Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What Is Hate and Where Does It Live in the Brain?

The brain evolved a unique hate circuit.

Key points

  • Hate emerges in the presence of moral violations particularly when the targets of hatred are perceived as bad, immoral, and dangerous.
  • A recent fMRI study showed a unique pattern of activity in the brain that has been termed the hate circuit.
  • The hate circuit involves three main brain region: the insular cortex, putamen, and left superior frontal gyrus.

Lately, hate has often been on full display during the evening news as well as on social networks. During a recent rally supporting former President Trump, a 40-year-old male devotee was asked by a reporter who he hates. He quickly listed some famous Democrats whose behavior he found “disgusting.” When asked how far he was prepared to take his hatred, he recalled a story when he told his Democratic sister that if there was ever a civil war in the country, he would not hesitate to kill her. For many years, scientists have been trying to discover where in the brain something so terrible could originate.

Commentary on the nature of hate may have begun with Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E), who believed that “hate rises without previous offense, is remorseless for the person experiencing it, incurable by time, and strives for the annihilation of its target.” Darwin, in 1872, described hate as a feeling that lacks a distinct facial expression and manifests itself as rage. Typically, hate is viewed as an extreme form of dislike, an amplified version of anger, disgust, or contempt and a readiness to do harm. Psychologists believe that hate is most likely to emerge in the presence of moral violations particularly when the targets of hatred are perceived as bad, immoral, and dangerous. It is not surprising, therefore, that politicians frequently vilify their opponents using negative terms.

Psychological studies have found that people feel more emotionally aroused, personally threatened, and inclined toward attack when experiencing hate as compared with disgust, contempt, anger, and dislike. People also report that hate feels more intense and durable than dislike, anger, and contempt. Hate between groups can also be intense but is typically based less on past one-on-one interactions, but rather on differences in beliefs such as one’s association with a political party.

In studies that compared hate with other emotions, disgust shared the most commonalities with hate. Hate was not significantly different from disgust in terms of intensity and duration. It is interesting, therefore, that the man at the Trump rally used the word “disgust” to describe his feelings for specific Democratic individuals.

The Brain’s Hate Circuit.

A recent fMRI study scanned normal human subjects while they viewed the face of a person they hated. For comparison, they also viewed faces of acquaintances for whom they had neutral feelings. The study discovered a unique pattern of activity in the brain that has been termed the hate circuit. The insular cortex, putamen, and left superior frontal gyrus are the main components of the hate circuit. These three brain regions showed a specific type of activation when individuals viewed pictures of people who they hate. Interestingly, these same three brain regions also reacted when the subject viewed a person they once loved but had recently been rejected by!

Hopefully, these studies may one day help us understand the roots of conflict as well as the ways in which destructive conflicts between people and groups might be effectively reduced.

References

Martínez CA et al (2022) Hate: Toward understanding its distinctive features across interpersonal and intergroup targets. Emotion, 22: 46–63ISSN: 1528-3542 https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0001056

Pilkington E. (2018). Feel the love, feel the hate—my week in the cauldron of Trump’s wild rallies. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/01/trump-rallies-america-m….

Zeki S, Romaya JP (2008) Neural correlates of hate, PLOS ONE 3 (10)

advertisement