Science & Technology

How spiteful are you? | New Scientist


Nobody likes a meanie, but while being spiteful is generally considered an unpleasant characteristic, it can occasionally be the lesser of two evils. Standing up to injustice, for instance, can often come at great personal cost, but if we are unwilling to accept unfairness, spite is often what’s required.

Spiteful behaviour, or the desire to harm another at some cost to yourself, has long been observed in lab experiments, but there has been surprisingly little psychological research into what it actually is and how it varies from person to person.

The first questionnaire specifically designed to answer these points was only published in 2014. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the questionnaire found people scoring higher on spitefulness also tended to score higher on measures of aggression, psychopathic personality traits, and impulsivity. But problematic personality traits weren’t the only issue. Spiteful people were also more likely to report symptoms of psychological distress in their everyday lives, suggesting that perhaps poor mental health and social inequality are important factors.

Another individual difference relates to a person’s “social value orientation”, which is how they like events to play out in relation to themselves and others. The psychologist Paul van Lange at VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands found that people usually have one of three social value orientations: prosocial, individualistic or competitive.

To find out which you are, imagine you and another player are to be awarded points. The more you get, the better. You have three options:

  • A: 480 points for you, 480 points for the other person.
  • B: 540 points for you, 280 points for the other person.
  • C: 480 points for you, 80 points for the other person.

Van Lange’s research found that around 70 per cent of people chose option A (prosocial). About 20 per cent chose B, using rational thinking to maximise their pay-off (individualistic). But around 10 per cent of people chose C (competitive). Such people act spitefully by taking less than the maximum points available while minimising the amount the other gets. Yet in the process, they maximise their advantage over the other player and boost their dominance.

In real life, it may be an idea to keep the prosocial close, but the competitive even closer.

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