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Lisi OLIVER: It probably was pretty darn painful because you’re not living in a world with good razors. The chances are what they’re using is kitchen cutlery I would imagine. And that is not necessarily all that sharp. I can’t imagine how painful it was.

That’s Lisi Oliver. She studies medieval law at Louisiana State University. What do you think she’s talking about that was so “darn painful”?

OLIVER: Between the 5th and the 12th century in Early Modern Europe, barbarity swept through the continent and also the island of England. And often the targets of these attacks were monasteries and nunneries. But nunneries you had the added incentive of rape to add to sort of pillage and destruction.

For a nun, rape was especially problematic, aside from the obvious reasons. Rape violated a nun’s chastity — which meant that, as a bride of Christ, she might be forbidden entry into Heaven. So what do you do if you’re a nun and there are barbarians at the gate? In the ninth-century, one nun, an abbess who came to be known as St. Ebba, came up with a plan. Here is Lisi Oliver reading from a history by Roger of Wendover.

OLIVER: “The abbess with an heroic spirit took a razor and with it cut off her nose together with her upper lip up unto the teeth, presenting herself a horrible spectacle to those who stood by. Filled with admiration at this admirable deed, the whole assembly followed her maternal example and severally did the like to themselves. When this was done, together with the morrow’s dawn, the pagan attackers came. On beholding the abbess and the sister so outrageously mutilated and stained with their own blood from the sole of their foot unto their head, they retired in haste from the place. Their leaders ordered their wicked followers to set fire and burn the monastery with all its buildings and its holy inmates. Which being done by these workers of iniquity, the holy abbess and all the most holy virgins with her attained the glory of martyrdom.” There’s a very graphic picture of St. Ebba cutting her nose and lip off, and all the women around her looking thrilled at the concept. In terms of pain it must have been dreadful to cut your nose off at night and then wait until the morning with that pain racking your body. But, that is the pain of martyrdom; it is the crown of thorns.

Stephen J. DUBNER: I know it’s hard to transpose oneself to a different time and place, but if you could put yourself back in a nunnery, do you think that you would have followed suit and gone ahead and cut off your own nose to spite your face?

OLIVER: Probably.


OLIVER: I think there is a wave of hysteria that follows that kind of action where, I don’t think I would have been number two, but I probably would have been number 20. I mean, it’s the happening thing, man, we’re all cutting our noses off, right?

Now, why are we telling you this grisly tale? Because the theme of today’s show is spite. As in “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” Scholars aren’t certain, but this phrase quite likely originates with the practice of medieval nuns like St. Ebba. Women who mutilated themselves in an attempt to preserve their chastity. Now, economics is all about tradeoffs — everything has a cost and a benefit.  What do you make of the nuns’ tradeoff? Was it worth it?

*      *      *

Today’s show is about spite. We’re going to look at why people sometimes try to hurt others even when it’s very costly to themselves. It struck me that spite is, in some ways, an economic concept. So I called up an economist I know, Steve Levitt. He’s my Freakonomics friend and co-author, teaches at the University of Chicago.

Steve LEVITT: So, when I think about spite as an economist, the way I would think of spite is that it is the response of an individual who has been wronged in some way by another who then is willing in the future to pay a large cost in order to punish the person who wronged him in the first place. So in a strange sense it’s not a very economic concept because in general we don’t think that people are going to be overly willing to pay a lot of costs themselves to punish other people.

DUBNER: Yeah, I think what you described is more revenge than spite though.

LEVITT: So maybe I don’t even know what spite is. What is spite?

Benedikt HERRMANN: Excellent question. Well, it’s not so easy indeed to define spite.

That’s Benedikt Herrmann. He’s also an economist, originally from Germany. Now he works as policy officer for the European Commission.  He’s done a lot of research on anti-social behavior. You might in fact call him a scholar of spite.

HERRMANN: Let’s have an easy start here and define spite as a behavior where an individual is ready to harm him or herself at own cost to harm somebody else without creating anything good for a third party for anyone outside, because you could sometimes be nasty to somebody just because he or she has misbehaved, and you would like to do it in a kind of educational way, which then I would not call spite.

DUBNER: Because it’s not costing you anything?

HERRMANN: No, if I’m punishing somebody who has misbehaved to the community, to our group, if I punish him or her at own cost it could look like spite, but 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.

