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.”

More Than Half of Wild Coffee Species Could Go Extinct

iStock.com/Alfribeiro
iStock.com/Alfribeiro

Your morning cup of coffee is under threat. A study published today in Science Advances asserts that a majority of the world’s wild coffee species are at risk of extinction. The main two types we rely on for our caffeine fix—arabica and robusta beans—are both threatened by climate change and deforestation.

The team of UK-based researchers used Red List of Threatened Species criteria from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to classify the risks facing the world’s 124 known species of wild coffee. About 60 percent of them—or 75 different species—face possible extinction in the coming decades. This represents “one of the highest levels recorded for a plant group,” researchers write in their paper.

Partly to blame are the severe droughts associated with climate change, as well as deforestation. Other threats include the spread of fungal pathogens and coffee wilt disease in Central and South America and Africa, respectively, as well as social and economic factors for growers.

“Considering threats from human encroachment and deforestation, some [coffee species] could be extinct in 10 to 20 years, particularly with the added influence of climate change," lead author Aaron P. Davis, of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, tells CNN.

Davis’s previous research stressed that arabica, which is already listed as an endangered species, could be extinct within 60 years. Most of the coffee plants we rely on are farmed, but wild coffee is no less important. Some wild species are resistant to disease and have other useful genes that could be introduced to commercial crops. That way, the cultivated varieties might endure the effects of climate change better and stick around a little longer.

Consumers aren’t the only ones concerned, either. Coffee farming is an industry that supports about 100 million workers around the world. One way of conserving the plants is to store their seeds and genes, but Hanna Neuschwander, the director of communications for the industry group World Coffee Research, tells Mashable that these seed banks aren’t well established yet. For now, the focus is on preserving the plants themselves.

12 Facts About the Sense of Taste

iStock/m-imagephotography
iStock/m-imagephotography

A lot more than your tongue is involved in the process of tasting food. Taste is not only one of the most pleasurable of the five senses, but a surprisingly complex sense that science is beginning to understand—and manipulate. Here are 12 fascinating facts about your ability to taste.

1. Everyone has a different number of taste buds.

We all have several thousand taste buds in our mouths, but the number varies from person to person. The average range is between 2000 and 10,000. And taste buds are not limited to your tongue; They can be found in the roof and walls of your mouth, throat, and esophagus. As you age, your taste buds become less sensitive, which experts believe may be why foods that you don’t like as a child become palatable to you as an adult.

2. You taste with your brain.

The moment you bite into a slice of pie, your mouth seems full of flavor. But most of that taste sensation is happening in your brain. More accurately, cranial nerves and taste bud receptors in your mouth send molecules of your food to olfactory nerve endings in the roof of your nose. The molecules bind to these nerve endings, which then signal the olfactory bulb to send smell messages directly to two important cranial nerves, the facial nerve and the glossopharyngeal nerve, which communicate with a part of the brain known as the gustatory cortex.

As taste and nerve messages move further through the brain, they join up with smell messages to give the sensation of flavor, which feels as if it comes from the mouth.

3. You can’t taste well if you can’t smell.

When you smell something through your nostrils, the brain registers these sensations as coming from the nose, while smells perceived through the back of the throat activate parts of the brain associated with signals from the mouth. Since much of taste is odor traveling to olfactory receptors in your brain, it makes sense that you won’t taste much at all if you can’t smell. If you are unable to smell for reasons that include head colds, smoking cigarettes, side effects of medications, or a broken nose, olfactory receptors may either be too damaged, blocked, or inflamed to send their signals on up to your brain.

4. Eating sweet foods helps form a memory of a meal.

Eating sweet foods causes your brain to remember the meal, according to a 2015 study in the journal Hippocampus, and researchers believe it can actually help you control eating behavior. Neurons in the dorsal hippocampus, the part of the brain central to episodic memory, are activated when you eat sweets. Episodic memory is that kind that helps you recall what you experienced at a particular time and place. "We think that episodic memory can be used to control eating behavior," said study co-author Marise Parent, of the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State. "We make decisions like 'I probably won't eat now. I had a big breakfast.' We make decisions based on our memory of what and when we ate."

