Can spite be good? How writing a book about the emotion made me think twice

The corpse of love is rarely cold – and it may be spite that keeps it warm.

Take Alan Markovitz. When his ex-wife moved in with a new partner, he started to suspect the pair had been having an affair while they were still married. So, he buys the house next door and puts a 12ft bronze statue of a hand, middle finger raised, in his back yard. Lest darkness dim his dispatch, he buys a spotlight to keep it lit.

The hand, which he directs at his ex-wife’s house, is a 24-hour monument to spite.

Spite also grows on the sterile surface of self-interest that coats the business world. When Ben Novack added an extension to his Fontainebleau hotel in Miami, it was designed to put his rival’s adjoining swimming pool into the shade – literally. The wall next to the pool was blank, save for a single window; that of Novack’s suite. He would look out with satisfaction at his shadow.

On the surface, spite seems to have little to commend it. It also appears a petty phenomenon, with little wider significance. Yet as I delved into the spiteful side of our nature for a recent book, it turned out to be more dangerous than I thought, more common than I suspected, but not without an upside. Spite lies within us, waiting for the latch to be lifted. We may as well hack it for useful ends.

Spite, in its strongest sense, involves harming another person while also harming oneself. Spite sinks all ships. It stands in stark contrast to the win-win cooperative behaviors said to be our species’ superpower. Other creatures cooperate with each other but tend to do so only with close relatives; humans will cooperate with anyone. This has allowed us, for good or for ill, to dominate this planet. If a rogue primatologist ever teaches chimps to cooperate as we do, it won’t be long before we are cursing on our knees in the surf.

Given our need to work together to solve pressing global problems, spite poses a mortal danger. To begin to realise the danger of spite, we need to see how common it is. One way to do this is to look at how people behave in games designed by economists.

In “money burning” experiments, participants go into a lab and play a betting game with other players. The money they win is real. The experiment is designed so that the others get an unfair advantage, being allowed to make bigger bets than you and even receiving free money. At the end, you get a chance, under cover of anonymity, to give up some of your winnings to destroy some of the winnings of the other players.

Rationally, this would seem to make little sense: you would be better off taking your money and heading out for pizza. Yet around two out of three people chose to give up some of their money to see others’ winnings destroyed. But it is not just unfairness that triggers spite. Let’s say that others have earned money fairly in an economic game. It turns out that about 40% of us will still, under cover of anonymity, choose to destroy some of these other people’s gains.

More worrying still, we will even spite people who help us. In the lab, we see this in a game where people can pay into a group investment fund which pays out money to everyone. If someone is generous and pays in a lot of money (meaning everyone gets a greater payout) some other players will pay to punish this generous player. This is called do-gooder derogation. The theory is that the person in receipt of generosity punishes the givers’ kindness because the giver now looks more socially attractive to others.

Do-gooder derogation suggests that someone who wishes to run an electoral campaign foregrounding issues such as human rights or social justice faces the potential of a spiteful backlash. The unwillingness of some of us to allow others to look good threatens to drag us all down into the mud. The only bright side is that if you let people shoot the messenger, they may feel less of an urge to destroy the message. For example, a study that allowed people to disparage vegetarians before giving their views on meat-eating found that this made people more open to vegetarianism.

A tendency to act spitefully, while often bad, can nevertheless have upsides. When spiteful people enter competitive arenas, their performance improves much more than non-spiteful people. Spiteful people also often possess the personality trait of disagreeableness – a tendency to act in quarrelsome and combative ways. This trait has been linked to a creative edge in mathematical and scientific subjects.

Captain Ahab: ‘Here is an archetypal example of the madness of spite.’
Captain Ahab: ‘Here is an archetypal example of the madness of spite.’ Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

And sometimes, spite can benefit society, too. Game theory simulations suggest that under certain circumstances, spiteful people can thrive in society. Not only that, but the existence of spiteful people may increase the amount of fair behaviour in society. This appears to be because, if spiteful people are out there, behaving fairly is the best means to stop them gaining a relative advantage over you.

The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr accused liberalism of possessing a “gray spirit of compromise” – he worried that citizens in liberal democracies lacked the fanaticism necessary to “move the world out of its beaten tracks”. The spiteful person, willing to bear a cost to inflict a cost, may fill this void in liberal society. They may be the person prepared to act in the face of overwhelming odds. In a society dominated by self-interest, the spiteful person, to adapt a line from The Dark Knight, may not be the hero that we want, but may be the hero that we need.

Spiteful acts on a grand scale can be brought on through the activation of “sacred values”. These are values that, when threatened, lead us to damn the consequences and simply act. When such values are activated, we even see the neural activity dampen down in parts of the brain associated with performing cost-benefit analyses.

Of course, we need to be phenomenally careful about unleashing this hero power. I find myself thinking back to the protagonist of Moby Dick, Captain Ahab. Here is an archetypal example of the madness of spite unchained from reason. This was a man willing to destroy his ship, his crew and himself to kill the white whale. This was a man who would strike the sun itself if it insulted him.

In thinking of Ahab, we can reflect on what our contemporary white whales are. In a society ruled by self-interest, what are we prepared to spite for? Could it even be the rarity of white whales that allows liberal democracy to survive? As Peter Thiel has argued, the west’s suppression of the sacred may have been what caused its relative peace and commercial flourishing. But then how does the west summon up the necessary passion to defend itself against those who would undermine it? Spite in defense of the sacred, like corks and genies, is much easier to take out of a bottle than to put back in.

It hence appears that there may be, to adapt Aristotle, a place for spite if used at the right things, in the right way and at the right time. To do this, we must be able to control our spiteful side. Whether spite is encouraged by a situation we find ourselves in, or is just part of our personality, it is not our destiny to act this way. We can control it.

One way is the good old fashioned “time-out”. On economic games where people often act spitefully, allowing people 10 minutes to think about how to act next massively cuts down rates of spite. This seems to be because the anger that drives spite slowly evaporates.

Another way to control our spiteful side is to bolster our ability to override our gut response in favor of thinking rationally about how to act. This ability is called cognitive reflection.

Take the following question: Steve receives both the 15th-highest and the 15th-lowest mark in the class. How many students are in the class? Your gut response may be 30. But taking the time to reflect allows you to work out the right answer, which is 29. People who can work out the right answer to this and other similar questions are said to have greater levels of cognitive reflection. They have been found to act less spitefully.

Spiteful acts are also linked to what we think other people’s intentions are. If people receive an equally dreadful monetary offer in an economic game from a person and a computer, they will nearly always accept the computer’s offer yet spitefully reject the person’s offer. The computer could not intend to screw you, so you are happy to take the money. If we can work on charitably re-appraising the malign intent we may assume others have, we may be able to defuse our spite.

Of course, if we have a history of being screwed over, charitable interpretations of other’s actions are likely to be a stretch. Indeed, a willingness to spite may be a way to keep others on their best behavior. Spiteful acts can be a weapon of last resort, a nuclear button, the only way in which the powerless can resist the powerful.

We would be better off creating a world in which spite is no longer needed. As such a world seems a long way off, it would seem prudent to keep spite to hand, albeit on a high shelf.

Simon McCarthy-Jones is the author of Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side, published by Basic Books.


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