Why being petty feels so good

Tim Robberts/DigitalVision/Getty Images

All five members of my family are extremely clever, sly, and perceptive. This, while growing up, often led to, err, unique conflict resolution. For instance, my mother would base the menu on which one of her children was behaving the best. If I had cleaned the living room when my brother or sister were supposed to, my mom would include a sweet potato with dinner — which I love and they despise. This silent but clear reward and punishment system has found its way into my adult relationships. If a boyfriend makes me mad over text for instance, I’ll do that thing where you type in a text so the bubble appears, but never send it. I know I’m being petty, but, sorry to say, it feels so good to do. But why is pettiness so satisfying?

For those who aren’t familiar with the official definition, Oxford dictionary specifies pettiness as “undue concern with trivial matters, especially of a small-minded or spiteful nature.” Also, pettiness can be subtle as opposed to its more obvious relative, revenge. A 2009 social experiment conducted at Harvard and the University of Virginia gathered groups of people to play a financial game. In each group studied, one experimenter was placed specifically to cheat so that the other people playing would notice. The scientists found that when given the opportunity for a no-fault chance at revenge, everyone playing who was cheated took a chance at revenge. "Virtually everybody was angry over what happened to them, and everyone given the opportunity [for revenge] took it,” says Kevin Carlsmith, a social psychologist at Colgate University, about the experiment.

Revenge and pettiness are such common aspects in our interpersonal relationships because they both trigger the law of obligation, says Danny Greeves, a UK-based physiotherapist and behavioural change coach specializing in resolving resentment. This is also known as reciprocity, which is the practice of exchanging things for mutual benefit. “Reciprocity is one of the universal principles which creates automatic, unconscious responses. It is the principle of mutual exchange,” he says. In our evolutionary past, Greeves adds, reciprocity was a vital principle because we relied on other people to assist us through fair exchange in order to do tasks and get basic human needs met.

Francesco Carta fotografo/Moment/Getty Images

Put more simply, when someone does something for us, we feel an obligation to return the favour. It’s truly just human nature.“The pull of returning the action performed towards us is so strong because it has been crucial to our evolutionary progress,” Greeves adds. This part of our nature is why we feel rude when we don’t say thank you, mean when we don’t offer something we could share, or guilt when we don’t do something we’re supposed to. And thus, that’s why we feel the need to get back at those who do those same things to us. Although reciprocity in the form of reprisal is a natural response to being slighted, this still doesn’t explain why we feel so good doing it.

“For those who enjoy the game of competition and ‘one-downing’ others, pettiness can be very rewarding. The dopamine centers in the brain can register that act of being petty as a rewarding and ‘to-be-repeated’ behavior,” says Carla Marie, a California-based clinical psychologist. She points to a 2016 study published by Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience which found that simply thinking about retaliatory aggression activates our brain’s reward center.

While you shouldn’t take the study as an indication that you should punch anybody who takes a parking spot from you, it does explain why we feel such pleasure watching other people being petty, as well. “Some people are intrigued by people being negatively competitive with each other,” Marie says. “Much as some people enjoy witnessing a bully harass others, pettiness battles can be a source of distraction or comedic relief.” This explains so much of our obsession with reality TV, a blatant portal of pettiness.

While commonly seen as a negative trait, there are some folks who see pettiness as a positive one, even boasting about how petty they are on blogs and social media. Pettiness, as expressed in meme culture as of late, has been admired in others and resulted in lighthearted coverage in the media. There was a recent exchange between celebrities Martha Stewart and Chelsea Handler that went viral last week simply because of the sheer pettiness of all parties involved.

Pettiness can be light nature and, for some, a form of interpersonal fun, Marie tells me. But in other contexts, it can be detrimental to our emotional development. “People often resort to pettiness due to a fear of being direct; pettiness is a form of being passive-aggressive and is a defense mechanism common to those with poor emotional intelligence,” Marie says.

Considering I’m Petty LaBelle most of the time, the truth hurts, but speaks to my own family upbringing of indirectly solving conflict, often at the expense of my familial relationships. Taken too far, pettiness can be super hurtful.

“It’s our animalistic pride that wants us to be seen and perceived as being right,” Greeves adds. “It’s much easier to reply with a petty action to balance the scales than it is to engage in a dialogue and find common ground.” Humans focus on slights in our interpersonal human relationships because while they may seem trivial to the offender, the person on the receiving end can see the nugget of truth within. That’s why shade is such a sharply effective expression of contempt — it’s offensive because it’s kind of true.

Though we might laugh at a petty or trivial interaction, such dynamics are often toxic, and are crafted, either consciously or unconsciously, to harm another person’s most vulnerable areas. That’s why pettiness is a tool best saved for the most deserving of moments and not in all of your everyday interactions. “Although some people enjoy being sarcastic with buddies in a bonding manner, sarcasm in intimate relationships is often highly destructive,” Marie says. “The more vulnerable you are, the more emotionally sensitive you are, the more wounding trivial slights can be.”