Spite Happens

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(Photo: paddy patterson)

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.

Check out the podcasts from which is hour was drawn: “What Do Medieval Nuns and Bo Jackson Have in Common?” and “Riding the Herd Mentality.”

Robert Weber

I've thought a bit about spite since this podcast - it's a slippery term that I think is difficult to define. I would try like this - attempting to foil or mitigate the success of another person because you don't like them, even and especially if that success would benefit you in some way. Fairly narrow, I know, but other definitions I come up with trend into the realm of revenge or personal gain. To be spiteful, the act should produce no discernible gain for the spiteful one.

Case in point - every year my mother and I jointly produce a custom calendar for my 90-YO grandmother. We put quite a bit of effort into it and produce a very cool product (if I do say so myself). My Grandmother has four sons and one daughter (my father is one of the sons). There is an unfortunate split between two of the sons and the other two sons and the daughter. Mostly this is under the surface and when the siblings are actually in the same room everyone is cordial. However, the two on the opposite side from my Father will make no attempt to get together with their siblings.

How this affects the calendar is simple - they refuse to participate. They will not provide photos or confirm birthdates or anniversaries. While I'm not inside their heads, I imagine they actually feel slighted that they are underrepresented in the calendar, too. (Another slippery definition - irony, or is it chutzpah?)

I would call this action a clear example of spite - they are trying to mitigate the success of the calendar (which my Grandmother loves receiving every year) at the expense of their own participation in it, and of their Mother's delight at having her entire family represented.

Sincerely, Robert Weber



This is not a comment, it is a question. I heard this on NPR yesterday...and I would like to know if the researchers attempted to differentiate spite from "mean" or "mean spirited"?


Study suggest people act fairly due to spite, not altruism
Feb 12, 2014 by Bob Yirka


Matt Anthony

i just heard this podcast in June of 2015, two years after its initial broadcast. Today I learned of the scientific community black balling Nobel winner Tim Hunter for offensive remarks he made about women in the lab. The community would rather hurt itself by ousting Dr. Hunter than take the relatively harmless with the assuredly great.