Season 4, Episode 3
This episode of Freakonomics Radio explores our surprising propensity for spite. We discover the gruesome etymology of the phrase “cut off your nose to spite your face” (it involves Medieval nuns cutting off their noses to preserve their chastity). Stephen Dubner and economist Benedikt Herrmann talk about so-called “money-burning” lab experiments, in which people often choose to take money away from other participants – even when it means giving up some of their own cash. Also: why do we take pleasure in harming others? So much so that we’re willing to harm ourselves in the process? The answer may lie in our biology: Freakonomics Radio producer Katherine Wells talks with biologist E. O. Wilson about whether spite exists in nature. Later in the hour, we head to Bogota, Colombia, where the mayor used unconventional methods to bring order to the city: he hired mimes to mimic and embarrass people who were violating traffic laws — and it worked. Then, Stephen Dubner talks to Robert Cialdini, best known for his research on the psychology of persuasion, about how peer pressure, and good old fashioned shame, can greatly affect the way people behave.
In last week’s podcast, I talk with renowned biologist E.O. Wilson about spite. Although Wilson doesn’t like the term “spite,” he does tell us that there are copious examples of perplexingly self-destructive behavior in nature. Some types of ants, termites, and even bacteria can build up poison within their bodies and then explode in enemy territory – killing themselves as well as several attackers.
Wilson also mentions an act of self-sacrifice that might be better thought of as altruism: a certain species of mother spider lets her children eat her. Isabella Rossellini’s brand new video series Mammas features an episode on this cannibal spider. You can watch it here.
Our latest podcast is 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.)
The episode is about spite. As in “cutting off your nose to spite your face” spite. That’s where the nuns come in. Lisi Oliver of Louisiana State University tells us about the probable origin of this phrase.
You’ll also hear Bo Jackson talk about a very 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 Bo.
The economist Benedikt Herrmann tries to measure spite in the lab (papers are here, here and here), while another economist (Steve Levitt) warns that the real world is more complicated than any lab — and wonders, therefore, if pure spite even exists. Read More »