On a memorable episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the curmudgeonly protagonist Larry David is angered by the lukewarm lattes at his local café so he opens a “spite” café. It is an identical coffee shop and right next door, but everything is cheaper. He runs it at a personal financial loss, but is driven by the thought of putting his neighbour out of business. It is magnificently mean-spirited, petty, spiteful – and humorous.
“I don’t think there’s a gene for spitefulness,” says David Marcus, a psychology professor at Washington State University and a trailblazer in the study of spite. “But there are core personality traits with a fairly high genetic loading.” These include antagonism (aggression towards others) and callousness (lack of empathy), key components in spitefulness and other related antisocial traits, including sadism and psychopathy.
In an ideal world we would all cooperate out of pure altruism, in the way the wellness movement advocates. But most of us have a measure of spitefulness (and other dark traits) inside us and, occasionally, it can lead to good things. Obviously we’re not all about to go out and spite each other – God forbid – yet being reminded of the full range of our personalities provides a timely dose of realism. If nothing else, it’s a healthy counterpoint to the perfect yet unrealistic sheen of niceness.