Friday, April 23, 2021

SPITE :: Simon McCarthy-Jones

A version of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness and has been republished here with permission.

A "strong" definition of the word spite, an act "where you harm another person and harm yourself in the process," does not leave much room for positivity. Yet the subtitle of Simon McCarthy-Jones's fascinating new work, Spite: The Upside of Your Dark Side, more than hints at how spite can be a constructive force. An associate professor of psychology and neuropsychology at Dublin's Trinity College, McCarthy-Jones has multiple degrees, papers and books to support his ideas about spite. That doesn't mean he declines the use of cinema's Terminator or Batman for occasional help explaining them.

Spite "runs deep," found in ancient myth and folklore, and most of us are familiar with its negative connotations. Yet if spite has no purpose since everyone loses, why was it not weeded out by natural selection long ago? McCarthy-Jones uses plain language, movies, humor and several economic "games" to "shine a light" on what he convincingly puts forth as an important tool for preventing injustice.

In the Ultimatum Game, player one is told player two in the room next door has $10 to share as they see fit. Player one can accept or reject player two's offer, but a rejection means both players get nothing. This seemingly simple game and its variations (the Dictator Game, the Joy of Destruction Game, etc.) are used ingeniously by McCarthy-Jones to explain both valid and improbable human behaviors, including voting against one's own best interests. Entertaining and illuminating, Spite explains how a society that depends on cooperation requires spite to thrive. 

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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