Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side

Here are some highlights from this 2021 book:

* What exactly is spite? According to the American psychologist David Marcus, a spiteful act is one where you harm another person and harm yourself in the process. 2 This is a “strong” definition of spite. In weaker definitions, spite is harming another while only risking harm to yourself. It can also be harming another while not personally benefiting from doing so. 3 Yet, as Marcus points out, a strong definition of spite, in which harming another entails a personal cost, helps differentiate it from other hostile or sadistic behaviors.
Indeed, a helpful way to understand spite is to look at what it isn’t. When we consider the costs and benefits of our actions, there are four basic ways we can interact with another person. Two behaviors involve direct perks for us. We can act in a way that benefits both ourselves and the other (cooperation) or in a way that benefits ourselves but not the other (selfishness). A third behavior involves a cost to us but a benefit to the other. This is altruism. Researchers have dedicated lifetimes to the study of cooperation, selfishness, and altruism. But there is a fourth behavior, behavior, spite. Here we behave in a way that harms both ourselves and the other. This behavior has been left in the shadows, which is not a safe place for it to be. We need to shine a light on spite.

* Spite is challenging to explain. It seems to present an evolutionary puzzle. Why would natural selection not have weeded out a behavior in which everybody loses? Spite should never have survived. If your spite benefits you in the long run, then its continued existence becomes comprehensible. But what about spiteful acts that don’t give you long-term benefits? How can we explain those? Do such acts even exist?
Spite also poses a problem for economists. What kind of person acts against their self-interest?

* in the 1970s, the American economist Gordon Tullock claimed that the average human was about 95 percent selfish.

* Is there anything more frightening than an adversary unfettered by the bonds of self-interest? …What do you say to a spiteful person who values your suffering more than their own well-being? They are like a Terminator. They can’t be bargained with, can’t be reasoned with, and absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are, if not dead, at least inconvenienced. Unfortunately, such creatures are not limited to science fiction.

* If true, then Baader’s codename of Ahab was appropriate. In Herman Melville’s novel, Captain Ahab was so consumed with destroying the eponymous white whale that he was prepared to obliterate himself, his ship, and his crew in the process.

* An individual at the top of the hierarchy is said to be dominant. Given the reproductive benefits of holding this position, we naturally have a dominance-seeking side. In many species, physical prowess gets one to the top of the hierarchy. We can think of deer with giant antlers locked in contest. But when we consider our closer relatives, chimpanzees, achieving dominance is not solely about physical strength. Two weaker males may work together to bring down an alpha. In humans, this tendency is elaborated further. We show both “aggressive dominance” and “social dominance.”

