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Why We Hate
In an era of suicide bombers and mass murder in the name of God, a Yale psychologist seeks to explain how human beings can hate each other enough to kill.

She says she’s just going on holiday. But one of the guards suspects she’s a Jew, and this is Austria in August 1938. It’s his duty to throw people like her off the train. The girl, 17, is nervous, but the other guard seems to buy her holiday story, and she beams up at him hopefully. “Look,” he says to the first, “she has blue eyes. She can’t be a Jew.” They let her pass into Holland. Except for her father, who will flee Austria within the month, the rest of her family will not be so lucky. All will perish in Hitler’s “final solution.”

Those eyes are the reason Robert Sternberg exists. The girl with blue eyes, who married an American in December of 1944, became his mother. Sternberg, Yale’s IBM Professor of Psychology and Education, has spent decades studying the qualities people want to believe make us most human: wisdom, love, creativity. But in 1999, partly because of his family history, he began a study of hate—one of the first, and most comprehensive, in the field of psychology.

“Look around. The world is full of hate.”

Sternberg was also motivated by reading Philip Gourevitch’s book on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. And he was motivated by a statistic. A 1987 study showed that IQs are rising worldwide, as much as three points per decade on average. “We’re getting smarter,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean we’re becoming better people.” In the 36,525 days of the twentieth century, 100 million to 160 million civilians lost their lives in massacres. That’s an average of more than 3,000 innocent deaths per day, and the pace has not slackened in the new millennium. Statistically speaking, September 11 was an ordinary day.

“Look around. The world is full of hate. There are dozens of groups now locked in perpetual hatred,” says C. Fred Alford, a University of Maryland political psychologist. “It’s not that they can’t get out. It’s that no one wants to get out.” Says Sternberg: “No problem facing psychologists today is of more importance.”

Until now, psychologists have rarely studied hate. A recent survey of psychology texts found “Love” as an index term in all of them, “Hate” as an index term in none. Freud described Thanatos, our drive toward death; but “the mark of Thanatos is that it hardly cares whose death: yours, mine, ours—they are all the same,” says Alford. Thanatos cannot explain the precise, fixed focus of hatred.

Post-9/11, there’s an urge to understand the time of terror we live in. “There’s much more talk in the journals and on the listservs about hate,” says Peter Salovey, a psychologist and the dean of Yale College. “People are trying to make sense out of things like 9/11 and to explain the behavior of American troops in the prison in Baghdad, with psychologists very much believing that the 'few bad apples' theory misses the point.”

Hate is difficult to target with academic rigor. Yale psychology professor Geoffrey Cohen, who studies prejudice, notes that “hate’s hard to study with the population that university professors have access to.” But Sternberg has laid out his ideas in a paper he published last year in the Review of General Psychology, “A Duplex Theory of Hate: Development and Application to Terrorism, Massacres, and Genocide.” As he and Karin Weis, a graduate student, test his theory over the next year, they will start by having subjects role-play hate, putting themselves in the roles of characters in stories.

“I’m not sure hate is just one emotion.”

Salovey brings up another complicating factor: “I’m not sure hate is just one emotion,” he says. Indeed, the idea that hatred has many shades was Sternberg’s starting point. In his paper, Sternberg lays out a taxonomy of hatred. Despite the political focus of his title, he is seeking to describe all hatred, from the hate the Klan feels for “non-Aryans” to the hate a divorcee feels for her ex. He sees three components to hate; we may feel one or more sides of this triangle in any combination.

One side of the triangle is passion: an impulsive rage, an excitement of our fear or anger, our fight-or-flight instinct. Passion by itself Sternberg calls “Hot Hate.” This was what Lee Samples felt in July 1995 when he got into an angry game of bumper tag with Richard Munkachy outside Larkspur, Colorado. Munkachy cut him off on Interstate 25, so Samples gunned his engine and returned the favor. The two started swerving toward each other, at speeds up to 85 mph, until their cars collided and Munkachy’s ricocheted off a concrete barrier. He was thrown from his car and killed.

