What Do Medieval Nuns and Bo Jackson Have in Common? (Ep. 126)

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(Photo: paddy patterson)

Our latest podcast is called “What Do Medieval Nuns and Bo Jackson Have in Common?” (You can download/subscribe at Apple Podcasts, 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.

Levitt isn’t alone in wondering this. Our producer Katherine Wells interviews the renowned biologist E.O.Wilson (his new book is Letters to a Young Scientist):

When a person injures himself or herself — say in reputation, in diminishing wealth, causing their own early death, whatever it is — in order to harm another person, you would say, Oh, that’s spite, that’s got to be spite. But it really would be true spite in my mind as opposed to mere risk-taking, or tradeoff for one kind of gain in exchange for one kind of loss taken, if you can’t see a gain. And that’s hard to imagine. Even vengeance has its gain, has a strong emotional award to it. For example, if you harm yourself and your reputation, you accept that if the damage you can do benefits you in some other way or benefits, say, particularly your own offspring in a particular way. You know, like unscrupulous stage moms, murderesses of a cheerleading champion’s competitors. I think you get the drift. Even a mass murderer who goes out and harms a lot of people is taking some benefit, emotional benefit, from that. … So, when you add that factor, maybe real spite doesn’t exist.

Seminymous Coward

That emotion providing a perceived benefit for those sorts of actions is called "spite."


I think the Bo Jackson portion of this piece is a particularly and unusually dishonest for this show. First you define spite as an act of injuring oneself to hurt another with no benefit to you. Then you use this piece as an example of spite, arguing that Bo's leaving 6 million dollars on the table is an act of spite. However, your slanted position conveniently ignores the point that signing on with an employer that has shown itself willing to stab you in the back and treat you like a pawn in a chess set carries with it a number of dangers.

From Bo's perspective, by signing the NFL contract Bo would have subjugated himself to the very people who showed themselves willing to manipulate, deceive, and injure him to benefit themselves. How is this spite, and not a form of reasonable behavior or even self-preservation? The decision of whether to tie oneself to such a manipulative organization is hardly beyond the realm of reasonable behavior.


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Even if you trusted them to be no worse than the average NFL employer, the piece overlooks the role of maintaining your self-image. What's your soul worth? What's a positive perception of yourself worth? Would you rather have six *extra* million dollars, or would you rather be able to look yourself in the eye and say, "I am not the kind of person who cooperates with liars. I am not the kind of person who rewards deceitful and manipulative people."


Aside from intangible benefits, it appears the Bo Jackson story ignores the fact that baseball contracts, in contrast to football contracts, are guaranteed. Therefore the cost of turning down the Buckaneers offer isn't the full $7.55 million, but $1.5 million plus the expected value of the remainder of the contract. Additionally, Bo was only committed to the Royals for 3 years, meaning opportunity costs have to be taken into account when comparing to the Buckaneers contract. So, it may still have been irrational to turn them down, but the equation is more complex than a straight comparison of $7.55 million versus $1 million.


" Between the 5th and the 12th century in Early Modern Europe, barbarity swept through the continent..."

I think have wildly different opinions on who exactly were the barbarians in this scenario. Locking women (and men) up in institutions where they're forced to forego sex (and much else), cutting off major body parts to keep people from having sex... Would anyone care to explain just how this differs from the current practice of female circumcision?


How horrible is our past as people; violence and horrible acts and injustice and horrid unethical behaviours... what can we learn from our past? How can we make a better world by looking at our past mistakes and trying to make sure we do not repeat them over and over.


Have you guys seen the game of "anonymous people split $10" played in different cultures? I recently read an article that indicated that this 25-75 cut-off for rejection is an American phenomenon, and not a "human" characteristic. It seems that much of economic theory is based on cultural touch-stones rather than shared universal human ones.


I am not sure that the Bo Jackson case is an example of spite. While Jackson may not have been maximizing his benefit, I would be hard pressed to say that accepting $1 million (when he previously had zero) is "injuring himself". Had Jackson's choices been $7.5 million and zero, then a stronger case could be made for it being spite.


I looked up the word. I couldn't find a definition of it which insisted upon harm to oneself being necessary to spite. It seems like the podcasters have taken the meaning of the expression about noses and faces to be the meaning of the word only. As far as I can tell, "spite" just means "petty ill will."

Also, I'm surprised no one mentioned chess (or probably any number of games). Sacrificing a pawn of yours to take out a bishop of your opponent's is not a mysterious move to a chess player. This is because the game doesn't end there. The goal is checkmate, not "get the bishop."

I think the mystery of why you would choose that you both get nothing rather than let the other get more can be explained if you imagine that the resource is returning to the pool and so you may have another chance at it later.

These questions are only mysterious in the moment. As soon as you consider the future, they make perfect sense.



