Why Are We So Spiteful?

Our culture is pettily vindictive in part because it is unequal. But we cannot punish our way to a more just society.

An old statue with its nose cut off
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

The purest eruption of spite I have ever witnessed took place at a former friend’s birthday party some years ago. We were all in our early 20s, and alcohol had been flowing freely. I slipped into the kitchen to refill my drink; when I returned, the birthday girl, her cheeks flushed from the wine, had become incensed at her boyfriend for some unaccountable transgression.

On the coffee table was an enormous cake, brought by her now-disgraced beloved. The birthday girl seized the platter and, with a terrific crash, hurled the cake to the floor. “Now none of us can have any,” she seethed, raising an accusatory frosting-covered finger as guests began edging toward the door.

Spite defies logic. We act spitefully—lashing out to harm someone else, even at a cost to ourselves—when the desire to punish overrides other considerations. People in the throes of spite’s poisonous pleasures do not care if they injure themselves, or make the whole world worse off, so long as they satisfy their rancor. Yet because spite involves a self-inflicted cost, this petty and ultimately antisocial emotion bears a family resemblance to altruism. Many spiteful actors believe they are behaving nobly: meting out justice where it is due.

That we live in a particularly spiteful age is the very plausible premise of Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side. According to Simon McCarthy-Jones, the book’s author and a psychologist at Trinity College Dublin, spite “may be the last weapon of the downtrodden.” Disadvantaged people acting out of spite can pull their oppressors down a few pegs. As a form of costly punishment aimed at the rich and powerful, spite can weaken dominance hierarchies and promote fairness. The book suggests that spite can be soothed, though never banished, by more just political arrangements. Yet the extent to which spite can serve as a mechanism for establishing egalitarian politics—rather than merely a registration of our discontent—is less than clear.

McCarthy-Jones provides a few real-world examples of “counterdominant spite,” in which spiteful actors take down the powerful. He cites research on contemporary hunter-gatherer societies showing that swaggering group members who attempt to bully and dominate others are frequently killed. He applauds the spitefulness of consumer boycotts, in which we refrain from buying products we like in order to punish a corporation for its actions. His argument that spite promotes fairness, however, relies mainly on a famous economics experiment known as the “ultimatum game.” In the game, one player is given a sum of money—say, $10—and is tasked with splitting it with a second player, who can either accept or reject the proposal. If the offer is accepted, both players get to keep the money (even if it is split unevenly); if it’s rejected, both players receive nothing. Researchers have found that many people turn down free money if the offer is too low. One explanation for the “spiteful rejection” of low offers is that people are willing to suffer to punish someone who has violated a norm of fairness. Spite, then, can promote social cooperation and sustain positive social norms—at least in the laboratory.

Unfortunately, as McCarthy-Jones proceeds through his survey of the psychological literature, his category of spite broadens into incoherence. Actions he describes as spiteful include: making someone wait for a parking space; suicide bombings; bacteria releasing toxins; Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale; and the Holocaust. Through a zoomed-out lens, every action that includes a self-inflicted cost starts to look spiteful, but the category ceases to be meaningful. Distinct phenomena—envy, sadism, schadenfreude, reckless idealism, world-historical malice—get flattened. Lost in all this is spite’s peculiar emotional texture, its blend of childish vindictiveness and rashness. Recall the toppled birthday cake. Spite is fundamentally petty.

The blunt reductiveness of the book’s schema leads McCarthy-Jones to back away from potentially powerful claims about why we injure others. For instance, examining what he calls “existential spite,” he aptly analyzes its appearance in Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground—in which the protagonist behaves irrationally to test whether he is truly free—but quickly veers to simplify the concept into the business-school notion of “stretch goals” (unrealistic goals meant to provoke an “I’ll prove you wrong” response). Elsewhere, he approvingly quotes such authorities on human motivation as a former managing director at Goldman Sachs and the butler Alfred Pennyworth in the superhero film The Dark Knight (“Some men just want to watch the world burn”).

