In relationships, spiteful acts may be among the most frustrating issues to deal with, as one partner intentionally commits an act just to get the other one upset — in the end, neither partner is happy. So why is it, that so many people are compelled to act in such a way, when they almost certainly know that no good can come out of it? In a new study, researchers at Washington State University look at the oft-overlooked behavior.
“Spitefulness is such an intrinsically interesting subject, and it fits with so many people’s everyday experience, that I was surprised to see how little mention there was of it in the psychology literature,” David Marcus, a psychologist at the university, told The New York Times. Indeed, it doesn’t only occur in relationships. Road ragers are guilty of it, slowing down intentionally when the person behind them honks their horn — all people guilty of it do it knowing that they’ll be sacrificing something, from time and energy to physical and emotional pain.
The researchers set out to create a spitefulness scale to “assess individual differences in spitefulness,” or the intensity of behaviors and emotional qualities a person had that made them more likely to be spiteful. They surveyed 946 college students and 297 adults, and also took data from the participants’ responses to an Amazon survey. The respondents were gauged by their responses to statements like, “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,” or “Part of me enjoys seeing the people I do not like fail even if their failure hurts me in some way,” CBS reported.
They found that people with more spiteful tendencies were more likely to also show hints of callousness, Machiavellianism, poor self-esteem, aggression, and guilt-free shame. Conversely, those who were less likely to be spiteful were also more likely to feel guilt, had higher self-esteem, and were more agreeable and conscientious. Not surprisingly, they found that men were more likely to be spiteful — perhaps out of their tendency to be more aggressive and dominating. Young adults were also more spiteful than older ones. “You get older and you learn from experience,” Marcus said, according to CBS, “and you just may not have the energy for it.”
Their scale, the researchers wrote, will “be able to predict behavior in both laboratory settings and everyday life, contribute to the diagnosis of personality disorders… and encourage further study of this neglected, often destructive trait.”
Source: Marcus D, Zeigler-Hill V, Mercer S, et al. The Psychology of Spite and the Measurement of Spitefulness. Psychological Assessment. 2014.