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The Brighter Side of Spite

In the dumpster?!

In the dumpster?!

In October 2013, a Boulder, Colorado man took some half million dollars out of savings, converted it to gold and silver bars and threw them in a dumpster. What would account for such behavior? Spite. After a bitter divorce, the man didn’t want his ex-wife to get any of the money.

Spite has a long history. As Natalie Angier points out, spite is the driving force behind the Iliad. Achilles wants revenge on Agamemnon, even though it will be very painful to Achilles as well.

Spite is similar to altruism but with a different purpose. An altruistic person pays a personal price to do something helpful to another person.  A spiteful person pays a personal price to do something hurtful to another person.

Spitefulness sometimes feels good. You’re getting even; you’re teaching the other person a lesson. But it rarely does any good. Does the other person really learn a lesson – other than to despise you? With spite, both parties lose. So, why does spitefulness stick around?

It could be a form of altruistic punishment. Altruism isn’t always positive for everyone concerned. You might punish somebody — and pay a price to do so — in order to bring a greater good to a larger community. In this sense, altruistic punishment is simply spite for the greater good.

A study by Karla Hoff in 2008 used a “trust game” to probe this phenomenon. In the game, trusting players can earn more money by giving away money. But a “free rider” (also known as an opportunist) could take advantage of the trusting player, hoard the money, and come out ahead. The game uses an “enforcer’ who can choose multiple options, including various punishments for the free rider.

Punishing the opportunist costs the enforcer. Still, in many cases enforcers decided to do just that. By spiting the free rider, the enforcer adds a cost to anti-social behavior. As opportunism become more costly, it also becomes less pervasive. Ultimately the enforcer’s spite encourages cooperation. It’s good for the community even though it hurts the enforcer. (This was a complex study and altruistic punishment varied by culture and by the social status of the various players).

More recently, Rory Smead and Patrick Forber used an “ultimatum game” to study spite and fairness. In some versions of the game, “gamesmen” emerge who make only unfair offers. Other players will spite the gamesman. Even though they pay a cost in the short run, fair players who spite the gamesman can benefit in the long run. Indeed, “Fairness actually becomes a strategy for survival in this land of spite.”

How do you measure spitefulness? David Marcus and his colleagues have developed a 17-point Spitefulness Scale “…to assess individual differences in spitefulness.” They then applied it across a large random sample of college students and adults. They found (among many other things) that men are generally more spiteful than women and young people are more spiteful than older people. Spitefulness is positively correlated with aggression and narcissism but negatively correlated to self-esteem. The researchers are now going to use the scale to predict how different players will act in trust and ultimatum games.

I’ve previously written about seemingly “good things” that produce bad outcomes. Spite is a good example of a “bad thing” that can produce good outcomes. Not always and not in all situations, but more often than we might guess. It’s useful to keep in mind that, if something exists, it often does so for a good reason.

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