Traditional economics argues that most people try to satisfy their self-interest, to maximize their profits and opportunities. Economists have a name for this model of self-interest: Homo economicus. But within that framework, spite is a bit puzzling. Why would someone pay outsized costs for no benefit other than to hurt someone else? Well, Benedikt Herrmann thinks that the idea of Homo economicus is a bit archaic. He prefers a different term:

HERRMANN: Homo rivalis, yes indeed.

Homo rivalis. Meaning that humans are driven, at our core, by competition rather than simple self-interest. Homo economicus wants to get as much as possible for himself; Homo rivalis just wants to make sure he gets more than the other guy. In other words, as much as we like to think that we are absolute animals, we are in fact relative animals. Now, we know this in part through the experimental games that economists like to play. One of the classics is called the Ultimatum game. Here’s Steve Levitt again.

LEVITT: So the ultimatum game is a little experimental game that the behavioral economists have developed in which two players come into the lab and they’re completely anonymous. They’ll never meet each other. It’s a one-shot game. And one player is given, say, $10 and they’re allowed to divide that $10 however they’d like between themselves and the other player. That other player is then informed about the way in which the division has occurred and is given a choice. They can either accept the division—say, $7 for the person who’s splitting the pot and $3 for me. Or I have another option, say, no, I prefer both of us to get zero. So what you always face a choice between as the recipient of this ultimatum is, I can accept what the person offered me or I can have us both get zero. And empirically what we see is that rarely will anyone accept an offer that’s less than 20 percent. So if the person who splits the pot divides it more unevenly than 75-25, you’re almost guaranteed to have it rejected, even though the rejecter is giving up the 25 or the 20 percent of their own money in order to take the 75 or 80 percent away from you.

Now, to an economist this might seem perplexing. Why am I willing to throw away 2 or 3 of my dollars just to make sure that you don’t get 7 or 8? Well, maybe it’s because I feel you’ve wronged me by splitting the pot so unevenly. But remember what Benedikt Herrmann said earlier about spite. True spite, as he sees it, is not motivated by a desire to punish someone’s bad behavior. So he wanted to see how people behave absent such a moral incentive. He and a colleague came up with an experiment.

HERRMANN: So, let me quickly try to explain here on the radio how this experiment works. So, you would be invited to our experiment like many other students. You don’t know each other. You come to our lab inside, you have to sit behind computers, you’re requested not to talk with anyone during the whole experiment.

So you’re paired with another player but you don’t see that person. You each get $10 and then you’re given an option—if you surrender $1 of your money, you can destroy $5 of the other person’s wealth. Now, there’s no revenge going on here; there wouldn’t seem to be anything for you to gain by destroying the other person’s money. But as Benedikt Herrmann found, about 10 percent of the players did take that option. Hermann calls such a player a “difference maximizer.”

HERRMANN: That means that we want to maximize the payoff differential between the opponent and us. So, maybe in a more picturesque way…being aware that we are losing our trousers for the sake and for the hope that the opponent will lose both the shirt and trousers.

In other words, some people were always willing to cut off their noses to spite the other player. Herrmann was perplexed by this finding, and he tried the experiment in a variety of versions, a variety of settings, different parts of the world, different kinds of societies. But in each case, he found that a surprising number of people would give up some of what was theirs for the sole purpose of taking something away from someone else.

DUBNER: And what are you as the researcher thinking? Are you thinking this is remarkably surprising, sad, strange, irrational? What is your…I mean, on the one hand you must be excited because, for the sake of a paper, it’s a fascinating finding.

HERRMANN: That’s exactly…These are the two souls of a researcher. Of course, on the one side, you said it very nicely, you are very excited. But on the other side, of course, you start thinking, oh my God, who the heck are we, we the humans? For me the outcome of all this research is definitely a kind of sadness and also worry that we can be too fast, we humans, we can get too fast into intergroup conflicts, which don’t make any sense to anyone, that we start to harm each other, that we start innocent people to kill each other for something that at the end of the day could have been decided in a much more reasonable way.

Now, as interesting as this may be—as believable as it may be—Steve Levitt warns us not to make too much of lab experiments like these. It’s hard to extrapolate from a lab setting to the hurly-burly of the real world.

LEVITT: When people are in the lab, they’re completely anonymous, it’s the only time we’ll ever play. But the real world isn’t usually like that.

Indeed. So, after the break, we’ll get back to the real world, see if we can find a story where someone willingly gives up money, and not just a few bucks, like in these lab games, but lots and lots of bucks, in order to prove a point.

Dave O’CONNOR: Well, the contract he was offered was five years, $7.66 million.

That’s coming up, on Freakonomics Radio.