* People with high levels of aggressive dominance demand their own way, take what they want even when it causes conflict, are aggressive, and put others in their place. They use Machiavellian tactics, including deceit and flattery. In contrast, socially dominant people tend to use reason to persuade others. They are confident, happy talking in front of a group, good conversation starters, and like responsibility; others turn to them for decisions. Socially dominant people learn by copying other successful people, whereas aggressively dominant people tend not to use social information in their decision-making.
Humans have evolved numerous adaptations that allow us to live in dominance hierarchies. We understand the rules of hierarchy from an early age. We know whom we must get permission from and whom we are obliged to. We crave a high position within a hierarchy. Indeed, status seeking is a fundamental human motive. 20 We can see differences in the status of others even before we can talk. Like monkeys, we pay great attention to the status of others. 21 Monkeys will give up a treat of sugary cherry juice just for the chance to glimpse an alpha monkey. 22 If you think we are much different, then just go into the magazine section of any shop.
Recognizing and attending to status is beneficial. It helps the lowly learn the secrets of those on high. Keeping Up with the Kardashians may be more pedagogy than pap. We pay more attention to the faces of high-status people, and we remember them better. This helps the powerless seek the protection of the powerful. Placing importance on status happens regardless of people’s culture, gender, or age. 23 It is a universal.
We are hence a creature endowed by evolution with both counterdominant and dominance-seeking sides. Erdal expresses this well. We possess, he says, “combinations of contradictory dispositions: to get more and at the same time to stop others from getting more; to dominate, and to stop others from dominating.… The conflict is deeply integrated in our psychology.” 24
Given that we have both dominant and counterdominant sides, the obvious next question is: what factors influence which side is in the ascendancy? Boehm argues that these factors include how people feel about hierarchy, the degree of centralized command and control needed in society, and the extent to which subordinates can control those above them. When most humans came to live in settled agricultural societies, around ten thousand years ago, egalitarian hunter-gatherer hunter-gatherer societies gave way to more hierarchical, domineering societies. This was because, as Erdal observes, the new environment disabled our counterdominant tendencies. 25 Humans now lived in larger groups, had private property, and recognized the legitimacy of chiefs. 26 The availability of large surpluses of storable food allowed people to buy protection and fend off counterdominant resistance.
How does all this relate to spite? My argument is that both our evolved counterdominant and dominance-seeking tendencies can create actions that fit the definition of spite. Our counterdominant side doesn’t like our being behind. It encourages us to bring down others, even at a cost to ourselves. It may know it’s safest to be quiet, but it can’t help telling the loud-mouth bully to shut the fuck up. It wants to pull down the powerful rather than elevate itself. I call this pattern of behavior “counterdominant spite.” The counterdominant part of our nature encourages us to support ideas and ideologies that attenuate hierarchies, such as universal human rights, multiculturalism, and diversity. 27 It pulls us to the political left.
Not only does our dominance-seeking side dislike our being behind; it actively prefers us being ahead. It will pay a cost to harm others if doing so leads to a relative gain. It will encourage us to drop a rung down a ladder if it means another falls further. I call this “dominant spite.” The dominance-seeking side of our nature encourages us to support ideologies that promote the existence of hierarchies, such as nationalism, the Protestant work ethic, and free-market liberalism, and to hold problematic attitudes that legitimize hierarchies, such as racism and sexism, as well as anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments. 28 It will pull us politically right.

* The importance of anger to spite is illustrated in studies showing that reducing anger reduces spite. There are a range of ways to do this. One way is chemical. Benzodiazepines, such as Valium and Xanax, reduce the activity in people’s neural anger centers: their amygdalae.

* As one would expect, the more we can control our anger, the more we can control our spiteful behavior.

* In the face of unfairness, our brains not only push us down the road of spite; they clear all traffic in the way.

* Spite can function like the colorful markings on an insect. It warns of poison. It signals “here be monsters.” …Spite is a signal you are not to be messed with, which can benefit you.

The idea that we gain a direct personal benefit from imposing costly punishment fits with an influential theory of anger. It proposes that the purpose of anger is to get other people to change their valuation of us and therefore act better toward us in the future. 86 In short, if you get pissed at people, they will be forced to care about you more.

* One way to reduce the personal cost of punishing an unfair person is to dilute the costs, which can be done by spreading them among a group of people. In small societies, groups, not individuals, kill people who have gone too far, thus minimizing individual blowback. Similarly, in the West, people are happier to punish someone if another person is also punishing that person. There is safety in numbers. 96
Another way to reduce the cost of punishment is to use methods that are cheaper than direct confrontation, including gossip, ridicule, and ostracism.

* Gossip has two major things going for it. 101 The devil’s radio, as George Harrison called it, is effective. Gossip can have a devastating effect on other people’s reputations, which makes them behave more cooperatively in the future. 102 Indeed, it seems to be better than direct punishment at promoting cooperation. 103 It is also cheap. The identity of the original gossiper is usually concealed, making it likely they will get away scot-free. Yet gossip is best described as a low-cost—rather than a no-cost—way of punishing another, as it can be costly to your reputation to be perceived as a gossiper.

* “The most imperious of all necessities,” claimed the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, “is that of not sinking in the world.”

