Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why You Might Cut Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

Research reveals hidden motives for spite and costly punishment.

Key points

  • Spite, rooted in contempt, is a powerful driver of human experience and behavior.
  • Theory suggests that spite may have evolutionary value, driving justice and punishment, even at a cost.
  • Spite may backfire, however, when the cost of the punishment outweighs the benefit.

Spite is a state of mind almost the opposite of compassion: While compassion is the motivation to act to reduce suffering when it is recognized, spite is the urge to act to hurt another irrespective of–despite–harm to oneself and sometimes those close to us. Self-compassion means we sometimes make sacrifices for our own good, but it's hard to reconcile spite as an act of self-compassion. When is it worthwhle to make costly self-sacrifices, and when does spite drive us to suffer losses to no good end?

Shakespeare highlights the pivotal role of spite in human affairs with Prince Hamlet, who is hell-bent on vengeance at any and all costs upon learning of his father’s murder. Hamlet invites the audience along, because spite is a familiar human folly:

Let us go in together,

And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.

The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

Nay, come, let's go together.

Spite does indeed feel like a compulsion, an evil spell, a runaway train; when we feel that sense of moral outrage, we are tempted to go to war. Likewise, scorned lovers—hell hath no fury like one—are often driven to make the other person pay, even if it tears them apart. Scorn is a close cousin to spite, sharing a root meaning in "contempt".

Perhaps that is one of the reasons people find it so difficult to make a clean break when a relationship ends on a sour note: Spite inspires people to make a dirty break, one that we know may heal crooked, leaving the other in pain, sometimes in a state of seemingly justified post-traumatic stress.

Thus, spite is a deep-seated and multilayered experience. When we act out of spite, we hurt the other person at significant personal cost. This goes against basic behavioral economics, in which people presumably act to maximize their perceived benefit. What purpose could spite serve when it comes to social order? The link likely has to do with punishment, and most especially punishment that comes at a cost. If punishment serves a purpose, then it may be worth the cost.

Getting to the Heart of Spite

Researchers Martínez and Maner (2024), in a paper on spite and punishment in the Journal of Personality, put it less poetically: Spite is “the willingness to inflict harm on another person even at a cost to the self”. Perhaps especially at a cost to oneself, given the terrible gratification of revenge.

To understand the relationship between spite and punishment, they conducted a series of four studies. While the studies varied in terms of the number of trials and specific conditions, they were based on a standard experimental simulation involving a power imbalance between the research participant and a fictitious other person, the "dictator". The dictator gives them some amount of money, between none and one dollar, seemingly without rhyme nor reason, and without any say on the part of the research subject.

However, and this is the kicker, the subject can choose to punish the dictator by giving up some of their own money with the understanding that the dictator will lose even more. For example, with a punishment multiplier of 1.5, the subject could sacrifice 50 cents, knowing the dictator will lose 75 cents. Through the experiments, the amounts of money the dictator gives are varied to be smaller or larger, and an array of factors are measured as a function of how costly the punishments are. But what is the subject getting for their money?

Researchers were interested in understanding under what conditions spite was related to “costly punishment”, and they tracked several factors through the studies using an array of measures, including the dark traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy, and assorted motivations, including the desire for retribution and the need for deterrence. Deterrence might serve to intimidate the other person against future hostility.

The researchers also looked at the social context—whether one is seeking social approval or one acts in secrecy. Finally, the behavior of the person being punished was considered—specifically, whether they are being generous or selfish. Each study built on the one before.

The Anatomy of Spite

Overall, researchers found that spite was indeed significantly correlated with costly punishment. People do appear willing to make sacrifices to get satisfaction, even when it is not in their best apparent self-interest. This makes a certain sense, because punishment serves important functions for the community, and so it is worthwhile for individuals to expend resources for the greater good.

Spite and costly punishment persisted even after taking dark personality traits into consideration. Spite is an independent factor when it comes to the dynamics of punishment, and a desire for retribution an important mediating factor, rather than any particular dark-triad traits.

Most interesting, perhaps, was that subjects meted out punishment when spite was driven by a desire for revenge if dictators were behaving selfishly—but they also spitefully punished when the dictator was generous. However, in the case of generous dictators, the motivation was not retribution but deterrence. This finding highlights the importance of preemptive punishment—hurting the dictator as a way to warn them off from being selfish in the future. Taking one for the team, as it were.

How might spite backfire? If spiteful costly punishment serves to secure the good of the community by keeping those with power in line, it might not work so well in larger groups, where selfish dictators can simply move on to greener pastures. Essentially, there's no team for which to take a hit. A "player" breaking hearts on dating apps will not get their comeuppance in a large population–whereas in a smaller group, their reputation, perhaps driven by spiteful exes who were willing to reveal their own potentially damning dalliances, would be ruined.

So, pay attention to spite; it is dangerously seductive, as Shakespeare decreed. It's easy to be blinded when in a righteous rage, at great peril. Spite is a blunt instrument, evidently deeply etched into the human psyche. In some situations, punishment may be worth the price, but for those who seek ways to achieve a means to an end, there may be wiser, less impulsive paths requiring less self-sacrifice or even masochism.


How to Think, Feel and Act Wisely

Making Your Crazy Work For You: From Trauma and Isolation to Self-Acceptance and Love


Martínez, J. L., & Maner, J. K. (2024). Individual differences in spite predict costly third-party punishment. Journal of Personality, 00, 1–20. 14676494.

Note: An ExperiMentations Blog Post ("Our Blog Post") is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. We will not be liable for any loss or damage caused by your reliance on information obtained through Our Blog Post. Please seek the advice of professionals, as appropriate, regarding the evaluation of any specific information, opinion, advice, or other content. We are not responsible and will not be held liable for third party comments on Our Blog Post. Any user comment on Our Blog Post that in our sole discretion restricts or inhibits any other user from using or enjoying Our Blog Post is prohibited and may be reported to Sussex Publishers/Psychology Today. Grant H. Brenner. All rights reserved.

More from Grant Hilary Brenner MD, DFAPA
More from Psychology Today