Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side by Simon McCarthy-Jones tells us why spite can actually be a good thing, even though it probably doesn’t seem like it could be.
An act is considered spiteful if it involves harming another person, but in doing so, also harming (or potentially harming) oneself. Spite causes us to go against what would, at least in the short-term, be in our own best interests. This has posed challenges for economists and their notion of homo economicus, who acts rationally in their own self-interest.
The author points out that at least someone who’s being selfish can be reasoned with; “What do you say to a spiteful person who values your suffering more than their own well-being?”
Much of the book refers to research conducted using the “Ultimate Game.” In this game, people are paired and assigned a pot of money. It’s up to one person to decide how to divide the money and then make an offer to the second person. The second person can either accept the offer, or they can essentially say bite me, and neither of them gets any money.
The second person is always better off taking the money, because some money is better than none. But depending on the perceived fairness of the first person’s offer, the allure of the bite me can be very strong. When there is a $10 pot and the first person offers the second $2 or less (thus keeping $8 or more for themselves), about half of people will reject the offer even though it means they get diddly squat.
The author gives some quite extreme examples, including people killing themselves and their children. Perhaps most extreme, albeit probably more complicated than just spite, was that towards the end of WWII, Hitler had the choice of diverting trains to resupply German troops getting their butts kicked on the Eastern Front, or continue using those trains to send Jews to extermination camps. He went with the second option, to Germany’s military detriment.
The book talks about differences in spitefulness based on cultural views around fairness, sharing, and deservedness. Personality also has an impact, and the dark triad of personality traits (psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism) is associated with a higher tendency towards spitefulness.
Punishing unfairness activates our brain’s pleasure circuits. When faced with injustice, “our brains not only push us down the road of spite; they clear all traffic in the way.” When anger and moral outrage get involved, it can push us into a cutting off your nose to spite your face type of situation where the only one who actually gets hurt is you.
The book explores why spite was preserved through evolution, and the role it might have on a broader social level in enforcing social expectations around fairness. Even kids will give up candy to spite someone, so that’s got to be pretty deeply rooted!
The author offers an interesting argument for the potential role of spite in Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 US presidential election, as well as the outcome of the Brexit vote. There’s also a discussion of the role of spite in terrorism.
And of course, if we’re going to talk about spite, social media must have a seat at the table. The author writes, “If a Machiavellian mind set out to make spite flow, it could not have done better than create social networks. They decrease the cost of spite and multiply its benefits. Social media creates a perfect storm for spite. Online anonymity cuts a crucial real-world brake on spite. It eliminates the threat of retaliation. Released from this fear, people freely aim counterdominant spite at those who have more status or resources.”
This makes for a great read for anyone who’s fascinated by psychology and how we strange humans work. I found that some of the examples given of Ultimate Game research started to get a bit repetitive, but the book picked up steam again towards the end with its discussion of present-day social issues. Overall, it was a really interesting read.
Spite is available on Amazon.
I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.
You can find my other book reviews here.
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