* THE MORE WE BELIEVE THAT the world is a competition for status, the more dominance pays. This is thanks to the outsized benefits of being number one. We are hence motivated to gain dominance. Because dominant spite can increase our relative position, it should increase as the amount of competition we face increases. Consistent with this, laboratory studies have found that the more competition you face, the more likely you are to act spitefully.

* Men with higher levels of testosterone are more likely to act spitefully…

* Jesus and Hitler wouldn’t have agreed on much. Yet there was one belief they shared: humans cannot live on bread alone. Hitler, as Orwell observed, knew that people “don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense.” Orwell credits Hitler with the insight that people, “at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades.” In this way, wrote Orwell, “Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.” Orwell continued:
Whereas Socialism and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner.… We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

* The desire to burn the world to the ground may seem like spite. Indeed, it may well be harmful to both oneself and others in the short term. Yet, in the long term, it could be in some people’s self-interest, as suggested by recent work that has studied the “need for chaos.” This research, led by the Danish psychologist Michael Bang Petersen, began by examining what led people to spread political rumors online. 8 Petersen concluded that people weren’t simply doing it to boost their own party or to hurt “the other guy.” He proposed that people did it because they were pissed off with the state of society and their place within it.

* …a need for chaos reflects a wish for a clean slate or a new beginning. Individuals who feel this way are likely to be those who would benefit from the collapse of the status quo, people who seek status but lack it. The American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton captured this sentiment when he identified a potential threat from a perverted class of men who hoped to aggrandize themselves by the confusion of their country.

* chaos incitement is a strategy of last resort used by marginalized status seekers… Having a high need for chaos was associated with being young, less educated, and male. It was also associated with higher levels of loneliness and the feeling that one was positioned on a lowly rung of the social ladder.

* social marginalization would be most likely to create a need for chaos in people who had the skill set to navigate antisocial situations. This includes a lack of empathy and (in males) physical strength.

* Sacred values are nonnegotiable preferences. Examples of sacred values include the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, ownership of Jerusalem, and Shariah law.
The crucial mark of sacred values is that their defense drives people to do things that go beyond the reasonable, regardless of risks or costs. 25 Rather than weighing the costs and benefits of a course of action, people committed to sacred values will simply do what they think is right. 26 Historical examples include the Spartans at Thermopylae, the defenders of the Alamo, Japanese kamikaze, and the 9/11 attackers. Sacred values are an exceptionally powerful way for a small movement to succeed, due to the motivating effects of such values, which promote spiteful actions.

* Neuroscience provides evidence consistent with the idea that sacred values lead us to act without weighing the costs and benefits.

* ONCE VALUES, SACRED OR OTHERWISE , have been seen to be violated, what causes people to go on to undertake the most extreme form of costly punishment: suicide bombing?

Suicide bombers come to believe that all other options have failed and that violence is the only answer. 37 The terrorist organizations they are part of create this perception by framing their grievances and ideology accordingly. We saw this in the Baader-Meinhof group. They argued that talking was not possible because one couldn’t reason with the generation that gave rise to Auschwitz.
Not only must a potential bomber feel that suicide bombing is the only possible answer, but they must also believe that it is a justifiable response. For this to happen, their community needs to support such an act, or at least deem it praiseworthy under specific circumstances such as martyrdom.

* Chechens have a norm of revenge, which is normally targeted at the person who perpetrated the wrong or at their close family. Yet due to the overwhelming force used by the Russians, Chechens’ circle of revenge has widened. But why suicide bombing, which is not something most Chechens support? What has happened in Chechen society, Speckhard and Akhmedova argue, is that shattered worlds are being treated by first aid provided by a religious ideology that permits suicide bombing. 39
The theory of shattered assumptions proposes that we all have fundamental, unarticulated assumptions about how the world works. 40 It states that we assume that the universe is just, benevolent, and predictable. It claims we take it for granted that both we and others are kind, moral, and capable, and therefore deserving of good things to happen to us. Such assumptions give life meaning and make us feel secure amidst the winds of fortune.
When a traumatic event happens, these assumptions shatter. The world becomes a cold, frightening, and unpredictable place. We realize that bad things can happen to good people. Indeed, anything could happen. We can no longer trust others. Our assumptions that we were invulnerable invulnerable and in control of our lives are revealed as illusions. The resultant anxiety can be overwhelming. People need a way to cope. Some will dissociate. Others will abuse drugs. But what is really needed is a new story to make sense of the world, to cope and to live again.
In Chechen society, such a story has been provided by a religion-based terrorist ideology that resonates with a culture in which there is a duty to avenge a family member. 41 As Speckhard and Akhmedova argue, the Chechen separatist movement began as a secular one. It was then pushed by the Russian military response into accepting help from religiously oriented groups that promoted a terrorist ideology. As John Reuter puts it, Chechen suicide bombers are “desperate[,] which allows them to be deceived into being devout.”

