So what's the motivation?
Colloquially, a few economics-geek friends and I refer to it as "the Vandal's Utility Function." With zero financial payoff, vandalism's motivation must rest entirely on the satisfaction ("utility") of destroying what somebody else values. Sounds highly pathological, doesn't it? We'd like to believe that such extremes of human pathology are a rarity - yet a recent study by Andrew Oswald and Daniel Zizzo (Everybody Hates a Winner) at Oxford University suggests how disturbingly common it might be.
The study was carried out by economists at the Universities of Warwick and Oxford, who devised an innovative game that tests the attitude of those playing towards their fellow competitors. Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick and Dr Daniel Zizzo of Oxford tested their subjects under controlled conditions, with all the players anonymous and hidden away from each other. With each player having only a computer terminal for mutual contact, subjects were assigned real cash with which to play and allowed to bet with each other until there was an unequal distribution of wealth. Most ended up with around ten pounds, but some participants found themselves with significantly larger amounts.
At this stage of the test, each subject was entitled to stick with the money they had acquired. However, they also had the option of reducing their opponents' share of the winnings, by sacrificing some of their own. If they wished, they could "burn away" a competitor's earnings, sometimes at a rate as high as one pound "burnt" for every twenty five pence of their own winnings.
Contrary to the economists' expectations, a high amount of activity took place at this final stage, in fierce bouts of retaliation. In all, 62 per cent of participants chose to destroy part of the winnings that others had accumulated, and half of the experimental earnings were wiped out completely. Even at the point where the sacrifice was most expensive, the researchers were surprised to see that the process of annihilating others' money barely abated, and that most still chose to hurt their competitors even as it significantly hurt themselves.
Ultimately, that was most unsettling observation: a majority of the study's participants are willing to pay out of their own earnings for the opportunity to burn total strangers who are considered "too successful." Indeed, far from being a pathological rarity, the "Vandal's Utility Function" is a pervasive factor of human psychology in the presence of perceived inequality.
The openly ambitious who chase their dreams would do well to keep that in mind: while you strive for excellence, remember that you do so in the company of Vandals who would gladly pay to see you stumble.
(Everybody Hates a Winner)