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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why Would Anyone Cut Off Their Nose to Spite Their Face?

Have you ever wondered what lies behind the phrase, "Don't cut off your nose to spite your face"? It isn't for certain, but it likely has its roots in medieval Europe when nuns would disfigure their face so they wouldn't be raped by barbarian invaders who often raided monasteries and convents. As Stephen Dubner notes, "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 to prevent this from happening, apparently some literally cut off their noses to spite their face:
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.
This is the topic of a recent rebroadcast of a previous Freakonomics podcast ("“What Do Medieval Nuns and Bo Jackson Have in Common?"). As the podcast's title suggests, the podcast covers is about more than medieval nuns. It explores the nature of spite: why people do it when the costs are often higher than the rewards (or at least at first glance it appears that way). It includes insights from game theory and a very interesting segment on Bo Jackson, who (apparently out of spite) signed with the Kansas City Royals Professional Baseball Club for $1 million instead of with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers for $7.66 million.

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