I think a better example of spite than the nuns and Bo Jackson is a radio personality who uses a show, ostensibly about economics, to explore his discomfort over the way the subsequent owners of his boyhood home used it, and in doing so espousing the view that they are "bad" for their sexual tastes, while he and his family are "good" by comparison.


I will echo the comments of those who felt that Bo did not behave spitefully toward the Buccaneers. They had demonstrated their untrustworthiness in his opinion. He told them that he would not play for them at any price and that picking him would be a waste of their draft pick. When they chose him he behaved exactly as he said he would, maintaining his own sense of honor and choosing a trustworthy employer over the one who offered him the most money first.

If anyone behaved spitefully it was the Buccaneers by selecting him as their draft pick after being told he would not play for them. This is not spiteful in my opinion because I suspect they were astonished that he turned down the money. Further, it could be a benefit to keep him from playing for another team even if he wouldn't play for them.

Trevor T

Great piece! Never thought of evolutionary biology in that way. What was the name of the last song you played?
Keep it up!

Mike Melnyk

Why do people act out of spite? Seems intuitive to me.

Pride, a.k.a. self-worth. When a person believes his or her worth has been devalued, that person may act "irrationally" to demonstrate to themselves or others their worth. Pride/self-esteem/self-worth is not easily monetized, but when when we feel wrong, we feel devalued, so we act to restore our value.

Steve Cebalt

So far no one has weighed on on the merits of spite. Allow me! Credentials: Raised 3 daughters through teen years. Spite is simply standard economics practiced with bad math as to the cost-benefit analysis. Example: I work 20 years for an employer, then get a better job. As I leave, I unload 20 years of rage and frustration at my boss, the HR department, etc. I burn my bridge. My benefit: 10 minutes of satisfaction. The cost: A lifetime of never being able to use my excellent employment record with that company as a reference. Standard economics; bad math.

Recently I was in a walk-a-thon fundraiser that I didn't care much about (I was coerced into doing it for business reasons). I seeded my team with a generous personal donation to get things started. Through no fault or effort of mine, I became the #2 fundraiser on the "leader board." I don't know the #1 guy and will never meet him, but at great personal expense, I made another large personal donation just before deadline, solely to rob him of the satisfaction of being #1. There is no prize, honor or recognition for being #1 and I take no personal pride or satisfaction in it. I did it so he wouldn't be #1, pure and simple. What the heck is that!

P.S. Please don't judge me :)


Leonard F.

I think you have the definition of spite incorrect. I think you were closer in the beginning of the podcast when Levitt had it bordering on revenge at times. I think the lines between revenge and spite are quite blurred many times.

I think spite is when you are willing to pay an inordinate or disproportionate price in order to make someone else "lose". Years ago I attended the "7 Habits of Highly Successful People" and thought, "Gee this is great, but highly flawed." Covey assumes that everyone has the same definition of winning and wants to have a win-win scenario. This is clearly not the case. Some folks are perfectly happy with a win-lose or lose-lose as they may define a win for them in the simplest terms of their opponent NOT succeeding or benefiting.

Spite really comes down to when a persons definition of winning is to ensure that their opposition loses no matter the personal cost to them (even if negative). In other words, spite can be defined as a win for me is a loss for you, no matter what it takes for me to ensure that outcome.



Hi, I was listening to this in the car with the kids. We're going to a safari park and an Auntie has given £10 to each child (care of me) to buy something. The girls were sleeping so when I heard about the experiment I told my son about the money and asked him 'how about you give me £1 and I tell your sisters they just got £5?' He was delighted. I wonder if the rates would go up if the people knew each other, but thought they could get away with it? BTW they'll get £10 each!


I was discussing the ultimatum game with a colleague and he asked if the experiment had ever been run with larger amounts at stake. It's easy to turn down $2 [out of $10]. Would that same person turn down $200,000 [of $1,000,000]?

Marc Abear

Benedikt HERRMANN said “…it’s not spite because it’s an educational momentum. You’re trying to get somebody who’s done something bad to behave better in the future. So it’s a kind of moralistic way of punishing, a moralistic way of being aggressive. And so it’s not a kind of spite I’m after. I’m after the kind of behavior where somebody would harm others with for no reason, for no moral reason, apart from something that might satisfy him or herself only.”

Are you kidding me? The way to educate someone when they have done something you do not approve of is to punish them? Worse yet, you’re going to impose your morality, your world view on them? It’s okay, to punish someone in a moralistic way, to be moralistically aggressive, if there’s an educational momentum? The Boko Haram and Janajaweed would be proud to admit you to their minion.

Seminymous Coward

Every government punishes behaviors it doesn't like, frequently claiming rehabilitation as a goal.

Amnon Govrin

An old joke that demonstrates spite:
2 neighbors hated each other.
One night a genie came to one of them and said - "I grant you one wish, anything you want - riches, a woman to love, success, fame, or anything else." The genie added - "just one little thing - your neighbor gets double of what you get." without hesitation, he responded - "cut one of my testicles!"