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.


Has anyone tried the ultimatum game with very large sums of money? Like, splitting a pot of $100,000 by 90/10? Maybe people are willing to punish others for a dollar, but not $10,000? Or, maybe trying the game in a poor country, where a $1 would be worth a lot?

caleb b

In college, my friends and I played a lot of RISK! (board game of world domination). In fact, we had so many players, we'd have RISK tournaments that would take weeks to complete.

In my circle of friends, I was known for two things: winning all the time, and making lots of treaties. The game does not have any specific rules on treaties, so players are free to make up their own (and this is the fun in the game). There is no formal enforcement of treaties either, so players can easily break treaties if it suits them.

If anyone broke a treaty with me, i would immediately go kamikaze on them and deliberately lose the game attacking their forces with all I had. I would lose, but it would weaken the offender to the point where they could not win either. Once the other players saw this, they never broke a treaty with me again.

That being said, I won so often, that the other players began resenting me. They then colluded against me in the championship tournament and each took turns attacking me first, so I couldn’t be a threat later in the game. Even after the championship, if a player was at a point where they felt that they could no longer win, it became standard practice to then go kamikaze on me, just to wear me down so I could not win. I'd call that spite.


Steve Cebalt

Hi Caleb! If they can't win, taking you down provides the greatest satisfaction, as you are the best player, and the one they "resent" as you say. I know I would! :)

I like your comment on Bo's mom, too: "We got along without Steinbrenner's money before, we'll be fine now." Smart woman! Bo was able to stand on priniciple because he knew he had extraordinary talents and, with his mom's influence, he had the courage of his convictions.

The entertainment industry is full of examples of people turning down a sure thing now, to risk a much bigger payday later. Ray Charles turned down standard music industry pay for an unusually entreprenurial deal that allowed him to keep ownership of his master recordings -- a huge risk based on his courage of his convictions. It would have looked like spite to the recording labels that he turned his back on.

An action can look spiteful in the moment, and its genius may be revealed in hindsight.



I found the choice of case studies interesting for this episode because the one on the nuns struck me as an example of how expressions change their meaning over time.

I'm sceptical about any argument from a historian who thinks that 'England' is an island. But let;s assume that the story from Roger of Wendover is true. It seemed that the nuns' actions weren't spiteful as we would currently define them. They were more of a gambit - sacrifice things of lesser worth to you (physical beauty and absense of pain) in exchange for the protection of something of greater value - entry into heaven. Whereas the modern meaning of the expression is more often along the lines of a self-defeating action, where you cause harm to yourself than would be caused to any opponent or enemy.

For the nuns to be in common cause with Bo Ridley - if they were both making a gambit - then his actions would have had to cause his enemy more harm than those same actions caused him. And for that to be the case, his sacrifice of salary would have to cost HIM than the draft pick cost the football team. Is it possible to place an economic value on a draft pick? I'm a Brit and don't know the draft system, but maybe it is. If so, then he was acting the same way they were. Only if his salary sacrifice cost him more than it cost the team, can he be said to be being spiteful as we currently define it.

There is another complexity here in that the nuns were engaged in what was almost a 1-1 transaction with the barbarians. In that sense, each nun had the same 'power' as each barbarian. Whereas Ridley wasn't 'negotiating' with one person, but with a whole team. Therefore each dollar would cost him more (in terms of utility) than it would cost the team. This changes the equation. One suicide bomber might be able to kill 10 occupying soldiers, which, in isolation, might make it a rational thing to do; a calculated sacrifice. But if the invading army has 1 million men and you have 100 bombers, then that pushes the action from being a gambit to being spiteful.


steve cebalt

Hi Aaron:

Excellent ilustrations! I especially like your suicide bomber illustration, because I believe spite is standard economics with bad math. The 1-for-10 trade-off makes sense, but in your second scenario of 100 bombers to 1 million invaders, the very same action becomes spite because the math is so unfavorable.

As for your inights on Bo Jackson and the nuns, Bianca on Page 1 of comments puts it nicely as well: "These questions are only mysterious in the moment. As soon as you consider the future, they make perfect sense."

