10 Scientific Facts About Spite

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Illustration: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Illustration: iStock.

According to a medieval legend from around 870 CE, the most famous saying about spite has a historical antecedent. The story goes that, as Viking raiders closed in on their monastery in Scotland, St. Aebee the Younger told the nuns to disfigure themselves; she said it would keep the Vikings from raping them. Then she cut off her own nose and lip, with her fellow sisters following suit. When the Vikings arrived, they recoiled in horror. Aebee had cut off her nose to spite her face, and her plot had worked. (Sort of. The nuns weren't raped, but the Vikings set fire to the convent with the nuns inside, and they were burned alive.)

Acting in a spiteful manner—deliberately trying to hurt someone, even when there's nothing to gain and even when those actions might cause you to suffer as well—is something everyone engages in at one point or another. These gestures can be as petty as cutting someone off on the road, even if it puts you in a slower lane, or as big as spending tons of money to build a house to stick it to your neighbor.

But though its benefits may not be immediately obvious, spite isn't just an aberrant emotion that makes us act with malice: It can be a tool we use to our advantage. Here's what science knows about spite.

1. THE HISTORY OF SPITE GOES ALL THE WAY BACK TO THE BACTERIUM.

Humans are, in evolutionary terms, a long way from bacteria—and yet a few of those organisms exhibit what we would call spite. Some bacteria release toxins known as bacteriocins that essentially attack and kill other bacteria. The catch: In many species, those toxins inevitably lead to the death of the aggressor bacteria, too. There’s obviously an evolutionary benefit to this behavior, and social scientists frequently look at spite in other organisms to see if we can understand the phenomenon in our own species.

2. THERE ARE TWO SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT ON SPITE.

There’s Hamiltonian spite—in which actions are directed against individuals you are unrelated to or only loosely related to—which was named for biologist W.D. Hamilton, and Wilsonian spite, named after biologist E.O. Wilson, in which acts of spite indirectly benefit someone you are closely related to. The former essentially argues that animals commit acts of spite because they aren’t hurt as much as the unrelated "enemy" is, while the latter argues that spite persists because the harm inflicted on another (even if the actor sustains a negative cost) will help others the actor cares about.

3. IT'S NOT AS DIFFERENT FROM ALTRUISM AS YOU MIGHT THINK.

To the average person, spite is when you really want to hurt someone. But social scientists have a more specific definition: Spite is a behavior “which is costly to both the actor and the recipient” and is one of the four “social behaviors” of Hamilton. The other three are altruism (a positive effect on the recipient but a negative effect on the actor), selfishness (a negative effect on the recipient but a positive effect on the actor), and mutual benefit (a positive effect on both the actor and the recipient).

Seen this way, researchers have called spite the “neglected ugly sister of altruism,” and for good reason. Both engender practices that come at the cost of one’s own fitness. In both altruism and spite, the actor doesn’t necessarily care what happens to them—they're not acting for any personal gain, and they're not deterred at the prospect of incurring personal loss. Instead, it’s all about what happens to the recipient party. And according to a 2006 paper, “any social trait that is spiteful simultaneously qualifies as altruistic. In other words, any trait that reduces the fitness of less related individuals necessarily increases that of related ones.”

4. SPITEFUL BEHAVIOR COULD BE A SIGN OF PSYCHOPATHY.

In psychology, the dark triad of personality traits are psychopathy (the inability to experience emotions like remorse, empathy, and be social with others), narcissism (the obsession with one’s self), and Machiavellianism (willingness to be duplicitous and disregard morality to achieve one’s own goals).

In 2014, researchers at Washington State University, led by psychologist David Marcus, had more than 1200 participants take a personality test, in which they were presented with 17 statements like "I would be willing to take a punch if it meant that someone I did not like would receive two punches" and "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," then had to indicate how much they agreed with those statements.

The results, published in Psychological Assessment, showed that high scores in spitefulness correlated highly with psychopathy as well, along with the other two dark triad traits.