*      *      *

We are talking today about spite. About actions that hurt someone else but are especially costly to ourselves. Dave O’Connor is a filmmaker with Radical Media in New York. He was the executive producer of a documentary film made for ESPN called “You Don’t Know Bo”. The Bo in question is Bo Jackson.


O’CONNOR: Bo was probably the single greatest athlete of his generation. Two-sport star, football and baseball, and was just a transformative athlete. He just physically, there’s something about his presence that feels different than normal human beings.


In the spring of 1986, Bo Jackson was playing his senior year of college baseball, at Auburn.

O’CONNOR: He showed signs of being a very highly valued Major League Baseball player.

Bo JACKSON: I’m tearing the cover off the ball. I’m batting over 400, I don’t know how many home runs I was sitting on then.

DUBNER: That’s Jackson himself, from the film. Now, he had just completed his senior season of college football, which had gone even better. Dave O’Connor again:

O’CONNOR: Football, his senior year, is one of the all-time great seasons of a running back in college football. He rushes for nearly 1,800 yards. He wins the Heisman Trophy and basically enshrines himself as a legend of college football. Sort of the common wisdom was that Bo will be the No. 1 draft pick in football, he will probably not play baseball at all, and if he does, somebody should pick him in the 20th round or 30th round on a flyer just in case.

DUBNER: Right, you don’t want to waste a pick on a guy who’s going to be playing football.

O’CONNOR: Right.

So, while finishing up his college baseball career, Jackson starts getting courted by NFL teams. The football draft happens before the baseball draft. The No. 1 overall NFL pick is held by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are owned by a man named Hugh Culverhouse. The Bucs have made it clear that they want Bo Jackson.

BO JACKSON: I was all gung-ho, and I had taken a few trips to visit some teams my senior year. I got the okay to go visit Tampa Bay. Hugh Culverhouse sent his jet to Columbus airport, drove over, got on the jet, went to Tampa Bay for my visit. It was almost like a college visit when you’re a high school senior and you’re going to visit the college and they get some of the players to show you around town, to show you the night spots, take you to a nice restaurant and entertain you. About four or five days later, I’m back at Auburn, getting ready for my baseball game. And I walked out on the field, I had to walk from the athletic department across the parking lot, across the street to the baseball field. And as I get to the gate to come around the dugout, Coach Baird approaches me. He said, Bo, can I talk to you for a second? I said, “Sure, coach.” He said let’s go behind the dugout, let’s go sit and talk. I said, all right. So we go behind the dugout, and I’m thinking that he’s gonna tell me, hey, some big league team wants to sign me. And he said, did you take a trip last week on Hugh Culverhouse’s jet to go down and visit Tampa? I said yes and the folks checked and said it was okay, they checked with the NCAA and said that it was okay to do that. He said, well, Bo, somebody didn’t check and the NCAA has declared you ineligible for any more college sports, so you can’t play baseball no more. And I sat there on that ground and I cried like a baby. I cried like a baby.

Bo Jackson immediately felt that he’d been wronged. He loved baseball, and even though it looked like he was going to play football professionally, he was distraught about being barred from finishing out his college baseball career. And what’s more, he became convinced that Hugh Culverhouse, the Tampa Bay owner, had done this to Bo on purpose.

JACKSON: Because the officials at Tampa Bay told me personally, yes, we checked and they said that it was okay. I think it was all a plot now just to get me ineligible from baseball ’cause they saw the season that I was having, and they thought that they were gonna lose me to baseball. And if we declare him ineligible, then we got him.

Now, we don’t know whether the Bucs actually meant for this to happen. But it certainly did seem to work out well for them. They were in line to pick Bo Jackson No. 1 in the NFL draft and pay him so much money that he’d forget about baseball in a heartbeat. There was just one problem. Bo Jackson isn’t the forgetting type.

JACKSON: And I said, there is no way I’m signing with Tampa Bay. And I told Hugh Culverhouse, I said, you draft me if you want, you gonna waste a draft pick. I said, I promise you that. And Hugh Culverhouse, well, this is what I’m gonna offer you as a signing bonus and you’re gonna take it whether you want it or not. I said, all right. They didn’t think I was serious. And I sat down after baseball season was over, I talked to my baseball coach, I said, coach, a lot of people don’t think I’m serious about playing baseball. I said, but if Tampa Bay drafts me, I said, on my honor, and I’m looking you in your eye, man to man, I’m playing baseball. So if you know any teams out there that’s interested in an outfielder, you let ’em know.

