MH@H Book Reviews

Book Review: Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side

Book cover: Spite by Simon McCarthy-Jones

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, since 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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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side”

  1. That’s really interesting!! I can relate to being incredibly spiteful! In my case, though, I have almost no dark-triad traits at all, so my guess is that I became spiteful after being burned by people one too many times!! That study was interesting! I’d love any game with a “bite me!” option! It reminds me of playing BS! “I have three fours.” And then, “Bull shit! You do not.” But with “bite me!” instead! But if I were the “giver” in the game of bite me, I’d probably say, “Here’s the whole ten dollars!” because I hate being studied psychologically! Like when I was a kid, and my brother and I were told to play normally in the room with all the toys, and I just kept making ham faces at the two-way mirror, and the man came out and said, “Just ignore the mirror. There’s no one on the other side of it,” and I said okay, but then I just went back to the mirror. So yeah, I’d give away all of the ten dollars just to throw a monkey wrench into things! But if I were the taker and someone offered me fifty cents, I’d say, “Oh, thank you so much! Yes, I’ll accept.” Hmm. Maybe I’m not capable of getting past the childhood of being studied when I wasn’t supposed to know about the two-way mirror! AAUGH! Anyway. Very interesting!! I ought to read it, because I’m quite spiteful!

  2. Wow that’s interesting, I wonder what evolutionary advantage spite has if it gives us pleasure. I definitely think spite is unleashed on social media, particularly Twitter.

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