Another side is what Sternberg calls negation of intimacy—visceral disgust, the desire to get away rather than close. Passing a beggar who smells of urine, some might feel a gut-level repulsion—“a possibility of contamination, a 'yuck' reaction,” says Sternberg. He calls this “Cool Hate.”

The third side is commitment to hatred, a cognitive stance that permanently devalues the hated. Commitment alone is “Cold Hate.” For this, Sternberg cites the hatred people feel when they’ve been conditioned into prejudice, as the youth of Germany were after Hitler’s rise. Many had never met a Jew, but thanks to comic books crafted to portray Jews as wicked, they harbored a cold, cognitive hatred. Sternberg notes that, post-9/11, some Americans feel cold hate for Muslims—not an emotion so much as an entrenched intellectual devaluation.

Two sides of the triangle can combine for a stronger hate. Say that urine-soaked homeless person reaches out to grab you. Your passion flares and combines with your disgust, for what Sternberg calls “Boiling Hate.” Likewise, someone with an intellectual belief in the worthlessness of Muslims might add rage to his cognitive hate if a Muslim insulted him on the street. This combination Sternberg calls “Seething Hate.” Another example is the revilement US militia groups express for the all-dominating World Government.

With negation of intimacy plus commitment to hate, “there is no particular passion,” Sternberg writes, just a “Simmering Hate”: “Ruthless, calculated assassinations often take this form, as Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President Kennedy apparently [did].”

Burning hate is “the hate you feel when ‘it’s us or them.’”

Then there’s complete hate, the hate of all hates—“Burning Hate,” made of rage, disgust, and commitment together. This was the hatred that broke Fannie Lou Hamer’s bones in 1963, when she was beaten after trying to register to vote in Mississippi. “They just kept beating me and telling me, ‘You nigger bitch, we’re gonna make you wish you were dead.’”

Burning hate is “the need for annihilation,” Sternberg writes. It’s “the hate you feel when ‘it’s us or them.’” It is the hate Hutu leaders felt for Tutsis, the hate some Americans feel for terrorists, the hate terrorists feel for Americans. This hate fills the news. This hate destroys nations.

Think of someone you dislike, and the story of what he did to you leaps to your mind. In the second part of his duplex theory, Sternberg proposes that we cannot hate without a tale to tell: after all, it was Iago’s stories that bred Othello’s ire. The account of one beheading in Iraq is far more powerful than any casualty statistic, however high. Humans hate in narrative.

Applied to other phenomena, the importance of story is well established in psychology. “Narrative is a fundamental aspect of human cognition,” says Salovey, who has defined personal identity as “a set of stories about ourselves that we repeat to ourselves.” In fact, story-based thinking and feeling may be what primarily distinguishes us from all other animals (see sidebar).

We are particularly attached to our hate stories.

We are particularly attached to our hate stories, says Maryland’s Alford. Alford, who has written a chapter for The Psychology of Hate, edited by Sternberg and due out from Yale University Press next year, has studied hatred among murderers in prison populations. “Frequently these [hate] narratives are expressed in an almost loving recitation of harms suffered” by the killers at the hands of those they killed, he writes. “But one learns much the same thing from reading the stories that groups and nations tell about their origins,” such as the narrative of a Greater Serbia corrupted by Bosnians.

In fact, Alford attests, “The history of one’s hatreds constitutes the single most important, most comprehensible, and most stable sense of identity for many people and more than one nation.” To the ego, hatred is seductive, a “self-chosen bondage to another … serving to structure the psyche.” Love can bring true attachment and meaning; hatred is a “cheap imitation of love.” The reason we need to be given meaning in the first place, Alford thinks, is that at the core of every human heart lives a crushing sense of dread. To that dread, hatred sings its siren song. “Hatred makes hopelessness meaningful, and so bearable,” says Alford. “You, my enemy, are going to become the coffin for my feelings.”