In the NFL draft that April, Tampa Bay did select Bo Jackson with the No. 1 pick, which was attached to a $7.66 million, five-year contract. And then, a couple months later, Bo Jackson was selected in the baseball draft, in the fourth round, by the Kansas City Royals. They offered him three years at just $1 million. The choice would seem obvious. But Bo doesn’t know obvious. He rejects the football offer and he takes the baseball offer. How surprising is this? Here’s Dave O’Connor again.

O’CONNOR: Unprecedented. It just doesn’t happen. You can’t…I mean, money talks. You have $7.6 million sitting there and you sign a contract for 1. That’s a rare occurrence.

DUBNER:  It sounds like a decision that very few people that I know at least would have made. Do you think that was an act of spite on Bo Jackson’s part?

O’CONNOR: It’s interesting because I think Bo would say that he did the honorable thing and that he has a code. But when you look at it on its surface, it is spite. There is no rational explanation for walking away from that kind of money. He’s not just hurting himself here. He’s also doing this to hurt Tampa Bay. The opportunity cost of losing a first round draft pick isn’t just that Bo Jackson isn’t playing on my team. It’s that every other player I could have selected with that pick is not playing on my team either. So it’s a huge impact to Tampa Bay, not to mention the public relations nightmare of going out on a limb and selecting somebody and not getting him.

So Jackson does sign with the Royals. He starts the year in the minor leagues, but by the end of the season he makes the Major League team. He’s on track for a nice baseball career. And then, the next year, he becomes eligible to reenter football. Now, will he play? Nobody knows. But the Los Angeles Raiders draft him in the seventh round. He signs and suddenly he’s playing two professional sports. At the end of the baseball season he’d jump straight into football. And he became a star in both. He also becomes a household name, in part because of his athletic feats, and in part because he was the star of one of the most beguiling ad campaigns in history, “Bo Knows,” for Nike.


O’CONNOR: Bo could surf, Bo could rollerblade, Bo could not play ice hockey, that was the one thing that they couldn’t, they couldn’t agree to let him actually be able to do. Gretzky shakes his head and says…


O’CONNOR: But pretty much everything else. Volleyball, tennis, running, lifting weights, aerobics, all kinds of stuff.

Bo DIDDLEY: Bo, you don’t know Diddley!

DUBNER: All right, so we agree that Bo Jackson’s athletic career turned out pretty well, remarkable on some dimensions, but overall not one of the greatest ever because it wasn’t long enough perhaps. We agree that because he was such an unusual athlete in two sports he became this icon and the focus of a remarkable and probably quite remunerative ad campaign, right? We agree on this so far?


DUBNER: Do we therefore agree that had this catastrophe not happened with him, with getting drafted for the NFL by a team that out of spite or something like spite he turned down, that if that had not happened, that all the rest may not have happened?

O’CONNOR: Yeah, I think that’s a plausible argument to make, because he probably, had he signed that deal with Tampa Bay, if he doesn’t get injured, he probably becomes one of the best running backs in NFL history, but that’s probably it.

DUBNER: I mean, honestly, my takeaway lesson here is spite pays.

O’CONNOR: Yeah, you would say…I mean, if you take a look at where he ends up, spite certainly paid in his case.

So, here’s a question worth thinking about. If spite indeed exists, is it something that we humans have always carried around in our genetic code, or did we pick it up along the way?

E.O. WILSON: We’re a very biological organism. And we’ve inherited an awful lot, in fact most of the basic emotions that guide us, from our animal and Paleolithic early human past.

Katherine WELLS: That is E.O. Wilson. He’s a renowned biologist and author.

And that’s Katherine Wells, she’s a producer on our show. Katherine, you had a chat with Professor Wilson, yes?

WELLS: I did, it was cool. So, I called him up because I wanted to know where all of this self-destructive spite comes from. You know, is this a common behavior throughout nature, or are we unusual in it? And I have to say that [I] just assumed that we would be the meanest creatures in existence, given everything we’ve heard today, but Wilson said that wasn’t true.

WILSON: Oh no, we’re only moderately mean.

WELLS: Now, E.O. Wilson has done a lot of thinking about the origins of human behavior. And he thinks the nastiness that we see in animals might give us a clue to why we act the way we do.

WILSON: There’s a case that comes quickly to mind, for example, of a kind of spider in which the mother has a brood of spiderlings, and when they’re born she sits down and lets the little spiderlings eat her. There are a couple cases in the ants where the workers have a huge gland of poisonous material containing it. And when they get into a tough fight, they’re able to contract their abdomens and explode their abdomens so the sticky poison covers the enemy. It can disable several enemies doing that by giving its life.

