Why You Might Cut Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

Spite often drives punishment. The problem, researchers find, is that it’s not always worth the benefit; it often leads us into excessive self-sacrifice.

Grant H Brenner MD DFAPA
6 min readMar 7, 2024

Key points

  • Spite, rooted in contempt, is a powerful driver of human experience and behavior.
  • Theory suggests that spite may have evolutionary value, driving justice and punishment, even at a cost.
  • Spite may backfire, however, when the cost of the punishment outweighs the benefit.

Spite is a state of mind almost the opposite of compassion: While compassion is the motivation to act to reduce suffering when it is recognized, spite is the urge to act to hurt another irrespective of- despite -harm to oneself and sometimes those close to us. Self-compassion means we sometimes make sacrifices for our own good, but it’s hard to reconcile spite as an act of self-compassion. When is it worthwhle to make costly self-sacrifices, and when does spite drive us to suffer losses to no good end?

Shakespeare highlights the pivotal role of spite in human affairs with Prince Hamlet, who is hell-bent on vengeance at any and all costs upon learning of his father’s murder. Hamlet invites the…



Grant H Brenner MD DFAPA

Psychiatrist, Psychoanalyst, Entrepreneur, Writer, Speaker, Disaster Responder, Advocate, Photographer