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Understanding Hate

9 insights into hate from psychological research

Hate, it appears, sings with a different cadence throughout our lifetime. When we first learn of it, it’s foreign, formidable and forbidden, almost like a curse word. During hormone-fueled adolescence, hate suddenly becomes more accessible. Now it sounds like a pesky jingle dedicated to just about anything—from Brussel sprouts to math teachers.

All through adulthood, its catchy rhythms might linger on our screens and in our hearts. But as seasons pass, we yearn to distance ourselves from its jarring chords. Hate becomes too dissonant of an opus to endure, or in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “too great a burden to bear.”

Here are nine insights on hate from psychologist Agneta Fischer and her research on this searing emotion.

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Hate is often misunderstood

Hate involves an appraisal that a person or group is evil. While hate relates to other negative emotions, it also has some unique features, such as the motivation to eliminate the object of your hate. Revenge is often a part of hate, because the idea behind revenge is to want to hurt the person/group as much as you have been hurt by them. In daily life, the word hate is used very casually (e.g., I hate my teacher because she gave me a bad grade). People don’t usually mean that. When we ask participants to recall an experience when they felt hate, they do not usually recall these types of casual events. In fact, one of the challenges of studying hate is that most people can’t think of a time when they experienced true hate.

It seems easier to hate groups than individuals

One surprising finding from our research is that hate spreads and increases quicker if it’s directed at a group, rather than an individual. When you hate a group, the intensity of your hate can grow without you being confronted with specific persons or contrasting information from the group—you are basing your hate on stereotypes and prejudices. If you hate an individual, your hate may be countered with empathy or a reappraisal of the person when you encounter their positive side. In fact, when we asked people in conflict regions to tell us stories in which they hated someone, 80% talked about groups and not individuals.

Differences between hate, anger, and contempt

Hate vs. anger

The theoretical difference between hate and anger is that hate involves the whole individual/group, and not a particular aspect of the individual/group. You hate someone because of what they are, and you are angry at someone because of what they did. Anger, thus, can be considered more in terms of behavior. When people are angry at someone, they often have the feeling that they can control the other person. Anger, essentially, is trying to remove the obstacle posed by the other person when you want to reach a goal. You get angry when you want an apology, when you want someone to change their behavior, etc.

When there is repeated anger and nothing changes, contempt may arise. Contempt is feeling like the other person is not worth your anger. You are still angry, but you are trying to regulate your anger by looking down on the other person and putting a distance between you.

Contempt vs. hate

Contempt is the cold version of hate. Like hate, contempt is about who you are, your nature and your personality. When you feel contempt, you tend to feel that they are not even worth your attention, which I think might make it feel worse to be the object of someone’s contempt than it does to be the object of hate. With hate, you cannot be indifferent towards the person. You are more engaged, because you want to get rid of them—whether socially, mentally or physically.

Hate spreads easier than anger

Hate can spread from one generation to another much easier than anger or frustration. For example, when we asked people who had experienced a war themselves and people who had only heard about it from others’ stories, the amount of reported hate was the same for both groups. This means that not only can people hate others based on someone else’s experiences, but that hate can be as intense as if they had experienced the event themselves. This was not the case with anger, which tends to be more intense if you experience the anger-causing event firsthand.

Physiology of hate

Unlike anger, there is no physiological pattern that is characteristic of hate, because hate is a long-term experience. Someone can do something to make you immediately angry, but usually, you need more information to hate someone. In the heat of the moment, however, the arousal patterns of hate in the brain and the body may be similar to anger.

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Dealing with hate

There is a lot of confusion about hate and what it really means. If people realize that hate is something much bigger, that it includes the desire to eliminate others, maybe they will change the way they use the word. It takes emotional intelligence to discern between feelings. But it is something that can be developed. Perhaps making people understand what they are actually thinking and feeling, and why, when they say "I hate you," or disentangling the different ingredients of their negative emotions, might be helpful. For example, you could say, “I know you are saying I hate you, which means that there is nothing positive that you can detect about this person or group, nothing that you have in common. Is this really true?”

I think it’s better not to let your emotions reach the level of hate, and to start working on them while you are still angry. If it doesn’t work, consider whether you still want that relationship.

Hate can dissolve over time if the hated individual/group leaves your life, changes completely, or if you can work on changing the way you think about them. But don’t count on it happening from one day to another. One needs to work on the disappearance of hate, like one has to work on maintaining love.

Many thanks to Agneta Fischer for her time and insights. Fischer is a professor in Emotions and Affective Processes in the Social Psychology department at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Dean of the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

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