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

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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.


I was surprised with the depiction of Bo's rejection of the larger monetary offer as "unreasonable." Come on guys. Money is not necessarily the strongest incentive driving human behaviour. You've taught me this before. Belittling this individual's honour system relative to his possible financial gain expresses that dollar bills are more important than morality. Nice.

(Also I love your podcast thank you for all your time and effort)


- Yes the Bo example is quite different from what they said ..it was clearly in his interest to avoid doing with business with people who'd proved they were untrustworthy.
- That caused me to step back ..and see that SPITe is often about the message it says "don't be an untrustworthy person cos then society won't do business with you", So yes the nuns action makes sense ..and also the ex above "off venting at your boss and burning your bridges"

Stew Green

BTW there was recent BBC Radio 4 "Fourthought" item about cursing. They quoted an example of an house orang utan, who would crap on the floor when annoyed .and then when asked with sign language would blame it on the other person : "Wendy did, Wendy dirty" ..pretty much saying "crappy Wendy" .
- The ape was aware she would be punished, but seems sending the message about how aggrieved she was ..was more important


If a company screws you over before you work for them, they will screw you over while you work for them.


Yes, but if you are purely self-maximizing from a financial perspective, you won't care since your signing bonus was 7 times your 3-year contract (the alternative). The point they are making is there is something else at play here than self-maximization (from an economic perspective)


I'm looking for theories of the term used as the opposite of homo economicus . "homorevalus" or something to that affect, who can spell that correctly and point me in the right direction to look up academic work on the concept of relative improvement or competitive maximization as Dubner describes it.

Dan Tani

Turns out I'm an economist-wannabe! Even though I had taken Sam Peltzman's Econ 101 at UC, I didn't get hooked until I started listening to the Freakonomics Podcasts. Some topics bring up issues I've often thought about, and I delight in hearing about topics about which I have never given a single thought. Thanks a lot for making me regret my college major and subsequent career decision! (although I've done well and I'm happy in my chosen field).

As a father of 3 young children, I enjoyed the episode long ago about the economics of raising children (specifically the use of incentives). Then, a couple weeks ago, I enjoyed the episode about spite - especially the concept that there is a point where someone else's loss is better than one's own gain. I recently had an opportunity to bring these 2 concepts together, and it's frankly been a revelation.

I've been trying to get my 8 year old daughter to do all sorts of things - get good grades, participate in sports, do her chores. She is motivated by cash, so I found that awarding good performance with a few bucks was mildly effective - but I did not want to get in the habit of "paying" for performance. The "spite" podcast gave me an idea -- rather than reward good behavior with a cash award, I would instead punish poor behavior by paying HER SISTER . As I found out - the downside of watching her younger sister getting a few bucks was much stronger than the upside of her getting the cash herself. So, now I find myself making these kinds of threats: "If you don't get in the car right now, I'm going to give your sister a dollar!" I'm shocked at how well it works! The value of my dollars is MUCH higher when given to the other sibling!

Just wanted to let you know that we're putting all that research to good use!



If the other has all the power and you have none, the only thing you still have control over is your self. You can't retaliate in kind, but you still do all you can to deprive the other of the pleasure of harming you. Bo was certainly powerless when he was lied to. You can still show yourself as master of your own choice, even if the choice appears self-defeating at the time. Spite is the only strategy of the powerless, or those who feel or perceive themselves as relatively powerless.


Like many others it seems, I have a couple of problems with the Bo story as a n example of spite. Let's start with the definition -- for me spite is taking action, without benefit to yourself with the sole intention of injuring the other party. In this case, accepting the $6+ million offer would place Bo in the situation of working for an employer that has demonstrated it will take action to harm a job candidate (the time in the relationship where mutual self-interest of both parties is most closely aligned). Given the team's action now, what does Bo have to look forward to as an employee when interests may not be so aligned? That alone is enough to give a job candidate pause and to encourage the wise candidate to weigh other intangibles more heavily in his ultimate decision. As to my sole intention criteria, I heard nothing in the piece that indicated that Bo's sole intention was to harm the team, but rather to distance himself from an organization that in his view had proved to be untrustworthy.

Broadening the consideration to employment situations beyond professional sports, would you view any job candidate who turned down the highest $$ position based on other intangible criteria as being guilty of spite?


Loren Riley

I've heard about the study wherein $10 or $20 was offered and people could choose to spite the divider if they didn't divide the amount fairly, but I'm interested in what would happen if the amount went up. Leavitt says you shouldn't go below 20%. But what if it's not really dependent on a percentage of the whole amount, but dependent on the cost of spiting the divider?

I know researchers don't have a lot to throw around so this study will never happen, but $2 is not super costly for me to spite the guy who wants to keep $8. Neither is $4 to spite the guy who's trying to keep $16. But if someone offered me $5000 out of a million dollar split, I'd hate the guy, but I'd take the $5000 because it's too costly for me to spite him, even though $5000 out of a million is nowhere near 20%.

Jesse Ford

Dear Freakonomics -- I just heard this broadcast on one of my local NPR affiliates last night. I was really surprised that you would characterize Bo (Beaux?)'s decision not to take 7.6 million dollars as "spite". To my mind, it seemed as if he felt he had been seriously betrayed, and really did not care to open himself up for other kinds of betrayal by the very person who did this initially. This is hardly spite. It's self-preservation.

As I thought about this longer (and continued to listened to the program), it occurred to me that I think most people who are marginalized in the dominant culture would see my point without too much of a stretch. I am not sure, however, whether or not it will make sense to you. It relates to a set of values that are not grounded in economics.

I'd be interested in continuing this conversation in this forum if/as you find it appropriate to do so.


There is an implication made that Bo Jackson's decision must be out of spite and simply cannot be explained by his honor code. Not that I know anything of him personally, but there is something to be said for a man who won't sign on to a team who is perhaps as manipulative the Tampa Bay Buccs seemed to be. I would have thought that this is another important motivation to avoid the NFL contract, even if it was for significantly less.