5. MEN SEEM TO BE MORE SPITEFUL THAN WOMEN …

The same study found that men reported higher levels of spite than women. Exactly why this was is unclear, but Marcus had some theories: According to a WSU press release, men may have scored higher on the spitefulness scale "because they also tend to score higher on the dark triad traits, said Marcus. But he also wonders if he and his colleagues used more 'male spiteful' scenarios than the types of relationship-focused situations that women might be more prone to focus on."

6. ... BUT KIDS AND THE ELDERLY AREN'T VERY SPITEFUL.

Kids resent unfair systems as much as adults do, but according to Marcus, a review of scientific literature shows that kids will also reject unfair systems even when they would benefit. "It's like at a very early age, for the kids it's all about the fairness,” he said in a press release. “So if they divide up candy and they get more candy than the kids they're playing against, they're like, 'Nope, neither of us is going to get anything.’”

Kids simply didn’t react with spite and a malicious sense of wanting to see others go down; either everybody wins or nobody wins. Marcus’s research also finds that the elderly are less spiteful than younger and middle-aged adults generally are.

7. SPITE CAN ACTUALLY PROMOTE FAIRNESS.

Although evolutionary scientists might be baffled by spite, game theorists seem to have a better grasp of how it might work: It encourages fair play—perhaps not immediately, but eventually—for the entire system.

In 2014, a pair of American scientists built a computer model of virtual players who were tasked with splitting a pot of money. The first player chose how the pot would be split, and the second player either had to accept or reject that offer. If the second player accepted the offer, the pot would be split as the first player decided; if the second player rejected the offer, neither got any money.

The researchers found that although extreme spite on either end irrevocably sunk any hopes of cooperative play, moderate levels of spite went far to modulate and encourage fair exchange more often between players. That reasoning makes sense—if some people act spitefully and deny anyone an award, others are motivated to behave more fairly to ensure that both sides get something.

8. HUMANS AREN'T THE ONLY ANIMALS THAT ACT SPITEFULLY.

It's a subject of debate among scientists whether or not animals feel spite as humans do, but if we're going by the classic definition—an action destructive to both the recipient and the actor—we can find spitefulness in nature. Capuchin monkeys, for example, will punish other monkeys that act unfairly towards the rest of the social group, even if it means an overall loss in resources and food. Then there's the spiteful behavior of Copidosoma floridanum. This parasitic wasp lays one or two eggs inside of a moth egg, from which multiple embryos emerge—sometimes as many as 3000 per egg. When the host moth larva hatches, the wasp larvae begin proliferating—but not all of them go on to become wasps. Some, called soldier larvae, are sterile; they exist solely to kill the larvae of other (preferably distantly related) wasps to protect their siblings. When those siblings leave the host caterpillar, the soldiers die.

9. SPITE ISN'T THE SAME THING AS VENGEANCE.

In a 2007 study, German scientists ran an experiment where chimpanzees were placed one at a time in cages with food accessible through a sliding table outside the cage. Those tables were connected to ropes that, when pulled, caused the food on the table to crash onto the floor. The chimps hardly pulled the rope when they were eating, but when a second chimp in an adjacent cage stole food by sliding the table out of reach, the first chimp would pull the rope and cause the food to collapse about 50 percent of the time. Yet, if the second chimp was eating from the table but the first chimp was barred from accessing it, the first chimp would hardly ever opt to make the other’s lunch fall to the ground.

In other words, the scientists concluded, “chimpanzees are vengeful but not spiteful.” They’ll punish other chimps only if the other chimps are doing well at the cost of their own well-being.

10. SPITE MAY BE A LONG GAME.

Spite, by definition, means the actor gets no immediate benefit, and in fact might potentially lose an advantage by acting in a spiteful manner. But the reason spite may have persisted through evolution and been passed down to offspring is because there can be a long-term benefit: If you’re seen as someone who will exact revenge on someone even at your own cost, people will know not to mess with you. Other individuals will be less likely to attempt to compete with you, because they know slighting you could bring about their demise—your reputation as a spiteful person would precede you. “It’s probably not spiteful when you’re looking at the long term,” Frank Marlowe, a biological anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, told The New York Times. “If you get the reputation as someone not to mess with and nobody messes with you going forward, then it was well worth the cost.”

