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Why Are We Spiteful, Even Though It Bites Us Back?

Maybe you turn up your music when your neighbor complains about the noise.

Or maybe you curse a baby princess because you didn't get invited to her christening, as in "Sleeping Beauty" and its latest incarnation, the upcoming movie "Maleficent."

To see spite in its purest form, try brunch in New York. At the hippest restaurants, patrons will linger at their tables long after they've paid the bill, just to show those losers on the wait list who's boss – even though they're wasting their own time in the process.

Why do people willingly inconvenience or even harm themselves in order harm others? And why are some of us more spiteful than others? Being aggressive and lacking empathy might have a lot to do with it, researchers say.

"Spite can become very destructive," says David Marcus, a psychologist at Washington State University and the lead author of a study published in the journal Psychological Assessment.

Someone in the midst of a divorce may hurt themselves financially or even risk alienating their kids just to get back at their ex. Suicide bombers give up their own lives in the process of trying to hurt others.

And even though spiteful feelings are universal, the emotion has been little studied.

Marcus and his colleagues asked 1,200 people to rank how firmly they agreed with statements like "I would be willing to take a punch if it meant someone I did not like would receive two punches."

The researchers also had the participants complete a bunch of personality tests to gauge how aggressive or agreeable they were.

The results show that some people's personalities do make them more prone to spiteful behavior. Traits like aggressiveness and callousness closely linked to spite, while people who were more guilt-prone or conscientious were less vindictive.

And the researchers found that men tended to be more spiteful than women, and that younger adults were more vindictive than older adults.

But the researchers still aren't able to directly match up a person's personality traits with their spitefulness score. "If two people are five points apart on the aggressiveness scale, I don't really know what that means," Marcus says.

If he figures that out, Marcus says, it could help us better understand self-destructive behaviors. And it could help psychologists better diagnose personality disorders like borderline personality disorders and oppositional defiant disorders. Spitefulness is a symptom of both, Marcus says, "But as of now we don't have a good way to assess spitefulness."

More research might also reveal when spitefulness is actually productive. "Anytime people engage in a boycott, they're engaging in spiteful behavior," Marcus says. "But while some boycotts can be just petty, others some can be socially productive."

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