These conceptual confusions and truisms mar an otherwise promising exploration. In turning our attention to spite, McCarthy-Jones has identified an important element in the emotional climate of the present. It’s no coincidence that the book’s most spirited sections include a lengthy replay of Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential election (examples of “spite voting”), and a consideration of why the torrents of bile that circulate on social media result in reputational rewards for the most vicious posters (social-media platforms encourage and normalize spite by making the cost of “punishing” others infinitesimal). During the lead-up to Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, warned voters: “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” Some voters thought Britain would be economically worse off if it left the European Union—yet they voted to leave anyway to thumb their noses at the elites in London and the bureaucrats in Brussels.

The spitefulness of our politics can be plausibly traced to a number of causes: fear and hatred of racial minorities; shocks due to technological change; disinformation campaigns by corporations and political actors; the collapse of local communities and institutions; fantasies about a now-irretrievable national past. What leads political communities to reject the common good and instead choose to fight over a shrinking pie (or toppled cake)?

What emerges from the evidence assembled in the book is a picture of spite as part of the corrosive effects of economic inequality. That spite wells up in response to inequality is suggested by the ultimatum game: Low offers provoke spiteful rejections. But the relationship between spite and social stratification is more intricate. Feelings of spite, it turns out, are intimately tied to judgments about status. People often act spitefully, McCarthy-Jones argues, to gain an advantage over a rival. In competitive contexts in which resources are limited, damaging someone else’s status can rebound to our benefit.  Evidence from laboratory games shows that players will often destroy each other’s chance at monetary gain not to restore equality, but to get ahead.

Spite defends such motivated behavior as having equalizing effects—tearing down the rich to make room for the poor—though it does so only half-heartedly. (The book’s focus on the “upside” of spite may be chalked up to the fact that popular social-science publishing all but requires a counterintuitive frame.) Spite is a symptom of social breakdown. But it is not a trustworthy guide to fair action. This ugly feeling is self-multiplying: It tends to lead not toward justice but toward more spite.

That’s because the poor and the marginalized do not have a monopoly on spite—far from it. Posing as a victim is easy, as is claiming that one’s efforts to humiliate others are serving the greater good. Today, nearly anyone can reframe petty sadism as “punching up” and find a receptive audience. (In a recent poll, 75 percent of Republicans said that conservatives face real discrimination in America; 49 percent said the same of Black people.) Researchers have shown that Americans on average dramatically underestimate how unequal American society is. (In wealth distribution, we are more unequal than China.) Thus, our judgments about who needs to be “put in their place” are frequently defective. A spiteful politics is one in which the immiserated majority fights for scraps while the rich carry on as usual. We cannot “punish” our way to a less punitive society.

If spite has positive uses, those uses lie, in the main, not in politics but in art. Jane Austen, the great artist of spiteful snobbery and petty vengeance, knew this well. One of her achievements in depicting a radically unequal society was to reclaim spite as a literary weapon. In Austen, spite sharpens language and is alchemized into glittering insult. With astringency—a pen dipped in venom—her novels catalog the endless slights of social life, the petty warfare over status.

In Pride and Prejudice, Miss Bingley, a spiteful character if there ever was one, edges Elizabeth Bennett off a garden path so that she, Miss Bingley, can walk alongside Mr. Darcy. Later, Miss Bingley, feigning shock at a cheeky remark from Darcy, asks Elizabeth how they ought to “punish” him. “We can all plague and punish one another,” Elizabeth replies. “Tease him—laugh at him.” What fun spite is!

But the novel does not allow prideful Darcy and prejudicial Elizabeth to dwell in spite alone. With time, their caustic raillery transforms into sincere attachment. Pride and Prejudice pays tribute to the pleasures of artful spite—but affirms the need to move past the pettiness of the Miss Bingleys of the world. Spite is for people who want to shove you off the garden walk. A more humane politics would ask how to make the path wider.