Set amidst a bitter, divisive U.S. presidential election and a steadily-growing Black Lives Matter movement, actor Jussie Smollett exploded onto center stage in early 2019 after claiming he was the target of a late-night beating at the hands two racist, homophobic Trump supporters. The former “Empire” TV star awaits sentencing after a Chicago jury found him guilty of five counts of felony disorderly conduct for staging the attack, which could mean up to three years in prison. Even as the details emerge, many are still confused as to why the 39-year-old lied about a vicious hate crime, something that remains a constant reality for those in the LGBTQ community and those who are Black or Asian.
“As humans, we like to look for certain types of explanations of behavior. It’s something that we engage in all the time,” says Rory Smead, an associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern who studies spite. “There are really only two kinds of explanations that people find satisfying. Either they did it out of some ethical or moral good, like when somebody jumps in the river to save somebody. The only other reason we find compelling is a selfish reason, that there’s some kind of personal gain or something,” Smead says.