The Science Of Spite

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Why do we wish harm upon others? Researchers might have an idea. (GIF: Getty Images/Steven Foley/Yahoo Health)

There’s no getting around it: Spite is a strong emotion, and it’s a complicated one.

From a psychological perspective, it involves a desire to hurt someone else, and the actual act of being spiteful often makes people feel better about themselves. It also involves competition, whether it’s real or imagined, which explains why rival gangs can crop up in neighboring towns or why fans of opposing sports teams can sometimes act nasty toward each other.

But where does spite come from, exactly? A new evolutionary theory from researchers at Queen’s University in Canada answers just that. The theory links feelings of spite to how a person is similar or different to the group of people around him or her. The more spiteful a person is, the more likely he or she is to be very similar to the people around him or her, and vice versa.

 To develop the theory, researchers studying social evolution discovered that people are more likely to be spiteful when they’re physically very similar to the majority of the people who surround them. The spite they feel is directed toward people who are even slightly different from them, and they’re most spiteful toward people who are very different from them. Because of that intense emotion, people who are spiteful are more likely to go to extreme lengths to hurt those who are dissimilar to them.

Researchers also determined that spiteful people tend to be less selfless toward people who are similar to them. On the other hand, people who appear very different from most of the others in their social group tend to be more selfless toward the people around them and are only slightly spiteful to those who are very different from them. 

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“Our theory suggests that people who are well-traveled or live in more ethnically diverse cities will tend to be less racist,” study co-author DB Krupp, PhD, professor of psychology at Queen’s Universitytells Yahoo Health. “There is certainly evidence that we change the way we categorize someone’s ethnicity based on our exposure to people of other ethnic groups.” 

While Krupp’s model is based on physical appearance, he says it may also apply to a difference in values as well. For example, if you share the same political opinion as everyone else in your town, you’re more likely to be spiteful toward people who have different values from you. 

But why do some people behave so aggressively toward people who are different from them? It’s all due to a fear of the unknown, says psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

“There is a comfort in familiarity, and it makes us feel less anxious,” she tells Yahoo Health. “We always try to do what makes us feel like we’re in a less dangerous situation.”

Conversely, if someone has only interacted with people who are similar to them and then is faced with the idea of interacting with someone who is very different, it can force them out of their comfort zone and create an unsafe feeling of the unknown for them. Saltz says people tend to fill in that unknown with fantasy, and often project things that feel scary to them onto someone who seems very different.

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Those instincts can lead to racism, Saltz says, which is still thriving in the U.S. A 2012 Associated Press poll examining attitudes toward African Americans since President Barack Obama was elected president, for instance, showed that half of Americans still harbored racist attitudes toward black people.

Of course, there are varying levels of spite: It’s possible to do an action out of spite but not be a spiteful person. For example, you may feel spiteful toward a new co-worker who filled a position that you wanted, but won’t go to extreme lengths to ruin her life. Spite becomes a problem when it’s “consuming” and “obsessional,” but it’s normal for people to feel spiteful on occasion, says Saltz. 

But spite isn’t just an ugly outward emotion — it also negatively impacts the person who is spiteful. “People who are spiteful sometimes act self-destructively because subconsciously they’re trying to punish themselves for having bad thoughts,” Saltz says. Those thoughts can be all-consuming, zap a person’s energy levels, prevent them from forming meaningful relationships, and create a vicious cycle that’s hard to break, she says.

Bottom line: Spite benefits no one.

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