boosters,” she added.

Specifically, the WHO’s SAGE considered high-risk groups: older adults; younger adults with significant comorbidities, such as diabetes and heart disease; people 6 months and older with immunocompromising conditions, such as people living with HIV and transplant recipients; pregnant people; and frontline health workers.

For these high-risk groups, SAGE recommended an additional booster six to 12 months after their last, given the current epidemiological conditions. The advisors noted that the advice is “time-limited” for the current situation, not one for annual or biannual shots to be offered in perpetuity. The scenario and overall recommendations could change depending on new, more virulent variants or future declines in COVID-19 spread, for instance.

Already, the United Kingdom and Canada have offered spring COVID-19 boosters to high-risk groups, including older people and those who have immunocompromising conditions. So far, the FDA has not indicated that it will do the same.

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