According to a medieval legend from around 870 CE, the most famous saying about spite has a historical antecedent. The story goes that, as Viking raiders closed in on their monastery in Scotland, St. Aebee the Younger told the nuns to disfigure themselves; she said it would keep the Vikings from raping them. Then she cut off her own nose and lip, with her fellow sisters following suit. When the Vikings arrived, they recoiled in horror. Aebee had cut off her nose to spite her face, and her plot had worked. (Sort of. The nuns weren’t raped, but the Vikings set fire to the convent with the nuns inside, and they were burned alive.)
Acting in a spiteful manner—deliberately trying to hurt someone, even when there’s nothing to gain and even when those actions might cause you to suffer as well—is something everyone engages in at one point or another. These gestures can be as petty as cutting someone off on the road, even if it puts you in a slower lane, or as big as spending tons of money to build a house to stick it to your neighbor.
But though its benefits may not be immediately obvious, spite isn’t just an aberrant emotion that makes us act with malice: It can be a tool we use to our advantage. Here’s what science knows about spite.
1. The history of spite goes all the way back to the bacterium.
Humans are, in evolutionary terms, a long way from bacteria—and yet a few of those organisms exhibit what we would call spite. Some bacteria release toxins known as bacteriocins that essentially attack and kill other bacteria. The catch: In many species, those toxins inevitably lead to the death of the aggressor bacteria, too. There’s obviously an evolutionary benefit to this behavior, and social scientists frequently look at spite in other organisms to see if we can understand the phenomenon in our own species.
2. There are two schools of thought on spite.
First, there’s Hamiltonian spite, named for biologist W.D. Hamilton, in which actions are directed against individuals you are unrelated to or only loosely related to. There’s also Wilsonian spite, named after biologist E.O. Wilson, in which acts of spite indirectly benefit someone you are closely related to. The former essentially argues that animals commit acts of spite because they aren’t hurt as much as the unrelated “enemy” is, while the latter argues that spite persists because the harm inflicted on another (even if the actor sustains a negative cost) will help others the actor cares about.
3. Spite isn’t as different from altruism as you might think.
To the average person, spite is when you really want to hurt someone. But social scientists have a more specific definition: Spite is a behavior “which is costly to both the actor and the recipient” and is one of the four “social behaviors” of Hamilton. The other three are altruism (a positive effect on the recipient but a negative effect on the actor), selfishness (a negative effect on the recipient but a positive effect on the actor), and mutual benefit (a positive effect on both the actor and the recipient).
Seen this way, researchers have called spite the “neglected ugly sister of altruism,” and for good reason. Both engender practices that come at the cost of one’s own fitness. In both altruism and spite, the actor doesn’t necessarily care what happens to them—they’re not acting for any personal gain, and they’re not deterred at the prospect of incurring personal loss. Instead, it’s all about what happens to the recipient party. And according to a 2006 paper, “any social trait that is spiteful simultaneously qualifies as altruistic. In other words, any trait that reduces the fitness of less related individuals necessarily increases that of related ones.”
4. Spiteful behavior could be a sign of psychopathy.
In psychology, the dark triad of personality traits are psychopathy (the inability to experience emotions like remorse, empathy, and be social with others), narcissism (the obsession with one’s self), and Machiavellianism (willingness to be duplicitous and disregard morality to achieve one’s own goals).
In 2014, researchers at Washington State University, led by psychologist David Marcus, had more than 1200 participants take a personality test, in which they were presented with 17 statements like “I would be willing to take a punch if it meant that someone I did not like would receive two punches” and “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,” then had to indicate how much they agreed with those statements.
The results, published in Psychological Assessment, showed that high scores in spitefulness correlated highly with psychopathy as well, along with the other two dark triad traits.
