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Washington State University
CAS Connect April 2014

Spite raised to a new scale

Psychologist leads exploration of ‘virtually ignored’ trait

In the richly researched field of psychology, for a well-recognized trait to be mostly missing from the literature might seem, well, crazy. But that’s exactly what professor of psychology David Marcus found when he began to examine spite.

"I was thrilled to find something that  people haven't researched to exhaustion."  –David Marcus in The New York Times
“I was thrilled to find something that
people haven’t researched to exhaustion.”
–David Marcus in The New York Times

Some of the world’s nastiest behavior grows out of spite, the dark art of purposely hurting an opponent even at some cost to you.

Divorcing couples often resort to spiteful acts to harm each other although they hurt themselves and their children, too. Tax evaders have grown so vengeful about penalties that they cheated even more and had to pay extra. Terrorists so bent on injuring enemies have committed suicide in the process.

Spitefulness can elevate even a small slight—like being put on hold during a phone call—into a vengeance-worthy transgression.

“There are those tiny, little instances of spite that probably happen on a day-to-day basis,” Marcus said. For example, people in parking lots have been observed to “take longer leaving a space when they see someone waiting for the spot,” he said.

New test to measure spitefulness

In spite of spite’s large and small impacts, and the power it can hold on the human psyche, it has been “virtually ignored” by social, personality, and clinical psychologists, Marcus said in a recent paper, “The Psychology of Spite and the Measurement of Spitefulness,” in the journal Psychological Assessment.

Along with graduate student Alyssa Norris and colleagues at Oakland University and the University of British Columbia, he has attempted to remedy that oversight by measuring spitefulness with a test similar to those used for other personality traits.

In general, spite differs from aggression, which can be exercised at little risk to the aggressor. Spite carries a cost, calculated to be worthwhile if one’s opponent incurs cost, too.

Behavioral economists have explored this with ultimatum games in which one player is given a set amount of money to divide with another player in whatever way the first player wishes. If the second player rejects the offered share, neither player gets anything. A purely self-interested player will take even a smaller share. Money is money, no matter the amount. But spite will lead some players to turn it down.

Aligns with other negative traits

To develop a “spitefulness scale,” Marcus and his colleagues surveyed more than 1,200 people at two universities and through an online system that drew older participants. Their spitefulness was graded on how much they agreed with 17 scenarios, such as, “If my neighbor complained that I was playing my music too loud, then I might turn up the music even louder just to irritate him or her, even if it meant I could get fined,” and, “I would rather no one get extra credit in a class if it meant that others would receive more credit than me.”

Participants were also surveyed with a variety of other personality tests measuring traits like aggression, psychopathy, narcissism, self-consciousness, self-esteem, and Machiavellianism, the willingness to be manipulative and deceitful.

As with other personality traits, said Marcus, spitefulness occurred to varying degrees among the survey participants. And to a certain extent, he said, it lined up pretty consistently with other personality traits one might think would be prone to spitefulness.

It was greatest among people high in psychopathy, who are particularly callous, unsympathetic, and unemotional.

“Some people call it ‘meanness,’” Marcus said.

Rounding out the “dark triad” of negative personality traits, spitefulness was also greater in people who scored high in narcissism and Machiavellianism.

Next stage: Relational behavior

People with higher levels of guilt—concern for other people and fear of violating social norms—scored lower in spitefulness. Those with high levels of shame—more a sense of inadequacy and failing—registered higher on the scale of spite.

Men tended to be more spiteful, possibly because they also tend to score higher on the dark triad traits, said Marcus. But he also wonders if he and his colleagues used more “male spiteful” scenarios than the types of relationship-focused situations that women might be more prone to focus on.

“One item that we may want to look at in the future,” said Marcus, “is something like, ‘After a bad breakup, do you then go out and sleep with the person’s friend even though you’re not attracted to that person.’ That would be classic relational spiteful behavior.”

Kids, elders less spiteful

A few bright spots emerged through Marcus’s extensive review of the scholarly literature. Research found that children will recognize injustices that often prompt spite but won’t necessarily react spitefully. Like adults, they will reject unfair offers in ultimatum games, “but they’ll also reject unfair offers that are in their favor,” he said.

For kids, at a very early age it seems to be “all about the fairness,” he said. “So if they divide up candy and they get more candy than the kids they’re playing against, they’re like, ‘Nope, neither of us is going to get anything.’”

In his own research, Marcus found that older people were less spiteful than younger people.