Hate is a powerful negative emotion, but a word that is easy to say. For example, many of us profess to hate public figures, such as politicians. One has only to browse social media to find declarations of hate for those in the public eye. So, is hate a hard-wired emotion in people? Medical News Today looked at the science behind why people feel hate.

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What can science tell us about hate? Image credit: Wizemark/Stocksy.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines hate as being one of the following:

  • intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or a sense of injury
  • extreme dislike or disgust
  • a systematic and especially politically exploited expression of hatred.

In a 2018 article, Prof. Agneta Fischer from the University of Amsterdam and her co-authors described hatred as “the most destructive affective phenomenon in the history of human nature.”

But do we really know what it is?

The same article lists other ways in which hatred has been described: an emotional attitude, a syndrome, a form of generalized anger, a generalized evaluation, a normative judgment, a motive to devalue others, or simply an emotion.

Speaking to Medical News Today, Lee Chambers, psychologist and founder of Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing, noted that:

“Hate is part of that range of human emotions. It is quite distinct, in that it is a longer-term emotion. It’s not an immediate, acute emotion, like anger or sadness.”

According to Dr. Rebecca Saxe, hate shares characteristics with other negative emotions, such as anger, contempt, and disgust. It differs from them in that it focuses on the innate nature, motives, and characteristics of the target.

“A hostile feeling toward another person or group that consists of malice, repugnance and willingness to harm or even annihilate the object of hatred,” she says.

Dr. Saxe regards hate as an extension of the human tendency to form groups — and for those groups to become “us,” the in-group, versus “them,” the out-group.

Within the in-group, members will coordinate and cooperate, showing altruism — behaviors that benefit others. Members of the in-group will also cooperate and show altruism towards those in the out-group, but only when resources are plentiful.

If resources are threatened, cooperation becomes confined to members of the in-group. In extreme circumstances, this parochialism — the tendency to cooperate with those in the in-group — may become active harm, or hatred, of those in the out-group.

This tendency is often exploited during war: Leaders will choose an out-group — an enemy— on which the in-group can focus their hatred.

A 2008 study looked into which areas of the brain became activated when participants viewed photographs of “hated” subjects. While in an MRI scanner, participants viewed pictures of people they professed to hate and people toward whom they had neutral feelings.

The researchers recorded which areas of the brain were activated when each image was viewed. They assessed the participants’ hatred of the subjects using a questionnaire before scanning.

When participants viewed a hated face, several areas of the brain became activated: the medial frontal gyrus, right putamen, the premotor cortex, the frontal pole, and the medial insula. The greater the reported hate, the more these areas were activated.

The researchers noted that this pattern of activation was different from that of other closely related emotions, such as fear, anger, aggression, and danger. They concluded that “though these sentiments may constitute part of the behavior that results from hatred, the neural pathways for hate are distinct.”

Chambers commented on the findings of this study: “[Hate] activated areas of the frontal cortex which were related to how you would then react […] kind of preparing you for action. Also the areas around distress, reactivity, and movement. So you were prepared to react on your hatred.”

Interestingly, the patterns for hate share two areas with the pattern for romantic love: the putamen and the insula. Could this help explain why love and hate are so closely linked?

This study noted a key difference between love and hate activation in the cerebral cortex. In love, large areas associated with judgment and reasoning are deactivated.

In hate, only a small area of the frontal cortex is deactivated, suggesting that the hater may want to exercise judgment in calculating moves to harm, injure, or otherwise exact revenge.

Another study, looking at whether members of one group derived pleasure from another group’s misfortune, found that the ventral striatum was activated during failure by members of the other group.

The ventral striatum is an area of the brain associated with reward. So negative thoughts or actions, such as hate, may lead to reward.

The dehumanization of an enemy is a common tactic in warfare. Dehumanization reduces people to the status of animals or automata, and therefore not subject to the normal moral rules.

It is a well-known method for persuading soldiers to kill indiscriminately when invading a country. By characterizing the enemy as not really human, worthy of hatred and contempt, leaders may try to justify their acts.

Hate-based violence can lead to persistent cross-generational trauma, as research has shown. Yet it may be easier to encourage hateful actions than to prevent them.

Chambers also noted that avoiding hate in war was difficult: “Maintaining a level of empathy and compassion during conflict and war has to be an intentional action. It has to become an empowered response.”

Recently, there has been a lot of focus on online hate. A 2021 review conceptualized online hate speech as “the use of violent, aggressive or offensive language, focused on a specific group of people who share a common property.” It is often racist, sexist, or homophobic in nature.

Online hate is associated with isolation — a report from the United Kingdom charity Ditch the Label found that online hate speech in the United States and the U.K. increased by 38% during lockdowns in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Worryingly, the report also observed that in both the U.S. and the U.K., reported incidents of hate crimes correlated with the increase in online hate speech.

“I do think that for some people hate can fill a void. Sometimes hate can be an easy emotion to shoehorn if you are vulnerable and find it difficult to express emotions yourself.”

– Lee Chambers

“We look at online hate and trolls […] how they feel there is a group that will protect them. They find a level of enjoyment in pushing other people’s buttons and espousing that on a platform,” he added.

“Hate is a bit like debt, it can start very small but it can compound quite quickly, and it does similar things to us that debt does. It takes away more than we think. Sometimes it’s that same disempowerment that fuels it further. It can spiral and that’s always a challenge. From a wider perspective, how do we manage that?”

– Lee Chambers

There is not a lot of consensus on hate in the research. Researchers cannot even agree on how to define it. So, how can we hope to combat it?

The American Psychological Association says that those responsible for hate crimes often show a high level of aggression and antisocial behavior, although they are rarely diagnosed as having a mental illness.

They tend to target groups about which they know little, but what they think they know about these groups they do not like. Economic factors alone rarely drive hate crime, but they can be used by leaders to marshal resentment against minority groups.

Another major driver of hate crime was threats to cultural identity, leading to prejudice against another group. Perhaps knowing more about that group might mitigate this hate.

This idea is supported by a meta-analysis of studies showing that contact between groups can reduce prejudice, which is often a precursor of hate.

Chambers advised that to mitigate hate, one must first understand it, and therein lies the problem: “Because it’s a significant issue in our society, we need to continue to understand it. We need to understand what it is and what it can become.”

However, he added some reassurance: “Many people have the capacity [to hate], but it’s less common than we might think.”