Spiteful Strategies. The ontogeny and the practice of spite in human interaction: an experimental game theory approach and empirical applications

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Spite is defined as an act that causes loss of payoff to an opponent at a cost to the actor. As one of the four fundamental behaviours in sociobiology, it has received far less attention than its counterparts selfishness and cooperation. It has however been established as a viable strategy in small populations when used against negatively related individuals. Because of this, spite can either i) disappear or ii) remain at equilibrium with cooperative strategies due to the willingness of spiteful individuals to pay a cost in order to punish. This thesis sets out to understand whether propensity for spiteful behaviour is inherent or if it develops with age. For that effect, two game-theoretical experiments were performed with schoolboys and schoolgirls aged 6 to 22. The first, a 2 x 2 game, was tested in two variants: 1) a prize was awarded to both players, proportional to accumulated points; 2), a prize was given to the player with most points. Each player faced the following dilemma: i) to maximise pay-off risking a lower pay-off than the opponent; or ii) not to maximise pay-off in order to cut down the opponent below their own. The second game was a dictator experiment with two choices, (A) a selfish/altruistic choice affording more payoff to the donor than B, but more to the recipient than to the donor, and (B) a spiteful choice that afforded less payoff to the donor than A, but even lower payoff to the recipient. The dilemma here was that if subjects behaved selfishly, they obtained more payoff for themselves, while at the same time increasing their opponent payoff. If they were spiteful, they would rather have more payoff than their colleague, at the cost of less for themselves. Experiments were run in schools in two different areas in Portugal (mainland and Azores) to understand whether spiteful preferences varied with age. Results in the first experiment suggested that (1) students understood the first variant as a coordination game and engaged in maximising behaviour by copying their opponent’s plays; (2) repeating students preferentially engaged in spiteful behaviour more often than maximising behaviour, with special emphasis on 14 year-olds; (3) most students engaged in reciprocal behaviour from ages 12 to 16, as they began developing higher tolerance for their opponent choices. Results for the second experiment suggested that (1) selfish strategies were prevalent until the age of 6, (2) altruistic tendencies emerged since then, and (3) spiteful strategies began being chosen more often by 8 year-olds. These results add to the relatively scarce body of literature on spite and suggest that this type of behaviour is closely tied with other-regarding preferences, parochialism and the children’s stages of development.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas (FCSH)
  • Chalub, Fábio Augusto da Costa Carvalho, Supervisor
  • Santos, Rui, Supervisor
Award date1 Jul 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Spite
  • Experimental Game Theory
  • Rationality
  • Spiteful
  • Strategies
  • Competiton
  • Cooperation


Dive into the research topics of 'Spiteful Strategies. The ontogeny and the practice of spite in human interaction: an experimental game theory approach and empirical applications'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this