A recent viral YouTube video shows a woman’s epic struggle to parallel park her car. She approaches from behind; she approaches from the front; she tries again, fails again; she gets out and attempts to measure the space with her feet. Finally, a good Samaritan steps in, shouting encouragement and motivational remarks while patiently directing her into the spot.
The shock comes at the end. Having concluded her good deed, the Samaritan gets into her own car — which is parked directly behind the woman’s car, meaning it was the main impediment to the woman’s parking efforts in the first place — and merrily drives off.
I thought about this possibly diabolical pedestrian as I read Simon McCarthy-Jones’s “Spite,” which sets out to explore and perhaps rehabilitate this usually unattractive human emotion. He provides theoretical scenarios as a way to help you gauge your own degree of spitefulness, should any of them ring a bell.
Of course I’m not spiteful myself, I thought as I prepared to read his list. I would never, for instance, install a large ugly item in my yard just to taunt my neighbors. I would never unexpectedly tap the brakes on my car so as to mess with a driver who was tailgating me. I would never deliberately wear an unflattering outfit that my mother told me looked terrible, just to prove that she was not the boss of me.
Well. “I believe you if you say that the spiteful scenarios I outlined above are entirely foreign to you,” McCarthy-Jones writes, I imagine not entirely sincerely. “Of course, it also makes me suspect that you are a bit of a do-gooder.”
He will return to us and our puffed-up self-righteousness later in this thorough and entertaining book, which poses a provocative thesis: “Spitefulness isn’t a dark stain on our soul; it is part of our soul.” Moreover, he continues, spite “can be a force for good,” if deployed strategically.
To make his case, McCarthy-Jones, an associate professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin, draws on history, anthropology, sociology, genetics, economics, psychology, game theory, neuroscience and works of literature, including “Moby-Dick” and Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From Underground,” with its irresistibly apt opening line: “I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man.” McCarthy-Jones is a funny, playful writer, especially for a psychologist.
It turns out that a lot of behavior can be filed under “spite.” There were those Bernie Sanders supporters who, furious that Hillary Clinton had beaten their candidate in the primaries, voted for Donald J. Trump in the 2016 election. There were the members of the radical Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany in the 1970s who apparently killed themselves, possibly trying to pin the blame for their deaths on the government they despised. There was Dr. Nicholas Bartha, who blew up his $4 million Upper East Side townhouse (and himself) rather than sell it and split the proceeds with his ex-wife.
What is spite? McCarthy-Jones makes a distinction between the “weak” definition (harming another person without necessarily hurting yourself) and the “strong” definition (hurting yourself and the other person). The strong definition, which differentiates spite from everyday nastiness, is what occupies him. It is the underpinning of an illuminating exercise known as the ultimatum game, which reveals how easily people (or at least people raised in the Western tradition) turn to spite.
In the ultimatum game, one person is given a sum of money and told to split it with a second person. The first person gets to decide how the money will be divided — in ratios of 50-50, 80-20 and the like — and the second person has the option of either accepting the offer or rejecting it, in which case neither participant gets anything.
Since the 1970s, when the experiment was devised, the results have been strikingly consistent: Participants regularly reject offers they feel are too low, preferring to have nothing at all than to accept a situation in which they get a little and the other player gets a lot. This flies in the face of rational economic theory, which holds that people act “to maximize their material self-interest,” McCarthy-Jones writes, and shows how readily people’s feelings about fairness enter into their decisions.
“Greed is driving this country to hell,” one participant wrote after turning down a $30 offer out of a $100 pot, thus depriving his partner of $70.
There are endless permutations of the game, endless ways to tweak the variables, and many varieties of spite. For some, it represents a desire to dominate and get ahead; for others, it’s a desire to encourage a fair society by forcing people into better behavior; for others, it’s a simple desire not to be told what to do, even if it’s for their own good. (McCarthy-Jones calls this “existential spite.”) As Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man said: “What man wants is simply independent choice, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”
McCarthy-Jones makes a persuasive case that a form of spite was a decisive factor in Britain’s vote, in 2016, to leave the European Union despite overwhelming evidence that it would harm the country financially. In much the way that Trump supporters resented Clinton for her “basket of deplorables” comment during the campaign, Leavers in the Brexit vote were aggrieved by what they considered the patronizing attitude of an elite that painted them as provincial and reactionary. As the pro-leave politician Michael Gove said: “People in this country have had enough of experts.”
Given that we’re stuck with our spiteful natures, can we learn to harness them for good?
McCarthy-Jones stretches his argument a bit when he makes the case for the virtues of spite — how, for instance, it’s a powerful tool for combating injustice and forcing people and corporations to behave less selfishly — because of a tendency to lace his points with counterpoints. (If you start to feel too spiteful, he says, take up meditation.) He also makes short shrift of spite in social media, a topic that could be a chapter (or even a book) in itself. But this is a small quibble with a highly entertaining book that should be read more as an illuminating examination of an under-discussed topic than as a prescription for how to behave.
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