* SO A GRIEVANCE HAS BEEN identified. The would-be bomber has been convinced that bombing is a necessary and appropriate response. But the bomber still needs to have sufficient identification with the group he is acting on behalf of to be motivated to carry out the act. Terrorists can be altruistic, and this has been argued to drive much suicide terrorism. 43 As Darwin wrote, if two groups are in conflict, the key to victory is having someone in your group who, apparently blind to alternatives, is willing to sacrifice themselves.

* what benefits your group, but it is costly to you personally. This is called “extreme parochial altruism.” Your altruism is laser focused on your team. The more tickets bearing your name that you are prepared to rip up, the more extreme parochial altruism you display.
One factor that makes you more likely to perform acts of extreme parochial altruism is if you have high levels of “social-dominance orientation,” a measure of the extent to which you want your own group to dominate and be superior to other groups. It is assessed by seeing how strongly people endorse statements such as “Some people are just more worthy than others,” “This country would be better off if we cared less about how equal all people were,” and “To get ahead in life, it is sometimes necessary to step on others.” 46
The theory behind social-dominance orientation is that societies minimize the amount of conflict within them by getting people to agree that certain groups are better than others. The superiority of a certain group then comes to be seen as a self-apparent truth. These “hierarchy-legitimizing myths” justify a society’s unequal share of resources. Examples include the appalling treatment over the centuries of African Americans in the United States. Yet hierarchy-busting myths also exist; these are ideologies that explicitly do not divide persons into categories or groups. An example is The Universal Declaration of Human Rights , which looks to reduce social inequality.
People with higher social-dominance orientation tend to exhibit lower levels of concern for others, less support for social programs, and less engagement with protest actions. They tend to have greater levels of political and economic conservatism, nationalism, patriotism, cultural elitism, racism, sexism, and rape myth endorsement. They are more likely either to justify or to be involved in violence and illegality. 47 Politicians can target such groups. People high in social-dominance orientation were more likely to have supported Donald Trump for president. 48
For extreme parochial altruism to drive people to act in the group’s interest, people need to have a fundamental bond with their group, indeed, to be fused with their group. This is called “identity fusion.”

You can also fuse your identity with a group. You become the group and the group becomes you. The resulting sense of oneness with the group creates a collective sense of invincibility and destiny. 49 Any attack on or unfairness toward the group is felt to be an attack on you. The more you feel fused with your group, the more likely you are to say that you will fight and die to defend it. 50 If your group represents a sacred value, this can produce a willingness to act spitefully to the extent of killing yourself. 51
You may fuse with another because you share genes. We feel fused with our family. Indeed, fusion may have arisen to help families cooperate and sacrifice in the face of extreme threats, like attacks from other groups. 52 Yet, sharing experiences with others also helps us fuse with them. Take identical twins. The degree to which they feel fused with each other is not only predicted by their genetic similarity. It is also predicted by the number of shared experiences they have had with each other. 53 Shared experiences can create a new family.
Suffering together is a particularly powerful way for people to fuse their identities because it increases people’s willingness to sacrifice for each other. 54 Just remembering shared suffering can boost identity fusion. 55 When fellow citizens feel like family, they are more prepared to die for their country. Part of this feeling may be because people come to share common core values with those they have suffered with. Because sharing core values with others is traditionally a signal of genetic relatedness, it may create the illusion of kinship, driving altruism. 56
People who suffer together can create bonds with each other that are stronger even than their bonds to their families.

