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.”

5 Signs Humans Are Still Evolving

Lealisa Westerhoff, AFP/Getty Images
Lealisa Westerhoff, AFP/Getty Images

When we think of human evolution, our minds wander back to the millions of years it took natural selection to produce modern-day man. Recent research suggests that, despite modern technology and industrialization, humans continue to evolve. "It is a common misunderstanding that evolution took place a long time ago, and that to understand ourselves we must look back to the hunter-gatherer days of humans," Dr. Virpi Lummaa, a professor at the University of Turku, told Gizmodo.

But not only are we still evolving, we're doing so even faster than before. In the last 10,000 years, the pace of our evolution has sped up, creating more mutations in our genes, and more natural selections from those mutations. Here are some clues that show humans are continuing to evolve.

1. Humans drink milk.

Historically, the gene that regulated humans' ability to digest lactose shut down as we were weaned off our mothers' breast milk. But when we began domesticating cows, sheep, and goats, being able to drink milk became a nutritionally advantageous quality, and people with the genetic mutation that allowed them to digest lactose were better able to propagate their genes.

The gene was first identified in 2002 in a population of northern Europeans that lived between 6000 and 5000 years ago. The genetic mutation for digesting milk is now carried by more than 95 percent of northern European descendants. In addition, a 2006 study suggests this tolerance for lactose developed again, independently of the European population, 3000 years ago in East Africa.

2. We're losing our wisdom teeth.

Our ancestors had much bigger jaws than we do, which helped them chew a tough diet of roots, nuts, and leaves. And what meat they ate they tore apart with their teeth, all of which led to worn-down chompers that needed replacing. Enter the wisdom teeth: A third set of molars is believed to be the evolutionary answer to accommodate our ancestors' eating habits.

Today, we have utensils to cut our food. Our meals are softer and easier to chew, and our jaws are much smaller, which is why wisdom teeth are often impacted when they come in — there just isn't room for them. Unlike the appendix, wisdom teeth have become vestigial organs. One estimate says 35 percent of the population is born without wisdom teeth, and some say they may disappear altogether.

3. We're resisting infectious diseases.

In 2007, a group of researchers looking for signs of recent evolution identified 1800 genes that have only become prevalent in humans in the last 40,000 years, many of which are devoted to fighting infectious diseases like malaria. More than a dozen new genetic variants for fighting malaria are spreading rapidly among Africans. Another study found that natural selection has favored city-dwellers. Living in cities has produced a genetic variant that allows us to be more resistant to diseases like tuberculosis and leprosy. "This seems to be an elegant example of evolution in action," says Dr. Ian Barnes, an evolutionary biologist at London's Natural History Museum, said in 2010 statement. "It flags up the importance of a very recent aspect of our evolution as a species, the development of cities as a selective force."

4. Our brains are shrinking.

While we may like to believe our big brains make us smarter than the rest of the animal world, our brains have actually been shrinking over the last 30,000 years. The average volume of the human brain has decreased from 1500 cubic centimeters to 1350 cubic centimeters, which is an amount equivalent to the size of a tennis ball.

There are several different conclusions as to why this is: One group of researchers suspects our shrinking brains mean we are in fact getting dumber. Historically, brain size decreased as societies became larger and more complex, suggesting that the safety net of modern society negated the correlation between intelligence and survival. But another, more encouraging theory says our brains are shrinking not because we're getting dumber, but because smaller brains are more efficient. This theory suggests that, as they shrink, our brains are being rewired to work faster but take up less room. There's also a theory that smaller brains are an evolutionary advantage because they make us less aggressive beings, allowing us to work together to solve problems, rather than tear each other to shreds.

5. Some of us have blue eyes.

Originally, we all had brown eyes. But about 10,000 years ago, someone who lived near the Black Sea developed a genetic mutation that turned brown eyes blue. While the reason blue eyes have persisted remains a bit of a mystery, one theory is that they act as a sort of paternity test. “There is strong evolutionary pressure for a man not to invest his paternal resources in another man’s child,” Bruno Laeng, lead author of a 2006 study on the development of blue eyes, told The New York Times. Because it is virtually impossible for two blue-eyed mates to create a brown-eyed baby, our blue-eyed male ancestors may have sought out blue-eyed mates as a way of ensuring fidelity. This would partially explain why, in a recent study, blue-eyed men rated blue-eyed women as more attractive compared to brown-eyed women, whereas females and brown-eyed men expressed no preference.

Now Ear This: A New App Can Detect a Child's Ear Infection

iStock.com/Techin24
iStock.com/Techin24

Generally speaking, using an internet connection to diagnose a medical condition is rarely recommended. But technology is getting better at outpacing skepticism over handheld devices guiding decisions and suggesting treatment relating to health care. The most recent example is an app that promises to identify one of the key symptoms of ear infections in kids.

The Associated Press reports that researchers at the University of Washington are close to finalizing an app that would allow a parent to assess whether or not their child has an ear infection using their phone, some paper, and some soft noises. A small piece of paper is folded into a funnel shape and inserted into the ear canal to focus the app's sounds (which resemble bird chirps) toward the child’s ear. The app measures sound waves bouncing off the eardrum. If pus or fluid is present, the sound waves will be altered, indicating a possible infection. The parent would then receive a text from the app notifying them of the presence of buildup in the middle ear.

The University of Washington tested the efficacy of the app by evaluating roughly 50 patients scheduled to undergo ear surgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The app was able to identify fluid in patients' ears about 85 percent of the time. That’s roughly as well as traditional exams, which involve visual identification as well as specialized acoustic devices.

While the system looks promising, not all cases of fluid in the ear are the result of infections or require medical attention. Parents would need to evaluate other symptoms, such as fever, if they intend to use the app to decide whether or not to seek medical attention. It may prove most beneficial in children with persistent fluid accumulation, a condition that needs to be monitored over the course of months when deciding whether a drain tube needs to be placed. Checking for fluid at home would save both time and money compared to repeated visits to a physician.

The app does not yet have Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval and there is no timetable for when it might be commercially available. If it passes muster, it would join a number of FDA-approved “smart” medical diagnostic tools, including the AliveKor CardiaBand for the Apple Watch, which conducts EKG monitoring for heart irregularities.

[h/t WGRZ]

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