Why Do We Love to Hate?

Hate is often considered to be a negative emotion. So why are we drawn to it?

Posted Feb 12, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

Disclaimer: I don't claim that what I say is totally "true," because the truth is elusive in this complicated world. Rather, I'm offering some ideas to help perceive the world, others, and ourselves in a manner that opens pathways for change and growth.

Drazen Zigic/iStock
Source: Drazen Zigic/iStock

One of my favorite sayings is, "Hatred is the poison we drink hoping the other person will die." There are other versions of this, replacing "hatred" with "resentment" or "anger" or "holding onto anger." The origins of this bit of wisdom are murky but might have been inspired by the writings of a 5th-century Buddhist monk, Buddhaghosa. In discussing anger, he said, "By doing this you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink." (Visuddhimagga, IX, 23.)

There is truth to this sentiment regardless of who originally said it, yet it cannot be absolutely true because this complicated world does not work in a dualistic, all-or-nothing way. One can always think of exceptions and create straw man arguments (e.g., "Oh, yeah? We hated Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and we used hate to defeat them!"). 

Still, most of us consider feelings such as anger, resentment, and hatred to be negative emotions. We all want to be happy in life and don't want to suffer. We can't be happy when we are filled with feelings such as anger, hatred, and resentment... right?

So why do we seem to be curiously drawn to hating others? In fact, if you look at the media headlines on both the right and the left, we seem to love to hate. Why is this so?

The Purpose of Emotions

Emotions evolved for a reason. They are mental shortcuts that, in general, move us toward things that are good for us (e.g., caring relationships, pleasurable experiences) and away from things that are bad for us (e.g., mistreatment by others, rattlesnakes). In this sense, negative emotions such as anger, resentment, and hatred are not inherently bad. Indeed, they are often useful. If they were not, we would not have evolved to experience them!

For instance, hate can motivate us to avoid or defeat others who could threaten our well-being or that of our family or tribe. Evolution and natural selection are about the survival of the fittest, not loving our enemies. We can't pass on our genes if we meet an untimely death at the hands of an assailant. 

Tribalism and Evolutionary Mismatch

The problem is that we live in a world that is very discrepant from that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This evolutionary mismatch likely contributes to many of the societal problems that we see today. We perceive "enemies" and threats to the well-being of ourselves, our family, and our tribe in forms that would make no sense to our ancestors. Issues such as gun rights, taxation levels, abortion rights, immigration and healthcare reform, and climate change are incomprehensible from an evolutionary standpoint. Yet, arguments over such issues have contributed to the rise in political sectarianism and negative partisanship. At this point, substantive disagreements over issues take a backseat to "us" versus "them" sentiments. 

"Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody's power and is not easy." —Aristotle

How Hate Hurts Us

Evolutionarily, feelings such as anger and hate motivated our ancestors into immediate action to deal with perceived threats. Our autonomic nervous system would be activated and the "fight-flight-freeze" instinct would kick in. For feelings of anger and hate, this would likely involve more of the "fight" aspect. However, in this evolutionarily-mismatched, modern world, perceived threats to our well-being are plentiful and come in forms that would be totally foreign to our ancestors.

The media feeds us a constant stream of threats from those "others" because we can't help ourselves but be drawn to it. As described in books like Hate, Inc., many media outlets on both the right and left profit from fomenting hate so they continue to do so. The internet and social media also make it all too easy to access information that keeps us seething. 

However, we did not evolve to stewing in such feelings so constantly. Being in a chronic state of stress is literally unhealthy for us both physically and psychologically. As a result, we can suffer from a host of negative health outcomes such as increased inflammation, heart disease, a weakened immune system, gastrointestinal problems, depression, and anxiety. This is the poison we drink hoping the other person will die. Alternatively, we might view hate as the candy that everybody wants. 

Why Hate Sometimes Feels Good

"If lust and hate is the candy, If blood and love taste so sweet, Then we... We give'm what they want." —from the song, Candy Everybody Wants, from the group 10,000 Maniacs

We are drawn to hate because it can feel good. It feels good because it reinforces the tribal connections that, historically, were essential for our survival. Being cast out from a tribe could mean death, so our ancestors were highly motivated to maintain their tribal allegiances. 

Thus, although hate might have some negativity associated with it, such negative feelings are largely offset by the positive feelings associated with increasing our tribal connections. This is why misery loves company. Our hatred shared with ingroup members is transformed from misery to intoxicating, righteous anger. It's also why heated sports rivalries, even ones that turn hateful, can feel so good... especially when our beloved team defeats our hated rival!  

It's interesting that Buddhists might have inspired the wisdom of, "Hate (or anger) is the poison we drink hoping the other person will die." I suspect that Buddhists, because of their practice, rarely experience the positive feelings that are derived from ingroup hatred of an outgroup. I mean, can you imagine a group of Buddhist "face-painter" fans screaming vulgarities at their rivals during an intense hockey match? 

The Takeaway?

The media is both a mirror and a lens. It both reflects and magnifies our inherent attractions to tribalism, anger, and hatred. As Natalie Merchant from 10,000 Maniacs sings, the media provides the candy that everybody wants. However, like eating too much candy, the rising levels of anger and hate that we are seeing are unhealthy for us as individuals and as a society. Until we realize this, we will continue to consume this candy oblivious to our own slow suffering. Importantly, this does not mean we all sing "kumbaya" and give up on addressing very real problems we have in our society. It means that we need to find ways to transcend the anger and hate because the amount of candy we are consuming is making us sick.