‘Spite’: Excerpts from Simon McCarthy-Jones’ new book reveal the upside of our dark side

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November 1, 2020 3:30 AM

Cooperation is humanity’s superpower, so why does malice make sense? Could ill will yield any benefits?

Instances of spite can be found in the myths of ancient Greece. Achilles (left) refuses to help his Greek comrades fight because one of them has stolen his slaveInstances of spite can be found in the myths of ancient Greece. Achilles (left) refuses to help his Greek comrades fight because one of them has stolen his slave

Spite runs deep. We find it in our oldest stories. It is there in the myths of Ancient Greece. Medea kills her children, just to spite her unfaithful husband, Jason. Achilles refuses to help his Greek comrades fight because one of them has stolen his slave. Folklore tells of spite. A magical being offers to grant a man one wish. Naturally, there is a catch. Whatever he gets, his hated neighbour will get double. The man wishes to be blind in one eye. Such stories, although buried in time, still speak of an instantly recognisable behaviour.

Today, we know that spite can be petty. A driver lingers in a parking space, just to make you wait. A neighbour puts up a fence, solely to block your view. We may also realise how damaging spite can be. A spouse seeks custody of a child, just to get back at their ex. A voter supports a candidate they hope will cause chaos. But are we prepared to recognise that spite may have a positive side?

What exactly is spite? According to the American psychologist David Marcus, a spiteful act is one where you harm another person and harm yourself in the process. This is a ‘strong’ definition of spite. In weaker definitions, spite is harming another while only risking harm to yourself. It can also be harming another while not personally benefiting from this. Yet, as Marcus points out, a strong definition of spite, in which harming another entails a personal cost, helps differentiate it from other hostile or sadistic behaviours.

Indeed, a helpful way to understand spite is to look at what it isn’t. When we consider the costs and benefits of our actions, there are four basic ways we can interact with another person. Two behaviours involve direct perks for us. We can act in a way that benefits both ourselves and the other (co-operation) or in a way that benefits ourselves but not the other (selfishness). A third behaviour involves a cost to us, but a benefit to the other. This is altruism. Researchers have dedicated lifetimes to the study of co-operation, selfishness and altruism. But there is also a fourth behaviour, spite. Here we behave in a way that harms both ourselves and the other. This behaviour has been left in the shadows. This is not a safe place for it to be. We need to shine a light on spite.

Spite is challenging to explain. It seems to present an evolutionary puzzle. Why would natural selection not have weeded out a behaviour in which everybody loses? Spite should never have survived. If your spite benefits you in the long term, then its continued existence becomes comprehensible. But what about spiteful acts that don’t give you long-term benefits? How can we explain those? Do such acts even exist?

Spite also poses a problem for economists. What kind of person acts against their self-interest? For the longest time, economists didn’t think there was a problem to explain. The famous eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith claimed people were ‘not very frequently under the influence’ of spite and that even if it did occur we would be ‘restrained by prudential considerations’. Much later, in the 1970s, the American economist Gordon Tullock claimed that the average human was about ninety-five percent selfish. In the ‘greed is good’ era of the 1980s, many may have felt this estimate to be on the low side.

Economists viewed humans as a creature called homo economicus. This was a being that acted rationally to maximise its self-interest. Self-interest was typically, though not always, understood in financial terms. Yet, as I will discuss in chapter 1, back in 1977 a groundbreaking study found people were often quite happy to turn down free money. Adam Smith had been over-optimistic. Something very real and very powerful lurked in Tullock’s residual percentage.

Spite involves harm, but what constitutes harm? Who gets to decide whether an act is harmful and thereby has the power to define an act as spiteful? To take an extreme example, does a suicide bomber, who thinks that they will be rewarded in the next life and their families compensated in this life, harm themselves or not? Evolutionary biologists possess an objective measure of harm. This is a loss of fitness (reproductive success). We will look at spiteful acts involving a loss of personal fitness, so-called ‘evolutionary spite’, in chapter 4. In contrast, economists and psychologists tend to focus on harm in the form of immediate personal costs. This ‘psychological spite’ can turn out to have unforeseen long-term personal benefits. Such spite ages well, maturing into selfishness.

Once we are happy with what spite is, two questions remain. First, what is driving someone to act spitefully in the moment? That is, how does spite work? This is called spite’s proximate explanation. Second, what is the deeper reason we are spiteful? Why does spite exist? What is its evolutionary function? This is the ultimate explanation of spite. To take an example from another area— why do babies cry? The proximate explanation may be cold or hunger, but the ultimate explanation is to get care from their parents. What are the equivalent answers for spite?

Once we have an ultimate explanation of spite, we can begin to consider the pressing question of how spite shapes the modern world. A love of sugar and fat helped our ancestors, pushing them to eat high-energy foods. Yet in the Western world today, where cheap sugary and fatty foods are ubiquitous, what was once adaptive now causes diabetes and heart disease. What happens when our evolved spiteful side runs into a world it was never meant to deal with? What are the effects of spite in a world with levels of economic inequality, perceived injustice and social-media-enabled communication that would be utterly alien to our ancestors?

This problem is pressing because spite seems more than dangerous. From some angles it even looks like human kryptonite. Spite is, by definition, the exact opposite of co-operation. This is worrying because co-operation is our species’ superpower. Our success as a species has come from our remarkable ability to work together. Although even slime moulds co-operate, we turn it up to eleven. This allows us to live in large groups with non-relatives, something that our less co-operative primate cousins cannot do. This keeps us safe from a Planet of the Apes-style takeover for the time being, yet there are many other things to worry about short of primate overlords. If spite damages co-operation, it could not only hamper human progress; it could also reduce our ability to solve the complex global problems that we face. The world is getting better, but progress is not guaranteed.

Spite can also be terrifying. Is there anything more frightening than an adversary unfettered by the bonds of self-interest? Selfishness can be a problem. But at least we can reason with a selfish person’s self-interest. What do you say to a spiteful person who values your suffering more than their own well-being? They are like a Terminator. They can’t be bargained with, can’t be reasoned with, and absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are, if not dead, then at least inconvenienced. Unfortunately, such creatures are not limited to science fiction.

Pages 1-5
Excerpted with permission from Oneworld Publications, UK, from the book Spite
by Simon McCarthy-Jones

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