Spite seems utterly useless. You don't gain anything by hurting yourself just so you can hurt someone else. So why hasn't evolution weeded out all the spiteful people? As psychologist Simon McCarthy-Jones argues, spite seems pointless because we're looking at it wrong. Spite isn't just what we feel when a car cuts us off or when a partner cheats. It's what we feel when we want to punish a bad act simply because it was bad. Spite is our fairness instinct, an innate resistance to exploitation, and it is one of the building blocks of human civilization. As McCarthy-Jones explains, some of history's most important developments--the rise of religions, governments, and even moral codes--were actually redirections of spiteful impulses. Spite shows that if you really want to understand what makes us human, you can't just look at noble ideas like altruism and cooperation. You need to understand our darker impulses as well.
... [a] thorough and entertaining book, which poses a provocative thesis ... McCarthy-Jones is a funny, playful writer, especially for a psychologist ... McCarthy-Jones stretches his argument a bit when he makes the case for the virtues of spite ... 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.
McCarthy-Jones provides a few real-world examples of 'counterdominant spite,' in which spiteful actors take down the powerful. He cites research on contemporary hunter-gatherer societies showing that swaggering group members who attempt to bully and dominate others are frequently killed ...His argument that spite promotes fairness, however, relies mainly on a famous economics experiment known as the 'ultimatum game.' ... Unfortunately, as McCarthy-Jones proceeds through his survey of the psychological literature, his category of spite broadens into incoherence ... Distinct phenomena—envy, sadism, schadenfreude, reckless idealism, world-historical malice—get flattened. Lost in all this is spite’s peculiar emotional texture, its blend of childish vindictiveness and rashness ... These conceptual confusions and truisms mar an otherwise promising exploration. In turning our attention to spite, McCarthy-Jones has identified an important element in the emotional climate of the present.
At times, the conclusions McCarthy-Jones draws seem to go well beyond the evidence he describes ... We need to be careful, then, to distinguish genuinely spiteful motivations from those that might appear superficially similar but are actually centered on conceptions of justice and are hence morally valuable and admirable. Unfortunately, McCarthy-Jones’s descriptions of various experiments are not extremely detailed. A fuller accounting of those studies might have reassured readers that he is not going well beyond the conclusions warranted by the data. Still, many readers who feel such concerns will nonetheless find the book an interesting and at times provocative exploration of an emotion that has to this point been underexplored and, if McCarthy-Jones is right, significantly under-appreciated.