The Iliad may be a giant of Western literature, yet its plot hinges on a human impulse normally thought petty: spite.
Achilles holds a festering grudge against Agamemnon, turning down gifts, homage, and even the return of his stolen consort Briseis just to prolong the king’s suffering.
Now, after decades of focusing on such staples of bad behaviour as aggressiveness, selfishness, narcissism and greed, scientists have turned their attention to the subtler and often unsettling theme of spite — the urge to punish, hurt, humiliate or harass another, even when one gains no obvious benefit and may well pay a cost.
Psychologists are exploring spitefulness in its customary role as a negative trait, a lapse that can be embarrassing but is often sublimated as righteousness, as when you take your own time pulling out of a parking space because you notice another car is waiting for it and you’ll show that vulture who’s boss here, even though you’re wasting your own time, too.
Evolutionary theorists, by contrast, are studying what might be viewed as the brighter side of spite, and the role it may have played in the origin of admirable traits like a cooperative spirit and a sense of fair play.
The new research on spite transcends older notions that we are savage, selfish brutes at heart, as well as more recent suggestions that humans are inherently affiliative creatures yearning to love and connect. Instead, it concludes that vice and virtue may be inextricably linked.
“Spitefulness is such an intrinsically interesting subject, and it fits with so many people’s everyday experience, that I was surprised to see how little mention there was of it in psychology literature,” said David K Marcus, a psychologist at Washington State University.
Reporting in February in the journal Psychological Assessment, Marcus and his colleagues presented the preliminary results from their new “spitefulness scale”, a 17-item survey they created to assess individual differences in spitefulness.
A total of 946 college students and 297 adults were asked to rate how firmly they agreed with sentiments such as “if my neighbour complained about the appearance of my front yard, I would be tempted to make it look worse just to annoy him or her” or “if I opposed the election of an official, I would happily see the person fail even if that failure hurt my community” or “I would be willing to take a punch if it meant someone I don’t like would receive two”.
That attitude, said David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York, recalls the Eastern European folk tale in which a genie offers to grant a man’s wish as long as his hated neighbour gets double the prize; the man says, “Put out one of my eyes”.
From the survey and related experiments, the researchers determined that men were generally more spiteful than women and young adults more spiteful than older ones, and that spitefulness generally cohabited with traits like callousness, Machiavellianism and poor self-esteem — but not with agreeableness, conscientiousness or a tendency to feel guilt.
Marcus also identified circumstances that can provoke spiteful outbursts from otherwise temperate people: partisan politics, for example. Or bitter divorces, like the husband who threw his savings into a trash bin to avoid sharing any money with his ex-wife.
Taking the increasingly popular approach of applying game theory to probe human social behaviour, Patrick Forber of Tufts University and Rory Smead of Northeastern University designed a computer model of virtual players challenging each other to rounds of the famed ultimatum game.
Although groups of excessively spiteful or selfish players quickly collapsed, the flexible sharers not only proved able to coexist with the spiteful types, but the presence of spitefuls had the salubrious effect of enhancing the rate of fair exchanges among the genials. By the looks of it, Smead said, “fairness is acting as a defense against spite.”
The results echo other recent research suggesting that human decency and cooperation require a certain degree of so-called altruistic punishment: the willingness of individuals to punish rule breakers even when the infraction does not directly affect them — challenging the guy who broke into the line behind you, for example.
“It could be that Nietzsche was right about punishment,” Forber said, “that it originated as spite and only later was turned into a mechanism for maintaining fairness and justice.”
Omar Tonsi Eldakar of Nova Southeastern University in Florida has studied the link between cooperative behaviour and what he calls selfish punishment. “Why is everyone always assuming that it’s the good guys who are doing the punishing?” he asked. “Selfish individuals have more reason to want to get rid of other cheaters.”
The idea of selfish punishment came to him as a biology graduate student who also competed in track and field. “I noticed it over and over again,” he said. “The people who were most vocal against others using performance-enhancing drugs were the ones who were using them.”
Using game theory models, Eldakar has demonstrated that when selfish players intent on maximising their profits regularly punish other selfish players or exclude them from the group, the net outcome is an overall decline in selfish exchanges to a reasonably stable state.
“It’s like the mafia,” he said. “They end up reducing crime in the areas they inhabit.”
Agamemnon needed his Achilles — and we need our Tony Soprano. NYT
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