5. Scientists can turn tastes on and off by manipulating brain cells.

Dedicated taste receptors in the brain have been found for each of the five basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory). In 2015, scientists outlined in the journal Nature how they were able to turn specific tastes on or off in mice, without introducing food, by stimulating and silencing neurons in the brains. For instance, when they stimulated neurons associated with “bitter,” mice made puckering expressions, and could still taste sweet, and vice versa.

6. You can tweak your taste buds.

Most of us have had the experience of drinking perfectly good orange juice after brushing our teeth, only to have it taste more like unsweetened lemon juice. Taste buds, it turns out, are sensitive enough that certain compounds in foods and medicines can alter our ability to perceive one of the five common tastes. The foaming agent sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate in most toothpaste seems to temporarily suppress sweetness receptors. This isn't so unusual. A compound called cynarin in artichokes temporarily blocks your sweet receptors. Then, when you drink water, the cynarin is washed away, making your sweet receptors “wake up” so the water tastes sweet. A compound called miraculin, found in the herb Gymnema sylvestre, toys with your sweet receptors in a similar way.

7. The smell of ham can make your food “taste” saltier.

There’s an entire industry that concocts the tastes of the food you buy at the grocery store. Working with phenomena known as phantom aromas or aroma-taste interactions, scientists found that people associate “ham” with salt. So simply adding a subtle ham-like scent or flavor to a food can make your brain perceive it as saltier than it actually is. The same concept applies to the scent of vanilla, which people perceive as sweet.

8. Your taste buds prefer savory when you fly.

A study by Cornell University food scientists found that loud, noisy environments, such as when you’re traveling on an airplane, compromise your sense of taste. The study found that people traveling on airplanes had suppressed sweet receptors and enhanced umami receptors. The German airline Lufthansa confirmed that on flights, passengers ordered nearly as much tomato juice as beer. The study opens the door to new questions about how taste is influenced by more than our own internal circuitry, including our interactions with our environments.

9. Picky eaters may be “supertasters.”

If you’re a picky eater, you may have a new excuse for your extreme dislike of eggplant or sensitivity to the slightest hint of onion. You might be a supertaster—one of 25 percent of people who have extra papillae in your tongue. That means you have a greater number of taste buds, and thus more specific taste receptors.

10. Some of your taste preferences are genetic.

While genetics may not fully explain your love of the KFC Double Down or lobster ice cream, there may be code written into your DNA that accounts for your preference for sweet foods or your aversion to certain flavors. The first discovery of a genetic underpinning to taste came in 1931, when chemist Arthur Fox was working with powdered PTC (phenylthiocarbamide), and some of the compound blew into the air. One colleague found it to have a bitter taste, while Fox did not perceive that. They conducted an experiment among friends and family and found wide variation in how (and whether) people perceived the flavor of the PTC to be bitter or tasteless. Geneticists later discovered that the perception of PTC flavor (similar to naturally occurring compounds) is based in a single gene, TAS2R38, that codes for a taste receptor on the tongue. In a 2005 study, researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center found that the version of this gene also predicted a child's preference for sweet foods.

11. Your genes influence whether you think cilantro tastes like soap.

There may be no flavor more hotly debated or deeply loathed than the herb cilantro (also known as coriander). Entire websites, like IHateCilantro.com, complain about its “soapy” or “perfumy” flavor, while those who like it simply think it gives a nice kick to their salsa. Researchers at the consumer genetics company 23andMe identified two common genetic variants linked to people's “soap” perceptions. A follow-up study in a separate subset of customers confirmed the associations. The most compelling variant can be found within a cluster of olfactory receptor genes, which influence our sense of smell. One of those genes, OR6A2, encodes a receptor that is highly sensitive to aldehyde chemicals, which cilantro contains.

12. Sugar cravings have a biological basis.

Your urge for more hot fudge may have little to do with a lack of self-control. Scientists think that our yearning for sweets is a biological preference that may have been designed to ensure our survival. The liking for sweet tastes in our ancient evolution may have ensured the acceptance of sweet-tasting foods, such as breast milk and vitamin-rich fruits. Moreover, recent research suggests that we crave sweets for their pain-reducing properties.

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