Guilt vs. shame
People with higher levels of guilt, which is a concern for other people and a fear of violating social norms, scored lower on spitefulness; people with higher levels of shame, which is more a sense of inadequacy and failing, scored higher.
These scenarios were written for a research study to gauge spitefulness levels among 1,200 people. (Not all scenarios were used in the study.)
1) It might be worth risking my reputation in order to spread gossip about someone I did not like.
2) If I am going to my car in a crowded parking lot and it appears that another driver wants my parking space, then I will make sure to take my time pulling out of the parking space.
3) If my neighbor complained that I was playing my music too loud, then I might turn up the music even louder just to irritate him or her, even if it meant I could get fined.
4) If my co-workers were going to get larger raises than me, then I would prefer it if none of us received raises.
5) If I had the opportunity, then I would gladly pay a small sum of money to see a classmate who I do not like fail his or her final exam.
6) There have been times when I was willing to suffer some small harm so that I could punish someone else who deserved it.
7) I would rather no one get extra credit in a class if it meant that others would receive more credit than me.
8) If I opposed the election of an official, then I would be glad to see him or her fail even if their failure hurt my community.
9) I would be willing to take a punch if it meant that someone I did not like would receive two punches.
10) I would be willing to pay more for some goods and services if other people I did not like had to pay even more.
11) If I was one of the last students in a classroom taking an exam and I noticed that the instructor looked impatient, I would be sure to take my time finishing the exam just to irritate him or her.
12) If my neighbor complained about the appearance of my front yard, I would be tempted to make it look worse just to annoy him or her.
13) I would take on extra work at my job if it meant that one of my co-workers who I did not like would also have to do extra work.
14) I would consider tapping on my brakes to scare a driver who was tailgating me.
15) Part of me enjoys seeing the people I do not like fail even if their failure hurts me in some way.
16) If I am checking out at a store and I feel like the person in line behind me is rushing me, then I will sometimes slow down and take extra time to pay.
17) It is sometimes worth a little suffering on my part to see others receive the punishment they deserve.
18) I would oppose funding for a government program that provided illegal immigrants with free vaccinations for a contagious disease, even if this program would reduce the chances of a population-wide epidemic.
19) Even if I was not selected for a team, I would still support the team and be happy if they were successful.
It can be a freeway, a parking lot or a divorce court.
They're all settings where people are willing to suffer harm for the opportunity to hurt someone else.
That is what spite is all about, and it's all around us.
"It's when folks are willing to do something not in their own best interest — suffer some harm — to harm another," Washington State University researcher David Marcus said. "There are those tiny, little instances of spite that probably happen on a day-to-day basis."
Still, it's been an overlooked aspect of social behavior.
"Most research that focuses on negative social behavior is on the dark personality traits," he said.
Those dark traits include narcissism and psychopathy.
"Spitefulness hangs together with them, except it didn't look like spitefulness was getting its own focused attention," the psychology professor said. "It seemed like a niche to fill."
There have been some measures of it in economic research, Marcus said. People are asked if they're willing to get, say, a dollar if it means somebody else can get $5. And some people actually turn down that dollar, satisfied that the other person lost $5.
Marcus and a research team recently published their contribution — "The Psychology of Spite and the Measurement of Spitefulness" — in the journal Psychological Assessment. He worked with grad student Alyssa Norris and colleagues at Oakland University and the University of British Columbia.
They presented 17 situations to more than 1,200 people. Participants were asked how much they agreed with scenarios such as: "If I am going to my car in a crowded parking lot and it appears that another driver wants my parking space, then I will make sure to take my time pulling out of the parking space."
The research team also measured the participants' other personality traits, such as aggression, psychopathy, narcissism, self-consciousness, self-esteem and Machiavellianism.
Spite was greatest among people high in psychopathy, who are particularly callous, unsympathetic and unemotional.
It is among three spite-enchancing traits Marcus calls the "dark triad," along with narcissism — a self-centered feeling of superiority — and Machiavellianism, the willingness to be manipulative and deceitful.
"All three traits are on a continuum" in just about everybody, Marcus said. "You don't necessarily score highly on all three. We all vary. Folks at the high end can be quite destructive."
It sure is not the Golden Rule. Yet, spite can have a warped relationship with the time-honored advice to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
"People can act spitefully when they feel they haven't been treated well themselves," Marcus said.
"Someone is willing to suffer harm when the other person has it coming," he said. "There is a little research from evolutionary biologists how spitefulness may have evolved as way of enforcing fairness."
You occasionally see spite emerge on the road.
Some people risk a traffic ticket by tail-gating or changing lanes abruptly to give other motorists a taste of their own erratic driving.
Or maybe another driver is just a jerk, such as the guy who remains in the outside lane when the freeway narrows from four lanes to three; that way he can cut in a dozen cars ahead of you.
"There are a number of reasons why driving can be a setting for spitefulness," he said.
"When you're driving, it's a little less personal, more anonymous," he said. "Even though people can see into the car, you're surrounded by glass and metal.
"There are very set ideas of what is fair and right — rules of the road — and how people should behave.
"The person who stays in the lane that is about to close: People shut him out. A lot of fender benders come from that sort of jockeying."
Marcus said that he's guilty of those urges himself: "Even if it puts us at risk, it doesn't seem right when people cheat like that."
A divorce can generate so much spiteful behavior that everyone loses.
"People are willing to sacrifice their community property for lawyers' fees. Everyone gets less — except for the attorneys," he said. "Custody fights can be so horrible. Nobody has a good relationship with the kid when he's seen each parent denigrate the other parent."
Men appear to be more spiteful, although maybe that's because "most of the questions were made up by two guys," Marcus said.
More questions about relationships might change that, such as: After a bad breakup, do you sleep with a friend of your ex, even when there is no attraction?
On the bright side, people are less spiteful as they get older people, Marcus said.
"Maybe they get wiser, or don't have energy to do spiteful things," Marcus said. "It goes against the stereotype of the old grump."
People also can try tempering their own spiteful responses, he suggested.
"You get so caught up in the person cutting the line" on the freeway, he said. "For all I know, that person is trying to get to hospital. Reframing it can give it another perspective."