* Threats of retaliation reduce people’s willingness to perform costly punishment. But how can this knowledge help prevent suicide bombing? How do you retaliate against the dead? You can’t, but the state can let potential bombers know that it will retaliate against what a bomber leaves behind. There is some evidence this strategy works. Punitive house demolitions, performed by the Israeli Defense Forces against Palestinian suicide terrorists and terror operatives, have been found to cause an immediate and significant reduction in suicide attacks.

* Spite is writ larger in some people’s genomes than others’. Yet all our brains are listening for their cue to spite. As our environment becomes more competitive, and resources scarcer, the world shouts at us to spite. The spiteful person can excel in competitive situations because they are not afraid of getting ahead. The world knows it can speak to our brain through our stomach. Dietary changes twist the serotonin dials of our minds, making harming others more pleasurable. When another takes our share or harms our status, anger and disgust ensue. Empathy rolls back, and we see the other as less human. We inflict a cost on them, and it feels good. But we can’t admit this to ourselves. We deceive ourselves into thinking we are acting to teach, deter, or reform the unfair. But the reality is that we just want to harm them. This is the how of spite.
The why of spite is simple. We spite because it pays. Actions that are immediately spiteful often lead to long-term benefits. Spite plus time equals selfishness. Counterdominant spite pulls down the bully, the dominator, and the tyrant. Here, spite can be a tool for justice. If we direct spite at those who harm others, our social capital grows. Others reward us with their cooperation and esteem. If we direct spite at those who harm us, we force them to place more value on our welfare. Over time, we have developed cheaper, safer forms of costly punishment, facilitated by language. We have also outsourced spite to god and the state. Now we can bite “with stolen teeth,” to use a phrase from Nietzsche.

Dominant spite aims to put clear water between us and others. It will take an absolute loss to secure a relative advantage. We are happy to lose if it means others stay below us. We are happy to lose if others lose more. Such spite keeps us out of last place. It can help us thrive in competitive environments. Historically, reproductive benefits have flowed from this cutthroat instinct, yet it also has the potential for great harm.
Existential spite, our willingness to suffer to prove reason, nature, or inevitability wrong, seems gloriously tragic. Yet there may once have been wisdom in it. Today, it can function as an antidominance tool against the sophist. It can be used to create stretch goals that can help us achieve what we never thought possible. Such spite can boost creativity.

* In his 1921 book, Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley wrote, “To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behaviour ‘righteous indignation’—this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.”

* 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. They manically snort justice, burn others, and revel in the joy of destruction. It doesn’t matter if the target earned their excess. If they got ahead on merit they will be hated all the more.
Even if you are not anonymous online, other features of the online world still encourage spite. First, it takes little effort to harm others, making spite cheap. In the online world, we are like the fabled martial artist who can destroy others with the mere tap of a finger. Second, any retaliatory costs can potentially be widely distributed. Thousands of other people may pile onto your attacks on the other person, by liking and retweeting them. As a result, any costs of retaliation may effectively be spread not just between tens of people, as in hunter-gatherer societies, but between thousands of people.
But perhaps the most important reason why having our identity known online encourages us to spite others relates to the benefits we have previously seen to be attached to acts of third-party costly punishment. In the online world, we can monitor a giant web of interactions between other people. We can weigh in on their interactions with each other and broadcast our response. Here, opportunities for costly third-party punishment open up on a scale never seen before. We can type something to harm someone who has offended or harmed someone else. This makes it third-party costly punishment (even if the cost is very small or is merely a risk of a cost). As we saw earlier, such punishment is typically esteemed by others. If we are not anonymous, then everyone knows who we are and we can publicly soak up that esteem, enhancing our reputation.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Psychology. Bookmark the permalink.