The Irrationality of Spite

The good reasons for spite and bad behaviors that follow

I’ve been in a bit of a “mood” this week, and when that happens, one of the things I try to do is take a step back and figure out what’s going on with me. While most of you have had the pleasure of meeting me post-2012, before I got sober, I used to be a real asshole.

I know. I know. That’s hard to believe because I’m so loveable now, but it’s true.

In order to avoid reverting back to the person I once was, I focus on my mental health on a daily basis. Aside from therapy and the support of people in my life, I read…a lot. If you’re like me, you judge yourself a lot and regularly tell yourself how you should or shouldn’t feel. Self-compassion is great, but I love to read books about evolutionary psychology because there are often really good reasons for bad feelings (shout out to Randy Nesse and his book).

While in my mood this week, I decided to go back and re-read the 2021 book Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side by Simon McCarthy-Jones. As I mentioned on Twitter, I legitimately think this is one of the most underrated releases of 2021. Not only did re-reading the book remind me that spite has it’s evolutionary advantages and can even be used strategically to maintain a healthy society, it’s also responsible for a lot of irrational behaviors from all of us.

As I reflect on the book, I thought I’d write a little bit about the irrationality of spite. And we writers are often advised to be honest and authentic, because “people love and respect that”, but we all know that’s only partially true.

When I was about to sit down and write this, I was reminded of that hilarious scene from the movie Old School when Will Ferrell’s character, Frank, is in couples counseling with his wife:

Therapist : Frank, this is a safe place. A place where we can feel free sharing our feelings. Think of my office as a nest in a tree of trust and understanding. We can say anything here.

Frank : Anything? Well, uh I guess I, deep down, am feeling a little confused. I mean, suddenly, you get married, and you're supposed to be this entirely different guy. I don't feel different. I mean, take yesterday for example. We were out at the Olive Garden for dinner, which was lovely. And, uh, I happen to look over at a certain point during the meal and see a waitress taking an order, and I found myself wondering what color her underpants might be. Her panties. Uh, odds are they are probably basic white, cotton, underpants. But I sort of think, well, maybe they're silk panties, maybe it's a thong. Maybe it's something really cool that I don't even know about. You know, and uh, and I started feeling... what? What, I thought we were in the trust tree in the nest, were we not?

Although I’m not going to discuss my fantasies about any Olive Garden waitresses, I opted to write about some of my experience with spite and keeping it at bay. Most of my curiosity comes from my interest in human behavior, but I’m also really interested in figuring out my own thoughts and behaviors, so I decided to write this.

By writing about it, maybe it’ll help some others who are reading this that grapple with spite. It’s also beneficial to write about things that some people are too scared to talk about publicly.

So, if you don’t experience thoughts of spite or have never done anything spiteful, congratulations. You’re better than the rest of us, and you don’t have to keep reading if you don’t want to. But, I’d encourage you to stay because understanding spite is pretty important so you can avoid big mistakes like the one Hillary Clinton made during her electoral run.

Hillary’s Big Mistake

In the book Spite, not only does the author dive into a ton of research and evolutionary psychology around the topic, he uses a ton of examples of spite. On the extreme end, there’s a horrific story of a father killing his child to spite his wife, but the story of Hillary Clinton helps explain why we were in hell for four years under Trump’s presidency.

While there were definitely plenty of people who didn’t vote for Clinton because she was a woman, to say this was the only reason is to be willfully ignorant. Personally, I disliked her for a wide range of reasons like her lust for corporate interests and foreign policies, but I still voted for her. A lot of people were like me and did end up voting for Hillary, but a lot of people voted for Trump out of spite.

The book explains how the DNC screwed Bernie Sanders during the primaries, and this definitely led to some spiteful voting. Some of the people who were pissed about this either voted for Jill Stein or didn’t vote at all. Some, out of spite, voted for Trump.

Think about that for a second. Many who supported Bernie most likely despised Trump, but they were willing to vote for him just to spite Hillary and the DNC. But this wasn’t Hillary’s big mistake.

Of course, the mistake I’m speaking of is her “basket of deplorables” comment in reference to Trump voters. Regardless of your opinion of Trump supporters, this is a complete lack of common sense on Hillary’s end, and it wasn’t going to end well. Due to the powerful motivation of spite, people who weren’t going to vote or just didn’t like this comment ended up going out and voting for Trump.

So even if you’re a perfect angel who has never had a bad thought in your life, I hope you understand that it’s important to understand this human tendency that the rest of us experience.

Rewiring My Anger

I spent most of my life as an extremely angry person. As a kid from a broken home with an alcoholic mom, I hated the hand I was dealt and despised others who had their happy families. This also led to very low self-worth, so if I felt like others were condescending or treating me as less than, I’d get furious.

When I felt wronged, I had this thirst for revenge. If I felt like someone screwed me over, I’d make it a mission to get them back far worse than whatever they did to me. Many of us addicts even drink and use drugs as a way to spite others. How irrational is that? My personal experience with spite for so many years led to a lot of suffering.

