A new study has accidentally figured out that people can be inordinately and senselessly spiteful towards one another, even if that spitefulness comes at a great personal cost. Though researchers assured the nail-biting public that most people aren't spiteful if they're just walking around, innocently participating in the great patchwork of human activity we call commerce, if presented with the opportunity to spite someone else, a lot of people would totally go for it.
According to LiveScience, researchers at Simon Fraser University in Canada were conducting an experiment about why people tend to overbid during online auctions rather than just pay the "buy it now price" of internet goodies when, like people who accidentally discover their best friend is an axe murderer by finding body parts in a trunk under his bed, they discovered that study participants had a little bit of a mean streak when driving up the prices that others would pay for auctioned items. The study identified instances of bipolar (all or nothing) spiteful behavior during the auctions, with participants demonstrating 70 percent of the time a consistent level of spitefulness or kindness. In other words, people were either total assholes to one another or they weren't — there weren't many half measures.
During the experiment, participants put in their first offer on an auctioned item and, before the second round of bidding commenced, the highest bid of the first round was revealed. Any highest bidder won the item at the second-highest price, which gave researchers some room to determine how spiteful bidders would strategize in the second round of bidding. In the second round, participants could raise their bids to win whatever trinket they were competing for, but spiteful bidders could also use the highest bid information to drive up the bid price, simultaneously ensuring that they weren't the highest bidder and that the winning bidder had to pay an inordinately high price for the item.
Spiteful responses included not winning the auction, which constituted minor spite, driving up the price and still losing (abundant spite), and increasing the price as much as possible while still losing the auction (maximum spite). When bidders reared their spiteful heads, they did so with a vengeance — almost 31 percent of all spiteful actions were instances of maximum spite, while 68 percent were instances of abundant spite.
The question that researchers are now left with is: why the hell are people so needlessly mean to each other? Most of the participants couldn't really say themselves why they were spiteful - they just were. Some contended that they wanted to teach the other bidders a "lesson," though study researcher Erik Kimbrough seemed to think this was a lot of bullshit because participants didn't have an opportunity to change their bids, thus they wouldn't have the opportunity to show off their fancy new spite education. Andy Gardner, a zoology fellow at the University of Oxford who weighed in on these findings, cautioned against over-interpreting the results of such studies, especially as they relate to evolutionary biology. He explained that the reasons for wanton spite might be as simple as people enjoy being shitty to each other:
This is like how moths are attracted to lamps when it's dark — there's no benefit to the moth in doing this, and the behavior evolved (to let the moths use the moon's light for navigation) at a time before there were lamps in the moths' environment. However, it is interesting, from a psychological point of view, to know that people do seem to enjoy inflicting harm on others, even when this incurs costs for themselves.
Kimbrough also suggested that the perceived spite might have been, in some instances, impatience, with people getting frustrated over a protracted bidding war. So we can all take heart — people may not be so much spiteful as they are shortsighted and lazy, which, when you really think about, can only mean one thing: no mission to Mars. Ever.
The science of spit, explained [LiveScience via NBC News]
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