I'd forgive the "England-as-an-island" exression. The terminology of the U.K., British Isles, Great Britain, British, Northern Ireland, Ireland and "England" get very confusing, and the terms are often used loosely even by people in the UK! "British" is often used as a loose synonym for English/England. That doesn't make it right, but I've heard ethnocentric people from England do it. If you quizzed 100 percent of Yanks on the precise definitions of those terms, very few would get it right. I certainly wouldn't. :)



I thought the Bo Jackson example was very poorly chosen. Others have stated this and I may have slightly different reasons.

The first draft choice was worth 7.2 million. Had he been a first round, second pick what would that have been worth 7.0 million? So he only left .2 million behind. But once he said, "Dear Bucs, No way...ever." He had to stick to it. First off, if you fold once, you'll only get pressed hard to fold twice in the future. If people see that you say what you mean and mean what you say, they won't try to walk all over you so readily.

Second, you undervalue his internal feeling of being able to say he wasn't a chump. Imagine going to work everyday and feeling bad about that. That someone waved money under your nose after they dumped on you and you went back to them anyways. Jackson may have felt walking into work everyday wasn't walking but crawling on his knees. That's not only worth something, that's worth a lot. Economists should realize self-worth is has worth and a lot of it.

I'm a software contractor and due to some loophole was not going to be paid 1.5x overtime pay and every other contractor was paid that. I said to them, "If you don't pay me the overtime rate, I will work my 40 hours and leave it at that." They said, "Too bad." And I never worked overtime. My father said I was only hurting myself and I said that I really wasn't that interested in overtime and felt good about sticking to my word lest they they don't take my word seriously and also...just feeling good about not feeling like a chump. So yes, even people of lesser means than Jackson can act in their self-interest when it appears to be spite to others.

Epilogue: One paycheck the spreadsheet rounded my hours to 40.01 hours and I "worked" an extra .01 hours. I checked it carefully every week after that.

I think the Bo Jackson example was quite interesting and good to bring into the conversation... just that your argument was 180 degrees wrong.


Cara McKee

Woah! English people may conflate England and Britain but that doesn't mean it's OK. Especially not if you're Scottish or Welsh!

Steve Cebalt

Hi Cara:

Of course! Scotland. I've heard of it! King Macbeth, right? You don't hear much about him any more. Is he still alive? And Wales: I recall a famous poet....Dylan...Dylan.....it's at the tip of my tongue. Of course, Bob Dylan! See, we Yanks are not as dumb as we look.

steve cebalt

Horseracing trainer D. Wayne Lucas said this after his long-shot horse (Oxbow) beat the prohibitive favorite (Orb) in the Preakness yesterday, destroying the Derby-winning horse's chances of winning horseracing's elusive Triple Crown:

"I get paid to spoil dreams."


I usually enjoy Freakonomics podcasts -- but this episode seemed to have been rushed in its making, and lacked the quality that accompanied other Freakonomics episodes (see comments by Greg and others in this section).

It was also disconcerting the tone at which Levitt seemed to portray Bo as making the "unbelievable" choice, almost irrational for dropping a 7.66 million deal.

As hard as it may be to swallow for some, there's a lot more in life (and research) than simple dollar signs -- especially when you're faced with the prospect of working under a boss who loves underhanded tactics and behaves like a sack of cash-stuffed douchebag.

I'm not sure why it was so shocking that Bo walked away from the 7.66 million deal to avoid a potentially pitiful work environment. Money-making is only one aspect of life, and he did sign a ONE MILLION dollar contract after all, something that most of us could only dream to have.



I disagree Coward, spite coveys a certain irrationality is decision making. I think we need a little re-frame here. One of the things economics does poorly is take into account non-monetized benefits and costs. As a number of people have suggested , in making his decision Bo Jackson had to weigh his job satisfaction, happiness, fulfillment in his work, and the stress of maintaining a working relationship with someone that you do not respect or trust. Secondarily, these sorts of problems tend to impact health over the long term. These are all costs, and must be factored into any cost-benefit analysis.

What this really illustrates is that each person maximizes utility differently because we place value on things differently. To say that spite is the only reason that someone might value non-monetary benefits more, or be more averse to non-monetary costs, is frankly irrational.

One thing no one seems to have mentioned. If Bo Jackson had been acting out of spite, would he have told the manager of the Buckaneers that he was not going to accept their offer? No, he told them in good faith, and was true to his word. Calling that spite seems a bit disingenuous to me.