August, 2012

Measuring the Distribution of Spitefulness

  • Erik Kimbrough

    Associate Professor of Economics, Chapman University
  • J. Philipp Reiss

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Spiteful, antisocial behavior may undermine the moral and institutional fabric of society, producing disorder, fear, and mistrust. Previous research demonstrates the willingness of individuals to harm others, but little is understood about how far people are willing to go in being spiteful (relative to how far they could have gone) or their consistency in spitefulness across repeated trials. Our experiment is the first to provide individuals with repeated opportunities to spitefully harm anonymous others when the decision entails zero cost to the spiter and cannot be observed as such by the object of spite. This method reveals that the majority of individuals exhibit consistent (non-)spitefulness over time and that the distribution of spitefulness is bipolar: when choosing whether to be spiteful, most individuals either avoid spite altogether or impose the maximum possible harm on their unwitting victims.

Find article at PLoS ONE.