This personal, existential approach runs counter to a tradition of social psychology that has studied evil acts, if not hatred directly. In his famous experiments at Yale in the 1960s, Stanley Milgram tested how far his subjects were willing to go when a doctor or other figure of authority instructed them to administer electric shocks to other subjects (actually actors). He found that the great majority of people will, under orders, deliver extreme levels of electric shock to an innocent victim. In 1971, Philip Zimbardo '55, '59PhD recreated a prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology department and designated well-screened, mentally healthy male subjects randomly as guards and prisoners. The study had to be stopped after only six days because the guards were beginning to abuse the prisoners. “The social cues of a military-style uniform for the guards and feminizing gowns for the prisoners were part of an anonymity-inducing, dehumanizing process,” Zimbardo says. He believes his study and Milgram’s show that hate doesn’t necessarily come before violence. A properly constructed environment is all most humans need in order to commit acts of evil. And then, after violence begins, hate can enter. After six days, Zimbardo’s guards started hating their prisoners. They were using many of the same hate stories Nazis used against the Jews: they smell. They’re dirty. Subhuman.

Drawing largely on Nazi and other institutional hate propaganda, Sternberg analyzed dozens of story paradigms that lead to hate. Often he found attempts to inspire a specific side of the triangle. There is, for instance, “the stranger story … One Nazi propaganda poster shows a Jew . with a grossly asymmetrical face, with a twisted lip and a double chin. No one can look at this poster and identify with the individual depicted.” The image tells the story that Jews are fundamentally alien, and it breeds disgust, the negation of intimacy.

“People who do evil things see themselves as the victims of those they persecute.”

For the “controller story,” Sternberg cites a Nazi poster that shows Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin “dancing with each other gaily and laughing together, while an evil Jew . is embracing them from above and controlling them like puppets.” This story might inspire a commitment to hate the domineering enemy. The “enemy of God story” serves the same purpose. For this, Sternberg quotes a Hutu pastor who told the Tutsi residents of his town, “You must be eliminated. God no longer wants you.”

Whether international or interpersonal, hate stories are generally built on two fundamental flaws. The first is a confusion of aggressor and victim. The Nazis who packed women and children into train cars like cattle believed these same Jews were out to exterminate them. Othello, even as he kills Desdemona, feels she has wronged him. “Stories of hate tend to have two fairly stable roles,” Sternberg writes: “perpetrator (who is to be hated) and victim (who is to be the hater) … People who do evil things tend to see themselves as the victims of those they persecute.”

The second flaw is that the hate stories are factually wrong. Desdemona was innocent. Sternberg’s mother did not have control over FDR. Yale political science professor Donald Green, who studies hate crimes such as lynching and gay bashing, comments that these violent hatreds usually rest on “the romanticization of homogeneity”: those who hate may harbor a nostalgic image of some time in the past when all was pure. But that perfect past, like the mono-ethnic Greater Serbia for which Bosnian villages were “cleansed,” never really existed.

Sternberg began work on his theory at a time when most U.S. citizens thought of institutional hatred as something in other countries or in the past. Now the United States is fighting a war framed by hatred, a war, President Bush says, that will last for generations. It is a war many people see in absolutes: “You’re either with us or against us.”

Wisdom is a primary antidote to hatred.

This all-or-nothing attitude, Sternberg argues, is a mistake. “The way certain countries”—including, but not limited to, the United States—“are reacting to combat hate is actually creating much more of it,” he says. His view is not, or not exclusively, a political stance; it’s a psychological one. Long before the war on terror began, Sternberg had identified a primary antidote to hatred: wisdom. This he defined as a striving “towards the common good through balancing one’s own, others', and institutional interests over the long and short terms … a good that transcends just the groups of which one is a member.” He and his collaborators have even created a curriculum for developing wisdom-related thinking, which can be infused into the teaching of American history at the middle-school level.

