sphinx nose
Thanks asterix.com. I didn’t get this image from you (I found it on Google) – but you seem to be the right people to credit.

The origin of the phrase “cutting off your nose to spite your face” is (ironically) found in the lives of the saints. Specifically: ancient Christian nuns. And in particular: St Ebba the Younger of Coldingham.

St Ebba was the abbess of a convent during the 9th Century, when England was frequently attacked by barbarians (Danish pirates AKA the Vikings). Barbarians, as it turns out, felt especial entitlement to the ravaging of monasteries and the ravishing of virgins. This heady combination left holy sisters in a highly vulnerable space – especially as the belief at the time was that a violation of one’s chastity vow, voluntary or otherwise, was an automatic exclusion from the Kingdom of Heaven. St Ebba and her spiritual daughters achieved sainthood when they gathered together in advance of an attack, and used razors to slice off their noses and upper lips. The Vikings were so aghast at the spectacle that they ran away. Then in rage, they returned and torched the convent and its inhabitants, crowning St Ebba and the sisters with the crown of holy martyrdom.

Strangely, the “spite” in this story is applied to the nuns for their self-mutiliation and not to the barbarians who burned a convent alive because they didn’t get the raping spree that they felt they were due.

But history, amirite?

The reason I bring this up is this podcast from Freakonomics Radio: What Do Medieval Nuns and Bo Jackson Have In Common? And the interesting part was the social experiments, but before I get to them:

What Is Spite?

Stephen Dubner and Steve Levitt spend a fair amount of time floating around this problem of a definition, and trying to separate it from “revenge”. Basically, where they end up:

“Spite is 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.”

Which seems a totally boring definition for such an interesting vice. I’d prefer that old folk tale about a genie who offers to grant a man any wish, with the caveat that his (hated) neighbour will get double whatever he wishes for. And that man says “I wish for you to put out one of my eyes.” But anyway.

At this point, the two Steves move off in a direction that sounds a lot like:

  1. But, you know, we’re not considering the fact that there are other benefits at play here.
  2. Like there’s the emotional benefit of seeing your neighbour put down.
  3. Forget homo economicus – we’re homo rivalis.
  4. It’s not about how much you get, it’s about getting more than the other guy.
  5. So when we’re looking at this – we’re looking at it all wrong.
  6. We just don’t appreciate what the benefits are in the mind of the person that we see as “spiteful”.
  7. And if there is an emotional benefit that outweights the physical cost, then spite doesn’t really exist…


Uh no.

That’s not particularly helpful. Saying “Spite doesn’t exist because the person that’s doing it gets such an emotional kick out of watching you suffer that it outweighs any cost to them” does not exactly fill one with comfort.

Also, I think spite quite clearly exists. You can be relative all you like – but actually, we can be objective here. When you look at a spiteful situation, like the genie situation, it is objectively clear that the man could have unlimited wealth and happiness. But he chooses to forgo all of that in favour of blinding someone that he hates. There is a near-sightedness to the decision-making that shows the decision to be far from rational.

But I’m getting distracted. Back to the experiments.

Experiment Number 1: The Ultimatum Game

The game works as follows:

  1. Two players must decide how to divide a sum of money between them.
  2. Player 1 gets to decide the split.
  3. Player 2 gets to either accept or reject the split.
  4. If Player 2 rejects the split, then both players leave with nothing.

An example:

  1. The sum of money is $100.
  2. Player 1 decides on a 50:50 split.
  3. Player 2 accepts.
  4. Both players leave with $50 each.

Another example:

  1. Same sum of money.
  2. Player 1 decides on a 90:10 split.
  3. Player 2 rejects.
  4. Both players leave with nothing.

In that second example, the real question is: why did player 2 reject the split?

After all, he could have had $10. Which is $10 more than he had before. Only he decides not to take that $10 in order to force someone that he doesn’t know to not have $90.

In practice, here’s what happens:

  1. Anything less than an 80:20 split usually gets rejected.
  2. However, if the decision is delayed, then people reject the “unfair” split less often.

But this experiment is not all that clean. Despite what it suggests, there is still the possibility that some notion of social justice, of a desire for equality, is getting in the way. What we need is an experiment that really cuts Player 2 out of the equation – because Player 2 may have some sense of being “socially-wronged”.

Experiment 2: The Pure Spite Experiment

Benedikt Herrmann is an economist that has devoted much time to the topic of spite in experimental economics. He has played with the Ultimatum Game rules to produce the following variant:

  1. Players 1 and Player 2 are both given $100.
  2. But Player 1 is given the option of surrendering $10 of his allocation in exchange for destroying $50 of Player 2’s allocation.

The results?

About 10% of the subjects routinely took Mr Herrmann up on his offer.

Herrmann calls these individuals “difference maximisers”.

I would call them “mean ass sons of bitches”.

But perhaps that’s just me.

When you extrapolate that out: 10% of our population have the tendency to create conflict and cause chaos for no reason other than being excited to see suffering happen.

The One Consolation

As Steve Levitt points out, this did take place in a lab, where Player 2 was faceless. In the real world, there is more social convention and Player 2 is has a face, which could appeal to the humanity of this 10%? I guess?

But really though?

The alternative viewpoint: this experiment took place in a lab where the test subjects knew that they were being watched – and in particular, they knew that their individual reactions were being watched.

What happens when you take those same subjects and insert them into a mob or a faction, where personal responsibility gets lost in the cause of the group as a whole?


Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.