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Psychologists are finally taking a long, hard look at spite


Psychologists have spent years studying selfishness, greed, and narcissism, and now it's time for spite to have its turn in the spotlight. Dr. David K. Marcus, a psychologist at Washington State University, was spared the temptation of spite when he discovered that hardly any attention has been paid to this particular bad behavior. "Spitefulness is such an intrinsically interesting subject, and it fits with so many people's everyday experience, that I was surprised to see how little mention there was of it in the psychology literature," he tells The New York Times.

Marcus and his colleagues gave 946 college students and 297 other adults a 17-item survey that asked them to rate, on a "spitefulness scale," statements like "I would be willing to take a punch if it meant someone I did not like would receive two punches" (who wouldn't?) and "If I opposed the election of an official, I would happily see the person fail even if that failure hurt my community" (ouch, that one's kind of brutal).

The researchers found that partisan politics especially fill people with spite, as do acrimonious divorces. They also determined that men are usually more spiteful than women, and young adults more spiteful than their elders. And if you are spiteful, you're probably also callous and have poor self-esteem. Rarely did spitefulness go hand-in-hand with agreeableness or conscientiousness in an individual. You might yet be redeemed, though, spiteful people of the world; evolutionary theorists are also taking a look at the "bright side" of spite, to see if it had any role in developing commendable traits like a sense of fairness and cooperation.