5. Men seem to be more spiteful than women.
The same study found that men reported higher levels of spite than women. Exactly why this was is unclear, but Marcus had some theories: According to a WSU press release, men may have scored higher on the spitefulness scale “because they also tend to score higher on the dark triad traits, said Marcus. But he also wonders if he and his colleagues used more ‘male spiteful’ scenarios than the types of relationship-focused situations that women might be more prone to focus on.”
6. Kids and the elderly aren’t very spiteful.
Kids resent unfair systems as much as adults do, but according to Marcus, a review of scientific literature shows that kids will also reject unfair systems even when they would benefit. “It’s like at a very early age, for the kids it’s all about the fairness,” he said in a press release. “So if they divide up candy and they get more candy than the kids they’re playing against, they’re like, ‘Nope, neither of us is going to get anything.’”
Kids simply didn’t react with spite and a malicious sense of wanting to see others go down; either everybody wins or nobody wins. Marcus’s research also finds that the elderly are less spiteful than younger and middle-aged adults generally are.
7. Spite can actually promote fairness.
Although evolutionary scientists might be baffled by spite, game theorists seem to have a better grasp of how it might work: It encourages fair play—perhaps not immediately, but eventually—for the entire system.
In 2014, a pair of American scientists built a computer model of virtual players who were tasked with splitting a pot of money. The first player chose how the pot would be split, and the second player either had to accept or reject that offer. If the second player accepted the offer, the pot would be split as the first player decided; if the second player rejected the offer, neither got any money.
The researchers found that although extreme spite on either end irrevocably sunk any hopes of cooperative play, moderate levels of spite went far to modulate and encourage fair exchange more often between players. That reasoning makes sense—if some people act spitefully and deny anyone an award, others are motivated to behave more fairly to ensure that both sides get something.
8. Humans aren’t the only animals that act spitefully.
It’s a subject of debate among scientists whether or not animals feel spite as humans do, but if we’re going by the classic definition—an action destructive to both the recipient and the actor—we can find spitefulness in nature. Capuchin monkeys, for example, will punish other monkeys that act unfairly towards the rest of the social group, even if it means an overall loss in resources and food. Then there’s the spiteful behavior of Copidosoma floridanum. This parasitic wasp lays one or two eggs inside of a moth egg, from which multiple embryos emerge—sometimes as many as 3000 per egg. When the host moth larva hatches, the wasp larvae begin proliferating—but not all of them go on to become wasps. Some, called soldier larvae, are sterile; they exist solely to kill the larvae of other (preferably distantly related) wasps to protect their siblings. When those siblings leave the host caterpillar, the soldiers die.
9. Spite isn’t the same thing as vengeance.
In a 2007 study, German scientists ran an experiment where chimpanzees were placed one at a time in cages with food accessible through a sliding table outside the cage. Those tables were connected to ropes that, when pulled, caused the food on the table to crash onto the floor. The chimps hardly pulled the rope when they were eating, but when a second chimp in an adjacent cage stole food by sliding the table out of reach, the first chimp would pull the rope and cause the food to collapse about 50 percent of the time. Yet, if the second chimp was eating from the table but the first chimp was barred from accessing it, the first chimp would hardly ever opt to make the other’s lunch fall to the ground.
In other words, the scientists concluded, “chimpanzees are vengeful but not spiteful.” They’ll punish other chimps only if the other chimps are doing well at the cost of their own well-being.
10. Spite may be a long game.
Spite, by definition, means the actor gets no immediate benefit, and in fact might potentially lose an advantage by acting in a spiteful manner. But the reason spite may have persisted through evolution and been passed down to offspring is because there can be a long-term benefit: If you’re seen as someone who will exact revenge on someone even at your own cost, people will know not to mess with you. Other individuals will be less likely to attempt to compete with you, because they know slighting you could bring about their demise—your reputation as a spiteful person would precede you. “It’s probably not spiteful when you’re looking at the long term,” Frank Marlowe, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, told The New York Times. “If you get the reputation as someone not to mess with and nobody messes with you going forward, then it was well worth the cost.”