What Do Medieval Nuns and Bo Jackson Have in Common? A Freakonomics Radio Rebroadcast

This week’s podcast is a rebroadcast of our episode called “What Do Medieval Nuns and Bo Jackson Have in Common?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

(Photo: Kevin Dooley)

(Photo: Kevin Dooley)

The episode is about spite. As in “cutting off your nose to spite your face” spite. Lisi Oliver, a linguist at Louisiana State University, tells us about the probable origin of this phrase. You’ll also hear Bo Jackson talk about a costly decision he once made that most people would certainly think of as spiteful — and from Dave O’Connor, executive producer of the documentary film You Don’t Know BoThe economist Benedikt Herrmann tries to measure spite in the lab (papers are herehere and here).

Why are people willing to hurt others even when it is costly to themselves?

Steve Levitt warns that the real world is more complicated than any lab — and wonders, therefore, if pure spite even exists.

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  1. The White says:

    To say that we might not REALLY know what is going on in others’ heads/we don’t truly know what peoples’ motives are is probably more true than not. However, I don’t think it’s debatable to say that people are sometimes motivated by other peoples’ suffering… especially when it’s as easy as taking a whole bunch of millions of dollars to do something that you really love versus taking a whole WHOLE bunch of millions for doing something else that you love…

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  2. mt says:

    Stevie,

    real world, demented folks get utils from spite-in others.Spite is perfectly rational thereof. case closed.

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  3. Bob says:

    It’s sad to see this episode brought out from the archives and rebroadcast. I didn’t hear it the first time around, but I was very disappointed having listened to it now.

    While the episode mentions some distinctions briefly, I think it fails to distinguish between actions taken with some less straightforward self-interest in mind. For example, if Bo Jackson’s assumption that his prospective coach screwed him over is correct, I wouldn’t work for him either. Just because, as one guest says, “Money talks,” that does NOT imply that money is everything. I would have expected a more thorough analysis from economists, since that seems to an important lesson of many of the podcasts.

    In Jackson’s case, he was faced with the prospect of making more money from an employer that had proved he was willing to deceive Jackson and ruin an important and enjoyable part of his life (playing baseball) just to get a slightly better chance at drafting him. If Jackson went ahead and signed with that team, he would be saying that he was willing to obey an employer and trust him with his well-being (since even back then, football players recognized how much of a toil the game takes on one’s body, and you need a coach that cares at least somewhat about you as a human being to avoid serious injuries). But that employer had proven that he could not be trusted and was not looking out for Jackson’s well-being. Is it worth risking serious injury or even your life for such a person? Let’s not kid ourselves: football is a seriously risky activity.

    So, I absolutely think that it’s possible that Jackson was very much acting in his self-interest, or at least he could rationally argue that he was doing so.

    Now, contrast that with the situation where you’re willing to deny some anonymous person a few bucks as well as cheat yourself out of a few bucks just for… what exactly? You think you’re going to “teach” this random person “a lesson” by refusing to accept $2 so he can’t have $8? That’s just idiotic, since the type of self-interested person who would choose to take a large portion of the money is not going to “learn a lesson” because some other guy refused the deal. He’ll just go find some other sucker.

    There are situations where one makes a financial decision out of perceived self-interest, and there are situations that seem to be more about revenge or “teaching someone a lesson” or whatever. The latter category seems to me to fall into what many people consider “spiteful.”

    But it does NOT follow that anytime someone accepts less money AND simultaneously refuses to give another person what they want that that action MUST be spiteful. There are all sorts of reasons for taking less money — for a job, maybe you enjoy a different job more, or it’s less stressful, or it’s less dangerous, or the working environment is better, or the hours are more flexible, or the hours are less and it allows you to spend more time on hobbies or family, or your prospective employer could be a total jerk willing to exploit you, lie to you, and not look out for your well-being (as Jackson seems to have thought), etc., etc., etc.

    “Money talks,” except when you have one or more of those reasons that are more important to you. Sure, maybe Jackson wanted to “teach a lesson” to the jerks who screwed him over, but it’s also very possible that he had other rational priorities in his life. On the other hand, it’s much harder to make that case for the people who are willing to deny themselves a few bucks just to hurt another person a little more financially. That’s just weird… and perhaps “spiteful.”

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  4. Gary g. says:

    Spite materialize in a lot of ways for example, hold em poker has many instances when spite is demonstrated. A player will lose a hand because another player got lucky, then that losing player will purposely hurt themselves by investing in a losing hand just for that that lucky player can hopefully go out. I think The exploration of root causes in the piece is missing one lens, neuroscience. What differentiates us from animals can be primarily found in the frontal lobe, which gives us the expectation of benefit versus actual or instant benefit. Therefore, what we perceive to be spite, is in actuality our long-term, frontal lobe enabled, future expectation of emotional or financial benefit for a present investment, which could include harm to ourselves. For example, I am investing time in writing this comment knowing full well I have very little incentive to do so, but my frontal lobe of future expectations, gives me signals that this comment may be perceived well by others and picked up by the authors, which would give me great emotional benefits. However rational or irrational that may sound I believe that that is reality of our human condition. Thanks for the continued good work and insightful thinking. Sorry for the misspells. Using dictation technology.

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  5. Disappointed says:

    All, using the medieval nuns facing rape and subsequent murder is horrifying and beyond poor taste. That there would be any question about doing anything to avoid rape being spiteful is callous and I do hope you are only ignorant. The pain, humiliation and spiritual agony these women would have faced before being murdered is not cute or funny.

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  6. Peter Howie says:

    I enjoyed this program and I had a quiet chuckle at one point. I thought ‘Only in America could someone state that ” … unprecedented. It just doesn’t happen. You can’t . I mean money talks. you have 78.6 million dollars there. That’s a rare occurrence … There is no rational explanation for walking away from that kind of money”

    Why – well that statement which includes the assertion “no rational explanation” is entirely values based and should really be phrased “In my opinion, or according to the values I hold dear and firmly believe that everyone else holds dear … there is no rational explanation”

    Others have come up with similarly decent responses.

    Spite would have to be a cousin of envy, the way it is described here.

    Another entertaining show – and it could also be seen as a “sliding doors moment”

    Cheers

    Peter Howie
    Brisbane
    Australia

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  7. Carrie says:

    spite is about a malicious act upon someone else for whatever reason and is done with no other intent but to harm or humiliate or annoy another person for god knows what reason. Some people simply get some sort of personal satisfaction from this sort of act (that is their payoff) …it is not logical or rational, but emotional and somehow justified in their flawed thought processes

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  8. Michael says:

    I usually enjoy ideas behind Freakonomics because they use sound logic and evidence to help people see every-day situations from unexpected perspectives – not because someone speaks eloquently about the new perspective, but because a more objective viewpoint in presented in favor of the new perspective. Without this aspect of critical thinking, Freakonomics is just another opinion show. The show about spite fails in many ways to live up to this expectation. Other commenters have already criticized the show in many of the same ways I did as I listen to it, so I won’t pile on here. Just please be better at your jobs – your viewpoints are important and should not be sloppy.

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