WELLS: The list [of] this kind of behavior goes on and on.

WILSON: I mean, things that you really don’t want to think about too much before you go to sleep. You might have nightmares. But here’s the story about spite. If we define spite as doing harm to someone else, at the cost of harm to yourself, and that involves a surrender of some advantage or emotional reward on your part, you’ve given up in order to hurt somebody else, that might not exist.

WELLS: In nature?

WILSON: It’s very difficult to find any case in the great encyclopedia of animal aggression where it doesn’t give some advantage to the individual doing the aggression. But it’s very rare that an animal would deliberately injure itself just in order to create injury in another individual without any further gain to itself, to deliberately do that. I think spite does not exist in the animal kingdom.

WELLS: In the way that it does in humans, is that right?

WILSON: Well, let’s take humans. 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 trade off 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. For example, if you harm yourself and your reputation by vicious gossip, by manipulation, by cheating, whatever, 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 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 when suicide is intended, a lot of mass murderers are just a terrible form of suicide in which the person decides to get the satisfaction in advance of committing it, and maybe the satisfaction the person will get in striking out against something they imagine to have been their enemy and diminished them before. So, when you add that factor, maybe real spite doesn’t exist.

WELLS: So, I don’t know whether this is a relief or not. I mean, the idea that spite might not even exist seems good, but the fact that we get personal satisfaction out of hurting other people? I told Wilson that was kind of a bummer.

WILSON: That just shows you’re not a psychopath.

WELLS: I’m a total wuss.

WELLS: But here’s the upside. Spite is not the only motivation we have for being self-destructive. There’s actually another: altruism. When we hurt ourselves, we aren’t always doing it just to hurt someone else. Sometimes, we’re doing it to help.

WILSON: One of the things that makes us human is our internally conflicted nature, confliction, our ambivalence to our own selves. We are constantly wrestling with our own conscience and with a tendency to deviate from social norms in a risky way, and to do wrong, to be selfish. The contest within us, between doing the moral thing, even the heroic thing on one side and doing the selfish, perhaps even criminal thing on the other side, that contest is what gives us such a continuously conflicted nature. If we went and became completely altruistic then we would be like ants. If we went to the opposite extreme and had complete lack of constraint and it was complete individualism, then we would have chaos, we would not have order, the group would dissolve. So we have to be in the middle. This appears to be the human condition.

LEVITT: It’s funny listening to him talk about that.

That’s Steve Levitt again. He took a class with Wilson when he, Levitt, was an undergrad at Harvard; he’s very fond of the way Wilson thinks.

LEVITT: There could be no two disciplines closer than evolutionary biology and economics. They study different questions and they use different methods, but the way that evolutionary biologists think is exactly like the way that economists think. Both are very much a model of behavior, of individual behavior, and individual behavior that’s motivated by costs and benefits. The other thing is that at its heart, both economics and evolutionary biology strive for simplicity. The simplest story which can explain a set of facts is the one we gravitate to. As opposed to other disciplines. History, history is all about complexity. And, you know, literature is all about complexity. Even sociology, I think, at heart is about complexity. But economics is about simplicity.

Like E.O. Wilson, Levitt thinks that spite, true spite, may not really exist. Because that would mean that I hurt you even though I get nothing for it—nothing. And while it may seem that I get nothing, I probably get something.

LEVITT: What I would say about spite…I would say this: To know that an act is spite, you have to be inside the head of the perpetrator. Because the idea of spite is that it’s being done without benefit. But it’s interesting because one of the first premises of economics is you can never really know what other people are thinking and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Instead we focus on what they do. And so consequently, my view is, forget about what’s going on inside of other people’s heads—you’ll probably never know what it is—and focus on what they’re actually doing.

DUBNER: Do you see altruism as sort of the flip side of the coin to spite and therefore not quite real?

LEVITT: Altruism is exactly the flip side of spite in the sense that there are acts which very well could be altruistic, but equally could be done in a perfectly self-interested way. Both make you feel really good. And it feels good to help other people sometimes, and it feels so good to punish other people who have wronged you. So I think they’re both actually completely consistent with the idea of people doing the best they can.

DUBNER: And what about you personally, Levitt, do you get more satisfaction generally from helping people or punishing people?

LEVITT: I’m a lover, not a fighter. You know that, Dubner. I like to help people.

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