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Spite for the sake of celebrity

Last week I spoke about bitterness and the ‘Woman on the train’. This week it is about spite. Why do we do it?

My thinking started with reports in the papers – tabloids and broadsheets equally guilty - about a certain Lucy Brown who went on a first date with a man she met on a dating website.

After an evening, which we can only assume was enjoyed as she stayed long enough to rack up a bill of over £85.00, she sent a text saying she did not want to meet again. Oh, and she had walked off with his watch. Evidently hurt and put out, he messaged back to say, while he appreciated her honesty, he was ‘devastated’ and then asked for half the cost of the drinks.

There started a tsunami of spite.

Maybe his request was a little ill-judged and better to walk away with your pride intact. But did that hapless, hurt man really deserve to be ridiculed across the media? Did Ms Brown need to get her 15 minutes of fame by talking to journalists about how she made her date the laughing stock of the office? Did we really need to have published her text to him which is a splurge of sneering disdain?

But words and attention were not enough. She had to humiliate with a donation to a donkey sanctuary, sending his watch to lost property and, when he stated his hurt, replying ‘eeyore.’

This should have been a little incident between two people and is only in the media because Ms Brown contacted journalists. She wanted her face in the paper, column inches, to be famous for a day and why shouldn’t a naive man pay for her to get them?

More disturbing is that if such venom had been ventured on a woman by a man we would have been up in arms and calling him every name under the sun; demanding rusty nails to be put through his nether regions; calling him misogynistic and mean. I have yet to find a woman defending the male at the end of Ms Brown’s dismissal, with the exception of a reader of the Metro, and she as castigated the next day.

So why do people do it? As a psychologist, I am continually fascinated by human behaviour – good and bad. And spite is a fascinating bad behaviour.

Spite – ‘to intentionally hurt, upset of annoy somebody’ (Cambridge English Dictionary) is deliberate and conscious. It has to be thought about and even planned. Therefore, it tells us more about the spiteful than their victims. 

There are a number of psychological theories about spite. One, developed in the 1960s by W.D. Hamilton suggested that it was evolutionary and that human beings protected their ability to pass on their own DNA by seeking to harm others. Interesting, but it does not explain why we are selectively spiteful (Ms Brown, we hope, does not mete out her venom to everyone), or to the opposite sex (if Ms Brown were trying to protect her genes she would be vicious to women) or consciously planned (survival behaviours tend to be instinctive rather than thought through). In addition, this theory does not take personality into account. Recent research into bidding behaviour at Simon Frazer University in Canada found that people fell into two categories – consistently kind or consistently spiteful.

There are many personality types who are spiteful – narcissists, anti-social personality disorder, sadists. Such people have no empathy and take pleasure in witnessing pain in others. It gives them a sense of power, control, dominance or even sexual gratification. But such people are not so common in the general population – there are more spiteful people than sociopaths. So there has to be another pathway. I do not have a definitive answer but a few ideas come to mind:

Inadequacy. It is not good to look yourself in the eye and say ‘you’re not very good’ or ‘a failure’. Few of us can even bear to think it. Yet at some deep level, we know it. For some the answer is not to address their own shortcomings but, instead, to bring others down. In some twisted way, shining a spotlight on others is a good camouflage for our own self-dislike.

Jealousy. We live in a world where material assets, fame, money, status, success are demanded as a right rather than an accomplishment. Those who have much feel comfortable. Those who have less can feel resentful. Rather than look at someone who is doing better and express admiration, too many of us look for the weak spot – the reason why we should not feel in their shadow. Spite is a very quick way to take the shine off someone’s glory and create a false sense of self-superiority.

Attention. How many American sitcoms do we have to witness where young people, even children, get the reinforcement of canned laughter as they dole out spitty comments with that ‘look at me’ expression and a roll of the eye. Our ‘funniest’ comedians and comediennes are often just a barrel of spite and think they can say anything as long as it gets them the kick of a laugh. Ms Brown had her 15 minutes. Maybe the last comment to the telegraph journalist said all we needed to know as she declared that everyone was soooo amazed at her dating disasters that she had been told to write a book. Maybe we can assume that the poor sot who paid the bar bill was part of a ‘find me an agent’ strategy. Well, Ms Brown – it has been done before. A simple google search will pop a good 10 titles into your screen.

Just nasty. At some point there is no deep seated psychological rationale. You are just nasty, spiteful and mean. It’s time we called out and tell you the truth. We don’t like you!


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