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.
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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”).