Through a lot of personal development and therapy, I no longer behave this way. It’s taken years and years of hard work, but it was worth it. My life is so much better, and I’m able to have healthy relationships. I even wrote my book Rewire Your Anger to discuss the strategies I’ve used to quit being such an irrational, spiteful person.

Even though I’ve overcome these issues, the thoughts still enter my mind. Fortunately, the goal isn’t to stop the thoughts; it’s to stop the actions that the thoughts can lead to. And in the book Spite, I learned why we experience this emotion at all. So now, I’m way better at cutting myself some slack when these thoughts pop up in my head.

My Twisted Spiteful Fantasies

Something you should know about me is that even though my mom was a drunk until I was 20, I take after her quite a bit (and not just because I became a drunk, too). While a full-blown alcoholic, my mom was able to get her Ph.D. after being a high school dropout just as a “fuck you” to her dad for telling her she wouldn’t amount to anything. I don’t have a Ph.D., but like my mom, those negative emotions motivate me to work my ass off and succeed.

In most cases, spiteful acts are a bad idea, but anger and resentment are never going away. I’ve learned that if you can turn it into motivation and not let it turn you into a miserable person, it’s pretty cool. In fact, my girlfriend knows this about me and sometimes manipulates me by triggering this in me to motivate me to reach my goals. Even though I know she’s doing it, it works, and I love her for it.

Years ago, when I started on YouTube, it was extremely difficult to get the channel going. Although it eventually got larger and currently sits at 81,000 subscribers, it took a lot of hard work. Throughout the journey, I reached out to a lot of fellow creators about collaborating to see how we could help one another. While a lot of us ended up working together, there were those bigger creators who would ignore me.

When this would happen, my brain would say, “Oh! You think you’re better than me?!”, and I’d be motivated to work 10x harder. As I did this, I’d play out these fantasies in my mind about how I couldn’t wait to succeed just so I could get back at them like some social media Count of Monte Cristo.

Once I became super successful, they’d want to collaborate because I could offer them something that would benefit them, and I’d imagine shutting them down. It’s like those guys and girls from high school that become sexy and go back to their high school reunion just to show off or in hopes they can shut down a former crush. Or maybe the person getting put down as a low-level employee only to succeed so they can hopefully scorn those who harmed them.

I bet some of you are getting dopamine hits just imagining some of these scenarios.

These thoughts still run through my head, and as I was reading Spite, something happened that made me start having these fantasies again. Without going into detail, a mainstream organization reached out to me for a project yesterday, and something went down on the call that I didn’t like. After that call, I was thinking about how I hope they end up wanting to move forward just so I can turn them down. But although that might feel good in the moment, it’d be completely irrational because it’s a potentially great opportunity.

With my luck, that organization is reading this, but oh well. On a principled level, maybe I should turn it down or maybe it’s good if they decide not to move forward. But from a business and financial perspective, it’s completely irrational. I still have some deep thinking to do about the situation depending on the next steps so I make a decision based on my values, but for now, let’s focus on the business side of things.

This is a very large organization, and I actually worked with them a couple years ago. My minor part of the project ended up exposing me to millions of people who were introduced to me and my work. So, to spite them because of what happened on the call would be completely irrational from that perspective.

Again, it’s not all about business, and there is a moral and principled aspect to look at, but that’s probably best saved for a completely separate piece about decision-making.

The Spiteful Elephant in the Room

I now know why these thoughts and feelings arise, and I hope you’ve learned a little bit about it these reasons too. If you want to know more about spite, I highly recommend you check out this phenomenal book from Simon McCarthy-Jones. But I wanted to end this piece by asking a question: Why don’t we talk about this stuff?

We all experience these thoughts and emotions, and we either publicly pretend like we don’t, or we live in this world of self-deception. Since I’m a huge believer in signaling theory, on the topic of denying it publicly, I believe it’s to signal to others that you’re a good person. Personally, since people are going to do that no matter what, I just try to remember that people are often signaling and that we’re all fallible so I don’t get conned.

As for self-deception, there’s an excellent new book called Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain that I highly recommend. Lying to ourselves can be extremely beneficial. Although we glorify self-awareness, most people can’t handle true self-awareness. In my conversation with Robin Hanson about his book The Elephant in the Brain we chatted about this a bit. Self-deception helps us get through the day, and it took me years of work to be able to balance self-awareness with self-compassion.

Research has shown that people struggling with depression are far more self-aware than the average person. If you become too self-aware of these thoughts we have, it can get pretty bad. So, if you truly want some self-awareness, buckle up and make sure you have the tools to get through it.

But by writing this piece, whether you decide to discuss it with others or not, I hope it helped in some form. Whether you learned something about spite, got some good book recommendations, or can just cut yourself some slack, I call that a win. And for those of you who don’t have a spiteful bone in your body, keep living the dream.

I’ve been working on organizing all the books I’ve read, and I have multiple lists of books on becoming a better thinker. There are lists for educationsocial issuescritical thinkingself-deception, and biases. For the rest of the categories, click here.

I’m always open for a conversation and to be shown what I might be missing or where I may be wrong, so feel free to email me at

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