10 Citizen Science Projects That Need Your Help

A citizen scientist takes a photo of scarlet mushrooms.
A citizen scientist takes a photo of scarlet mushrooms.
lovelypeace/iStock via Getty Images

Channel your inner Nikola Tesla or Marie Curie by participating in actual scientific research, either out and about or without even leaving your couch. These projects unleash the power of the public to be places that researchers can’t be and to spread the workload when data start piling up. They really can’t do it without you.

1. Catalog photos of Earth's cities at night.

Photo from space of a city at night
Identify cities from the photos taken from the International Space Station.
Chris Hadfield, NASA // Public Domain

Cities at Night—a study by Complutense University of Madrid—asks people to catalog images of the Earth at night taken from the International Space Station, part of the millions of images in the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth database. The current project, Lost at Night, needs people to identify cities within images of 310-mile circles on Earth. Hundreds of volunteers have classified thousands of images already, but classification by multiple individuals ensures greater accuracy. In fact, the project will determine the optimum number of people needed. The primary goal is an open atlas of publicly available nighttime images. Just log on to the image database to help.

2. Follow fish using high-tech tags.

You’ll have to go fishing—an outdoor activity you can do by yourself!—for this assignment. Volunteer to tag fish for the American Littoral Society, whose citizen scientists have tagged more than 640,000 fish since the program began in 1965. You can tag the fish you catch and release, or report tagged fish to the organization. The data is sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where it helps scientists track the populations and movements of coastal species like striped bass, flounder, and bluefish. To get started, become a member of the American Littoral Society, which comes with a packet of tagging gear and instructions.

3. Spy on penguins in Antarctica.

Penguins on an ice floe
Keeping tabs on penguins is one way a citizen scientist can lend a hand.
axily/iStock via Getty Images

Here's another project for those stuck indoors. Penguins are threatened by climate change, fisheries, and direct human disturbance, yet scientists have little data on the birds. To fill in the gaps, 50 cameras throughout the Southern Ocean and Antarctic Peninsula take images of colonies of gentoo, chinstrap, Adélie, and king penguins year-round. You can help the University of Oxford-based research team by sorting through thousands of images to identify and mark individual adult penguins, chicks, and eggs. You'll be pinpointing seasonal and geographic variations in populations that may represent changes to the Antarctic ecosystem. Marking other animals in the images helps researchers figure out which ones are hanging around penguin colonies. Discuss a specific image or the project with the science team and other volunteers in an online forum.

4. Battle an invasive marine species.

Like to dive or snorkel? Make it count by reporting lionfish sightings or captures to the Reef Environmental Education Foundation's Volunteer Reef Survey Project. Lionfish, which are native to the Indo-Pacific, were first sighted in the South Atlantic in 1985 and were likely released by private aquarium owners. Since then, they have spread throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and caused native fish populations to decline by up to 80 percent. Scientists say this invasion may be one of the century’s greatest threats to warm temperate and tropical Atlantic reefs. You can also join a lionfish derby to catch and kill some of the tasty fish so scientists can analyze their biology.

5. Count birds from your backyard.

Bluebirds at a bird feeder
Bluebirds dine on mealworms at a bird feeder.
MelodyanneM/iStock via Getty Images

North American birds are in trouble. Recent studies predict dramatic declines in the populations of migratory birds due to climate change—and much of the data that went into these studies came from citizen scientists who monitored species without leaving home. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada launches Project FeederWatch in the winter months; you simply put out a bird feeder and report the number and species of birds that visit it. Citizen scientists can also join the Cornell Lab's NestWatch—you find a nest, monitor it every three or four days, and report your data. And every February, the Audubon Society runs the Great Backyard Bird Count, in which participants submit data to produce a real-time snapshot of bird populations across North America. Any time of the year, birdwatchers can submit lists of the birds they see on eBird, a huge database of sightings that informs public policy, conservation efforts, and other initiatives.

