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Business, STEM

Behaving Spitefully Requires Brain Power

DrillingHolesorRowingWhile waiting for my last haircut, one of the patrons was sharing with me and others that at times, her grandson’s behavior makes his parents climb the walls. He has a tendency to exhibit good behavior when grandma is present, and at other times….let the tantrums begin. The behavior of the three-year old is especially annoying to his father who believes that his son is intentionally misbehaving and being uncooperative.

Add to the conversation a saying that a colleague uses to characterize bad actors and actresses in the workplace and elsewhere: If you can be well-behaved some of the time, with a little effort, you can be well-behaved most of the time. This appears to be the point that the father is making about the three-year old in the above example. Is it possible, however, to characterize the toddler’s behavior as spiteful?

Working with less than professional individuals is annoying for most of us, and is not limited to those in the business and STEM communities. I am sure that each of you have crossed paths with a bad actor or actress at least once if not a few times in the work place or in business dealings (see BAITERs, Haters, and Social Climbers) over the past 12 months. Depending on how theatrical the Drama King or Queen is, at some point the observed characteristics and modus operandi will often lead one to reach the conclusion that the rude or distracting behavior is not new behavior. This implies that it began a while ago, and in many cases can be traced back to childhood.

Human personality and character is developed over time. This includes boorish behavior. Their response or act is learned behavior, especially for certain situations. Often the act has been met with a certain amount of success and reinforces the need to repeat it under similar conditions.

Whether it is a crusty adult trying to put one over on you or me, or a two-year old throwing a tantrum on the floor, both are usually looked upon with disdain. I’ve seen more tantrums thrown in the workplace than I ever saw in kindergarten. Then again, I went to a parochial school and those nuns were not having any of that.

The conversation above provides a good segway to the findings of a research study that was conducted to determine if preschoolers with greater cognitive ability have a greater tendency to behave spitefully towards others. In other words, the higher the preschoolers’ logic and reasoning abilities, more spiteful occurrences were observed.

Researchers Elisabeth Bugelmayer and C. Katharina Spiess of DIW Berlin published their findings in a report: It Takes Brains to Behave Spitefully. [Ref 1] It is noted that the presence and development of prosocial behavior is well documented, however, less research on the emergence of spiteful behavior exists, and no previous work on this topic was found for children.

The objective of the study was to investigate the determinants of spiteful behavior among children. I’m thinking, I wonder if the researchers have read “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum? Most of you are aware that much of who we are to become has been defined by the time we are six years of age. As we grow and mature, most of us learn new behaviors and we also learn how to temper our emotions.

Continuing to read thru the study, I discovered that the researchers wanted to reveal the cognitive ability of children under a given set of conditions. Previous studies show a direct relationship between cognitive skills and favorable economic parameters, however, the relationship to other-regarding preferences is open to investigation.

Studying the relationship between other-regarding behavior and cognitive skills in young children can answer questions important to understand the emergence of human cooperation. C-o-o-p-e-r-a-t-i-o-n between co-workers, employees, teams, departments, etc. is often missing in action in many of today’s work places.

Two important questions that were to be answered from this study are: Do children with higher cognitive skills act more selfishly when profit maximizing? Do higher cognitive skills in preschoolers lead to more prosocial behavior or is it more beneficial to act spitefully?

Answer: Preschoolers with greater cognitive ability have a greater propensity to behave spitefully toward others in a game, taking intentional actions that decrease their partners’ payoffs even at some cost to themselves. In an experiment, a 1-standard-deviation increase in a cognitive ability score increased a child’s likelihood of behaving spitefully by 8 percentage points. Spiteful behavior requires a certain level of cognitive ability, the researchers point out. The behavior’s costs and benefits must be calculated and the consequences taken into account.

What does this have to do with business and STEM? It has been shown that spite is important because of its link to competitiveness and individual economic success. It often inhibits cooperation between two parties, and can blindside you by those that only have their self-interest in mind. If you are not careful, these individuals can inflict harm to you and your career.

While many business and STEM professionals value the importance of gaining knowledge and skills in their fields of study, don’t overlook the importance of acquiring knowledge about people, relationships, cultural differences, organizational behavior, and emotional intelligence.

Therefore, for your next encounter with the Drama King or Queen, remember, it takes brains to behave spitefully.


  1. Spite and Cognitive Skills in Preschoolers, Elisabeth Bügelmayer and C. Katharina Spiess, German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) Study papers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research at DIW Berlin

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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