Spite is powerful, and everywhere

There are four basic social behaviors: co-operation, selfishness, altruism and spite. Simon McCarthy-Jones of Trinity College, Dublin has zeroed in on the last one in his book, Spite. It is wider and deeper than you might think.

Humans, and pretty much only humans, have a pronounced tendency to spite others. That is, they are willing to take a beating (financially, socially) just so someone else might not get ahead. He says they “do it to inflict harm on the unfair, the dominant, the elite. We may also do it to widen the gap between us and others and to stay off the bottom rung of society. The failure of elites to understand that the populace is driven by more than its narrow economic self-interest opens the doors to spite and to manipulative counterelites, with potentially disastrous results.” It is, he says, a gut response and not a reasoned, intellectual decision.

The book examines numerous situations and a large number of psychological studies that have sought to filter spite, examine, refine and dissect it, and mainly, understand what makes people do it at all.

It’s only used against other humans, even when the spiter doesn’t know the other person involved. An identical test given by a computer instead of a human results in essentially no spite attempts. So spite is purely vengeance, meant to cause pain for others, even while the spiter knows it will cause him/her pain, possibly even greater in severity. It is the opposite of homo Economicus, always acting in his own best interest.

In the famous ultimatum game, where subjects have to split $10, if the recipient disagrees on the split, neither gets anything. Some 70% reject offers from humans, but 80% will accept the same (or worse) offer if it comes from a computer. With humans, spiters don’t want other humans to succeed, to get richer, to be in control, to have any advantage at all. Anything they can do to spite them, including coming away with nothing at all to show for it, is preferable. Coming away with less than they started with is also acceptable if it keeps others from getting ahead.

The expression “cutting off your nose to spite your face” captures the madness totally. It is self-destructive, retards action and progress, and is everywhere.

People hate the talented, far worse than they hate the lucky, who merely stumbled onto their position. McCarthy-Jones examines it in politics, religion, and of course in social media, where spite has nestled into a very comfortable (ie. anonymous) new home. Anyone can slam anyone else in social media, and they do, sometimes with deadly effect that no one is apologetic about. It is a function of hate, and hate is hot right now.

It has a lot to do with status. Those nearer the bottom than the top don’t want to fall any farther, and anyone who might benefit more than they could pushes them down another notch. So spite is redolent of white supremacy and the patriarchy, racism, nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia, lack of education and prospects and the ever present “freedom”.

McCarthy says about 7% of the population is spiteful. Better educated, older and wealthier people don’t do it much at all. It is a young, aggressive and ignorant trait. Spite is so powerfully attractive that people will actually change their own beliefs to spite someone else, and then justify their actions — to themselves. The book backs this with an examination of Brexit, where voters had to know the result would be bad, that the proponents were frauds, that the proponents were lying, and despite all the reasoned and sane rebuttals. They did it to punish the ruling class and the rich, who were expecting to benefit even more by Remaining in the EU. Such is the power of spite, according to McCarthy-Jones.

There’s a lot I had trouble with in Spite. McCarthy-Jones’ chapter on politics was particularly objectionable. He focuses on Hillary Clinton, claiming a major reason she lost was that people wanted to spite her by voting for Trump. But it is intellectually dishonest to claim anyone who disliked Hillary spited her by voting Trump. People are offered a choice (of sorts) in elections. Selecting one candidate because s/he is less objectionable is not spiting the other one. It is a requirement that a choice be made. Hillary offended a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, so they voted for someone else. She was out of their consideration, not necessarily the object of spite. Every election has losers, and they are not automatically defeated by spite. Some are actually elected on merit, as Trump voters are likely to claim.

In his chapter on terrorists and particularly suicide bombers, I had the same reaction. Zealotry is not spite. It is closer to discipline than spite. McCarthy-Jones shows that zealots, be they jihadists or Trumpers, use far less of their brain when their values are challenged. They simply react to take out the Other. They are not spiting them (and for suicide bombers, killing themselves in the process). They are taking them out for all that is holy to them. They don’t have to be directed to do it. Spite doesn’t enter into it, at least for me. And McCarthy-Jones does nothing to help me overcome my viewpoint.

Examples: in France in early 2021, a lying child told her father the teacher showed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammad in class and she was offended (in fact, she had skipped class that day). Her father was so enraged he posted a video of himself calling for justice against the teacher. A self-radicalized Muslim in another town took it upon himself to find and kill the teacher, which he did, beheading him in the street on his way home from school. He actually had to ask some children which one he was and no planning whatsoever went into his quest. This was not spite. It was terrorism. Self-detonating at a wedding is not spite. It is a direct attack. Opening fire on a beach in Tunisia is not spite. Begging police to kill him after committing murders of infidels is not spite. Zealots actually seek martyrdom.

So many have self-radicalized and attacked people on the streets that McCarthy cannot say they have the support of an organization that promotes sacred values. His analysis makes spite seem like far more than the 7% the studies show potential spiters to be.

All that is fine; I like a book that challenges me to argue cogently against it. And McCarthy-Jones sets himself for plenty. But he does it with aplomb. Spite is an easy read, with bright comments and asides that make it enjoyable, in spite, shall we say, of the topic at hand.

David Wineberg

(Spite, Simon MaCarthy-Jones, April 2021)

Author, The Straight Dope, or What I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviews. 16 Essays. Free with Prime www.thestraightdope.net

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