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I’ll show you who’s boss: The Spitefulness Scale

Monday, May 12, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

spite voodoo dollWe’ve been down this road before and brought you the Depravity Scale, the Comprehensive Assessment of Sadistic Tendencies Scale, the Guilt and Shame Proneness Scale and the Islamophobia Scale. Now however, it’s time for a check on how spiteful you are. We all know spite when we see it. Dawdling in their parking space because someone is hovering, waiting to get in. Deliberately slowing down on the highway to irritate a tailgater. Spreading gossip that is perhaps less than wholly true because a co-worker angered you. My mother described it as “cutting off your nose to spite your face”. The list is endless. There is even an old Eastern European folk tale where a genie offers a man anything he wishes–providing his hated neighbor gets double the prize. And the spiteful man says, “Genie, put out one of my eyes.” Spite has been with us a long, long time. But now, it is possible to measure one’s spitefulness. Scientifically. In case we want to. Researchers have recently published a 17-item measure of spitefulness. As they developed the scale, they learned some interesting things.

Men are more spiteful than women.

Young adults are more spiteful than older adults.

Ethnic minority members were more spiteful than members of ethnic majorities.

And spitefulness is often accompanied by aggression, psychopathy, narcissism, callousness [low empathy and low kindness], Machiavellianism, guilt-free shame and poor self-esteem. (This one did not come as a surprise.)

However, spitefulness does not tend to co-exist with agreeableness, conscientiousness, self-esteem, or a tendency to feel guilt.

When we are upset, like about partisan politics (when our candidate is losing) or going through a bitter divorce–even agreeable people may have spikes of spitefulness. The authors describe spiteful suicides (intended to traumatize the person who finds them) and spiteful suicides meant to look like homicides framing someone toward whom they (obviously) felt anger and spite. They describe suicide bombers as motivated to get revenge on a hated enemy. Spiteful people are angry. Even if the anger becomes self-destructive. The researchers think the scale is useful in predicting behavior in laboratory settings but also in everyday life (where they see it as contributing to diagnoses of personality disorders and oppositional defiant disorder). They also casually mention applicability to the legal domain where spite has been defined as “the willingness of a litigant to reduce his payoff in order to reduce his opponent’s payoff”. These people would be difficult to mediate with, since they define their self-interest largely in terms of how much distress they can cause the opponent, rather than how much benefit they can achieve for themselves. You can look at the article itself for information on scale development (we will tell you it was scientifically sound) but here, we are skipping right to some sample items because we know you are curious. The scale is only 17 items long and here are a few of the questions used to measure spite.

If a neighbor complained that I was playing my music too loud then I might turn up the music even louder just to irritate him or her, even if it meant I could get fined.

There have been times when I was willing to suffer some small harm so that I could punish someone who deserved it.

I would be willing to take a punch if it meant that someone I didn’t like would receive two punches.

I would consider tapping on my brakes to scare a driver who was tailgating me.

And so on. The idea is that the more items endorsed in a spiteful direction, the more spiteful the person. That makes sense. It is probably true that most of us can be spiteful from time to time, but we know we are being naughty or dumb even while we do it. We don’t embrace it as a life strategy. The question is how often and whether it is a staple of our character. It’s an interesting idea and an intriguing scale to consider. Whether people high in spitefulness are more litigious is a question for future research but it’s an interesting concept to consider as you listen to that new client or applicants for an opening at your firm. Marcus DK, Zeigler-Hill V, Mercer SH, & Norris AL (2014). The Psychology of Spite and the Measurement of Spitefulness. Psychological Assessment PMID: 24548150 Image

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