6. Photograph plants for climate change research.

The Appalachian Mountain Club's Mountain Watch program asks hikers to document alpine and forest plants for ecological research. By taking photos of flowers and fruiting plants along woodland trails and uploading them to the iNaturalist app, participants provide data about the times and places that plants bloom. Scientists then compile the information in an online database and analyze it for trends that could indicate changing climates.

7. Comb through ships' logbooks for weather data.

Old handwritten letters
Practice your handwriting-deciphering skills on the Old Weather project.
scisettialfio/iStock via Getty Images

Ships’ logs from mid-19th century American sailing vessels contain detailed weather observations. Citizen scientists can help transcribe observations from whaling vessels for the Old Weather project; scientists will use the information to learn more about past environmental conditions and create better climate models for future projections. Historians will also use the data to track past ship movements and tell the stories of the people on board.

8. Make American history documents and science notes accessible to more people.

The Smithsonian Libraries are stuffed with original history and science documents that have lain in drawers for decades. Help open up "America's attic" to the public by organizing and transcribing digital versions of handwritten field notebooks, diaries, logbooks, specimen labels, photo albums, and other materials. You'll join thousands of other volunteers to investigate documents like the Sally K. Ride Papers, the collection of the Freedmen's Bureau (which helped former slaves following the Civil War), and field studies of insects by the Irish naturalist Arthur Stelfox.

9. Investigate historical crimes in Australia.

Drawing of a convict ship to Australia
A drawing of a 19th-century convict ship destined for Australia.
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

If you're obsessed with true crime, you'll love this project. Volunteer to investigate and transcribe criminal records from 19th- and 20th-century Australia, which was founded as a British penal colony. Alana Piper, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian Centre for Public History at the University of Technology Sydney, will use the transcriptions to construct the "life histories and offending patterns of Australian criminals" from the 1850s to the 1940s. More than 40,000 subjects have been completed so far.

10. Map the unique features of Mars's South Pole.

Travel to Mars—without the hassle of zero gravity or space-vegetable farming—through Planet Four, a citizen science project that is currently tasked with identifying features on Mars's dynamic South Pole. Volunteers examine photos from the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconaissance Orbiter and pick out "fans" or "blotches" in the landscape of seasonal carbon dioxide ice. Scientists believe these structures indicate wind speed and direction on the Martian surface and offers clues about the evolution of the Red Planet's climate.

Why Cats Like to Shove Their Butts in Your Face, According to an Animal Behavior Expert

This cat might be happier showing off its butt.
This cat might be happier showing off its butt.
Okssi68/iStock via Getty Images

Cats are full of eccentric behaviors. They hate getting wet. Their tongues sometimes get stuck midway out of their mouths, known as a “blep.” And they’re really happy hanging out in bodegas.

Some of these traits can be explained while others are more mysterious. Case in point: when they stick their rear end in your face for no apparent reason.

Are cats doing this just to humiliate their hapless caregivers? What would possess a cat to greet a person with its butt? Why subject the person who gives you food and shelter to such degradation?

To find out, Inverse spoke with Mikel Delgado, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis. According to Delgado, cats don’t necessarily perceive their rectal flaunting as anything aggressive or domineering. In fact, it might be a cat’s way of saying hello.

“For cats, it’s normal for them to sniff each other’s butts as a way to say hello or confirm another cat’s identity,” Delgado said. “It’s hard for us to relate to, but for them, smell is much more important to cats and how they recognize each other than vision is. So cats may be ‘inviting’ us to check them out, or just giving us a friendly hello.”

For a cat, presenting or inspecting a butt is a kind of fingerprint scan. It’s a biological measure of security.

Other experts agree with this assessment, explaining that cats use their rear end to express friendliness or affection. Raising their tail so you can take a whiff is a sign of trust. If they keep their tail down, it’s possible they might be feeling a little shy.

If you think this situation is eased by the fact you rarely hear cats fart, we have bad news. They do. Because they don’t often gulp air while eating, they just don’t have enough air in their digestive tract to make an audible noise. Rest assured that, statistically speaking, there will be times a cat giving you a friendly greeting is also stealthily farting in your face.

[h/t Inverse]

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