The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature 3/4

Richard H. Smith

Part 2.

6/ Justice Gets Personal

  • Cultural norms allow us to have righteous pleasure from the judgement of deservingness. Biases can heighten this pleasure even further.

  • We grow up believing in the fair world: people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Believing otherwise increases anxiety and demotivates people by severing the link between action and consequences.

  • Belief in a just world is a dangerous bias: it naturally follows that unfortunate innocent people who suffer somehow have deserved it. [MK: if you see the analogy with the also incorrect belief that poor people are lazy, welcome to the club.]

  • Schadenfreude here is exposed in two ways: if there’s an “objective” reason to blame people for their misfortunes, it’s socially acceptable not to hide the emotions. Think of drunk driving or a broker making bad loans. Blame can also work backwards: knowing only about the misfortune, people tend to make up the stories about others leading to the poor outcomes. (“What have they done to deserve this?”)

  • People who have wronged us deserve a harsher punishment than if they had wronged someone else, even close to us. And if anything happens to them – surely, it’s deserved. [MK: there’s a deeply ingrained belief in the Russian culture that if someone behaves poorly, they will inevitably be put in place for their actions by someone, not necessarily the victim. But justice will prevail for sure.]

  • Revenge is delivered directly or indirectly. Its main point is to make the person suffer (vs the motivation for justice, which is to right the wrong). Psychologically it’s hard to separate the two.

  • Vengeful urges are instinctual: acting vengefully in response to harm usually serves as a powerful deterrent against future harm. It’s a corrective action and in the past (“eye for an eye”) served as redressing a wrong.

  • In literature and culture revenge has a bad rap because it’s portrayed in extreme and pathological ways. Not all wrongs justify killing the offender (at least, in the 21st century), but many movies don’t fail to deliver a gore picture of a gun justice. There’s a bit of truth to it: personal revenge tends to exceed the extent of the damage done.

  • Vengeance probably is the most powerful human passion, often at the expense of self-preservation. At the same time, in the “civilized” societies we can’t take revenge ourselves, there’s a legal system and a due process for this. Taking justice into one’s own hands is illegal in most cases.

  • But does revenge bring peace to the punisher? Not necessarily: it’s common to experience remorse over the punishment of other people, even if they’re guilty. Taking revenge may make the punisher lose their high moral ground, so it won’t be so sweet anymore.

  • Being the punisher is not as guilt-free as being the observer of someone being punished: in this case, there’s little remorse and a lot of guilt-free joy.

  • Schadenfreude is passive, not active: we experience it when someone else brings about the justice.

7/ Humilitainment

  • Humiliation is one of the worst things a human can experience, as it publicly destroys the person’s self and their social status.

  • But there’s no shortage of TV shows where contestants either humiliate themselves or get humiliated by the organisers for the purpose of provoking strong emotions from the audience. Since the contestants choose to participate (as opposed to the hidden camera-style videos), this is all fair and square.

  • When watching programs like “To Catch a Predator” (closed in 2008, but still) viewers would’ve taken justice in their own hands had the person been in front of them. Public executions are the thing of the past, but public humiliation (and further incarceration in the case of this program) is the next best thing. Again, it’s pure joy without social consequences.

  • Why do people watch reality TV? Two major reasons: status (a desire for “prestige” with the associated joy of “self-importance”) and vengeance (a desire to “get even” with the associated joy of “vindication”).

  • The Puritans believed that punishment was supposed to be humiliating, hence it was delivered via stocks and pillories rather than imprisonment. Others made fun of the punished ones by throwing things at them (usually – their faces); this was schadenfreude in full swing.

  • Public humiliation affects not just the subject, but also their families, friends, and places of work. It’s an often-overlooked harmful second order effect.

  • One closing remark: the behaviour of people in preparation for or during these shows is somehow affected by the producers; we don’t know for sure if the people would’ve acted in a way that leads to their demise or humiliation had the producers not been involved. There’s quite a close possibility that at least some of the punishable behaviour is provoked.

8/ There’s Something About Envy

  • MK: this is a controversial topic, and many people (including myself) would argue that they don’t feel this emotion too often or at all or are good at suppressing it. Pick your side.

  • Envy is a universal human emotion. Social comparisons matter, as evidenced by the ever presence of envy.

  • Envy is consistently activated in different parts of the brain and consists of the following activities:

  • Another person is evaluated by the amygdala.

  • The ACC (anterior cingulate cortex) is looking for differences between ourselves and another (superior) person.

  • The mPFC (medial prefrontal cortex) analyses what things we desire and another person possesses, and what should be done about it.

  • Envy thrives best in competitive circumstances; the more we value something – the higher value another person’s misfortune brings. (An added bonus is that a misfortune eliminates envy, as there’s nothing to envy anymore.)

  • Envy and pleasure of seeing the envied person suffer are interlinked in the brain: envy (itself a painful emotion) triggers the pleasure (the reward).

  • An essential feature of envy is hostility towards the object (the one being envied). Discontent towards the object’s superiority is not enough. [MK: I guess the opposite is not true: hostility doesn’t always come with envy.]

  • Hostility works in a mysterious way: people feeling envy are willing to take a loss themselves as long as the object suffers to the same or greater relative degree. [MK: in other circumstances I would’ve called it “self-sacrifice”.] Same as with revenge, getting even with the envied is not enough.

  • We envy people who are similar than us, except that they have something we want but lack. There’s this painful discrepancy of being able to visualize the possession and not being able to obtain it; said discrepancy happily gives way to schadenfreude if the person possessing the feature or the object suffers.

  • Some people (e.g., Martha Stewart) are consciously lending themselves to others’ envy and accept schadenfreude as part of the deal. Too much competence becomes a handicap but offering an imperfection for everyone to see allows displaying a slightly vulnerable human side and become even more likeable.

  • Without a doubt, flaunting luxury items lends itself to envy. Showing off has a low threshold of going unpunished.

  • Likeable people still get their (smaller, though) share of schadenfreude directed at them. Likability itself is an enviable trait and it doesn’t make the success of its owner less enviable by others.

Part 4.