But wisdom is not widespread today, he says. “Schools emphasize the teaching of facts rather than how to use these facts wisely in everyday life.” And perhaps one consequence is that people all over the world are clinging to their own stories of victimhood: terrorists hate Americans for their freedoms. Infidels polluted the holy land of Islam. Israelis must defend themselves from Palestinians who want to drive them into the sea. Palestinians must defend themselves from Israelis who want to drive them into the sea.

Wisdom, by Sternberg’s definition, would acknowledge the perspectives of Palestinians and Israelis, ethnic Chechens and ethnic Russians, and would hear, calmly, the stories of Americans and Islamic fundamentalists—yes, even of terrorists—in order to “help them reach a common good for all stakeholders that is respectful of and takes into account the interests and values they hold.” But these routes are closed to us, because, he says, “we’re having a problem in today’s world with people in various governments, who, rather than listening and trying to understand other peoples, insist that their reality is the only reality and that anyone who doesn’t see it that way is misguided and unworthy of serving as a partner in negotiation.”

It’s a controversial position, not least because balance and deep understanding are enormous things to ask of those who have sustained violent attacks and terrible losses. Sternberg responds that hate is not only impractical—“acting with hate will not be a constructive response to any problem”—but also damaging to the psyche of the hater. His own mother, Lillian Weingast, is the first to agree. Despite the loss of almost her entire family in the Nazi genocide, she says, “I still taught my children not to hate.”  the end




Can Chimps Hate?

Chimpanzees feel fear, anger, and affection. But Daniel Povinelli '91PhD, Director of the Cognitive Evolution Center at the University of Louisiana, believes human emotions are fundamentally different from emotions felt by other animals, and that the difference is because humans think in stories.

It used to be assumed that chimpanzees have the mental capacities of young children, so Povinelli decided to pit one against the other in a battery of experiments. In one experiment, he trained both preschool children and chimps to walk up and gesture to one of two human adults sitting in the lab. If they did, they'd get a treat. Then he put a strip of cloth over one adult’s eyes and another over the second adult’s mouth, so only one of the two could see. Human children went straight for the person with the cloth over her mouth. Chimps went equally to both adults.

“Chimps and humans both have a 'what' system of cognition,” Povinelli explains, “but only humans have a 'why' system in addition, a system of thinking about causation.” Even before testing, the human children understood why people see. The chimps, our closest living relatives, didn’t. Povinelli believes this is because “humans can make concepts about things that are inherently unobservable,” such as sight or gravity. No other animals can.

Many primate researchers find Povinelli’s theory controversial, though he has amassed data over hundreds of similar experiments. Even more controversial, perhaps, is his explanation of why human beings alone have a “why”: we have language and animals don’t. “There’s a good chance that in evolving natural language, we evolved explanations and stories,” Povinelli argues. “We can talk about inner mental states in other people, and in ourselves. All causal accounts are narrative, and our narratives drive us to deeper causal accounts about the world—about God, about science, about ghosts. Chimps don’t do this at all. They know that things fall, but they don’t have the ability to ask why they fall.”

To Povinelli, it makes perfect sense that humans hate—and love and fear and think—in stories, because we are wired to look always for causation. Chimps' “hate” is different. “Chimps will react to aggression, and they can even kill one another when they patrol their territories, but it’s hard to imagine how they could ever perpetuate these emotions over time, because they have no stories,” Povinelli says. “Chimps don’t engage in revenge killing, they don’t torture one another, because the only satisfaction in torture requires knowing the internal state of someone else’s mind. And, without stories to sustain anger over generations, they certainly don’t engage in wars based on stories of wrongs done hundreds of years ago.”

Povinelli’s findings mean that we are wired to think in stories, not that we are wired to hate, cautions Sternberg. “Although the ability to form narratives may be, at some level, biological, the contents of these stories are certainly socialized,” he says. “We are not born to think of people as vermin.”


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