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Research explores spitefulness, an understudied 'dark' personality trait

Thursday, May 29, 2014
Research explores spitefulness, an understudied 'dark' personality trait
Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Ph.D., an associate professor of Psychology at Oakland University, delves into the "dark" personality traits such as narcissism, spite, and Machiavellianism.

Do you consider yourself a spiteful person? 

Associate professor of Psychology at Oakland University, Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Ph.D., delves into one of the lesser researched psychological constructs in the recent study "The Psychology of Spite and the Measurement of Spitefulness." (Read the full study.)

Spite — which the study defines as the willingness to inflict self harm in order to harm another — is difficult to measure. 

“'Most personality constructs are on a continuum,' said Zeigler-Hill. 'That also applies to spite such that some people are very spiteful and others are not very spiteful at all.'”

The study introduces a self-report Spitefulness Scale that was tested on 946 college students and cross-validated on a national sample of 297 adults. The items from the Spitefulness Scale are presented below. The extent to which you agree with these items may give you an idea of whether your spitefulness is above, below, or about average.

The findings of the research suggest that spitefulness may be an important personality construct, said Zeigler-Hill, who co-authored the study with David K. Marcus and Alyssa L. Norris of Washington State University, and Sterett H. Mercer of University of British Columbia.

People who scored above average on the Spitefulness Scale were:

  • less inclined to avoid harming others when making decisions
  • less likely to understand the reasoning behind another’s actions that might cause the spiteful behavior
  • more likely to be male
  • more likely to be young vs. older
There was also a positive correlation with aggression, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and guilt-free shame and a negative correlation with self-esteem, guilt-proneness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

So what’s the best approach to dealing with a spiteful person? “Treat them fairly,” Zeigler-Hill says.

Spitefulness Scale

Instructions: Indicate how much you agree with each of the statements IN GENERAL by selecting the appropriate response.

Please choose a response for each item using the rating scales provided below.

(strongly disagree) 1……….2……….3……….4……….5 (strongly agree)

  1. It might be worth risking my reputation in order to spread gossip about someone I did not like. 
  2. If I am going to my car in a crowded parking lot and it appears that another driver wants my parking space, then I will make sure to take my time pulling out of the parking space.
  3. I hope that elected officials are successful in their efforts to improve my community even if I opposed their election. (reverse-scored)
  4. If my neighbor complained that I was playing my music too loud, then I might turn up the music even louder just to irritate him or her, even if meant I could get fined.
  5. If I had the opportunity, then I would gladly pay a small sum of money to see a classmate who I do not like fail his or her final exam.
  6. There have been times when I was willing to suffer some small harm so that I could punish someone else who deserved it.
  7. I would rather no one get extra-credit in a class if it meant that others would receive more credit than me.
  8. If I opposed the election of an official, then I would be glad to see him or her fail even if their failure hurt my community.
  9. I would be willing to take a punch if it meant that someone I did not like would receive two punches.
  10.  I would be willing to pay more for some goods and services if other people I did not like had to pay even more.
  11. If I was one of the last students in a classroom taking an exam and I noticed that the instructor looked impatient, I would be sure to take my time finishing the exam just to irritate him or her.
  12. 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.
  13. I would take on extra work at my job if it meant that one of my co-workers who I did not like would also have to do extra work.
  14. I would be happy receiving extra-credit in a class even if other students received more points than me. (reverse scored)
  15. Part of me enjoys seeing the people I do not like fail even if their failure hurts me in some way.
  16. If I am checking out at a store and I feel like the person in line behind me is rushing me, then I will sometimes slow down and take extra time to pay.
  17. It is sometimes worth a little suffering on my part to see others receive the punishment they deserve.