We’ve all felt it, and it seems somehow symbolic that the Anglophone world has yet to coin a word to describe it: that nasty, mischievous delight that we take in the misfortunes of others. When politicians are caught with call girls; when aspiring pedophiles are nabbed in legally dubious sting operations; when starlets are carted off sniveling to prison instead of rehab for their overpublicized indulgences, we all (or the vast majority of us) experience that gleefully perverse sensation that only the Germans seem to have found a word for: schadenfreude.
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Why is this feeling so seductive, and so easy to be seduced by? Why is it so easy to believe, as Gore Vidal once put it, that "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail"? The delight that we take in the pain of others, like the desire for revenge, seems to be one of the most powerful motivating forces in the human psyche. Why does it have such a hold on us? Why is that hold so powerful? And is there any way to overcome it?
These are all difficult and important questions, and I'm not sure how convincingly Richard H. Smith grapples with them in his book "The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature." Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, making ample use of the more scholarly work of University of Virginia professor John E. Portmann, has written an ostensibly popular book on a difficult, knotty and ultimately disturbing subject.
Using examples as trivial as the woeful performance of William ("She Bang") Hung on American Idol, and as portentous as the Holocaust (Smith alleges that many Nazis displayed pleasure over the suffering of the Jews), Smith joins disparate elements of various disciplines in an attempt to explain, among other things, why we experience such an invigorating sense of pleasure as we witness other people going through hell.
Schadenfreude, Smith alleges, is passive, not active, that "we feel [it] only when we witness another person's suffering, not when we bring it about ourselves." This, it seems to me, is an important distinction, as it allows the person observing the downfall or humiliation of another human being to maintain their sense of their own humanity and virtue, since they are in no way responsible for the situation. Not having done anything to expedite the cause, they have the implicit right to sit back and enjoy the effect. It's rather like low-fat yogurt: all of the taste, but none of the calories.
Envy and resentment, schadenfreude's precursors, can be found not just in presumably civilized humans but in lower primates as well. Smith cites a study in which capuchin monkeys are trained in pairs and made to play a "no-fair" game.
When both received cucumber slices, both seemed satisfied. But when one received a cucumber slice and the other received a grape, the monkey receiving the cucumber became upset. The relative quality of rewards appeared as important as their presence versus their absence. As lead researcher Sarah Brosnan noted, these disadvantaged monkeys "would literally take the cucumber from me and then drop it on the ground or throw it on the ground, or when I offered it to them they would simply turn around and refuse to accept it."
These monkeys' reactions seemed to mirror what we see in ourselves when we are unfairly treated, relatively speaking: If we can't have the best, don't bother us with second best.
Humans are not demonstrably better than their primate cousins. And this sense of inequity, of having to run the race of life with one's feet in cement while others less deserving but more privileged sprint merrily past you, can lead both to envy and to that sense of glee when others, more accomplished or better connected, fall flat on their faces.
Smith posits a causal relationship between envy and schadenfreude. We're not pleased by just anyone's misfortunes, it seems, but by those of people whom we, consciously or unconsciously, perceive to be our social, financial or intellectual superiors.
Over and over, Smith cites similar studies in which participants are shown people of various abilities and/or social status, and invariably when the higher-status people fail, the participants find their downfall, as opposed to that of their inferiors, distinctly more gratifying. It is just one small step, Smith seems to contend, from enjoying the downfall of others to actively wishing for it to occur.
"Until the late fall of 2009," Smith writes, "Tiger Woods seemed to live a life approaching perfection." But while he was passing himself off in the media as a family man, he was also having multiple flings. It wasn't the mere fact of the breakup of his marriage that prompted the scorn heaped upon Woods in the media. If almost any other professional athlete had been shown to be a compulsive philanderer, the world would have most likely considered it to be, so to speak, par for the course. The massive schadenfreude attendant to Woods' misfortunes stemmed from two factors, and contrary to Smith's belief, his unparalleled excellence as a golfer had little or nothing to do with it.
The first factor, Smith contends, is the blatant hypocrisy. What the world found out in November of 2009 was that Tiger Woods' entire life was a lie; that while he was passing himself off to the public as the ideal husband and doting father, he was having extramarital affairs. Hypocrisy is always fodder for schadenfreude, particularly satisfying when it blows up in the hypocrite's face. In the case of Tiger Woods, the gullible public, having invested in the fraudulent image, had every reason to enjoy his public humiliation.
But there was a reason that Smith overlooks. As the endless parade of so-called mistresses made their way across the media landscape, one couldn't help comparing the women Woods was cheating with to the woman he was cheating on, and in most cases the contrast was startling. The resultant devaluing of Woods in the minds of the masses made the schadenfreude understandable.
The case of "To Catch a Predator" is considerably more complex. While ostensibly performing a public service (alerting the public to the presence of alleged pedophiles, notwithstanding the fact that most minors are abused not by some anonymous stranger they meet on the Web but by someone they know and trust), the show's practice was so flawed as to render it in the final analysis a form of voyeuristic pornography, or "humilitainment."
The producers of "Predator" worked with a private watchdog organization to pull off these stings. Staff members created fake, underage decoys who posted their identities in chat sessions. Early in the chats, the decoys used photos to suggest that they were underage and made false statements that their ages ranged from 12 to 15. The decoys refrained from initiating sexual content, but once this line had been crossed by a man, they vigorously began exploring sexual themes in any direction that seemed credible. The decoy would encourage a meeting. If the man agreed to meet, a site was selected, usually a suburban house, arranged by a phone call with the decoy. These men turned out to be easy marks.
What could be wrong with this? To begin with, these men were being arrested for something that both the producers of the show and the authorities knew they hadn't actually done. While the alleged predator may have thought he was chatting with a minor, in fact he was not — and the law is a matter of fact, not thought. Intent is not enough, which helps explain why, as far as I know, few if any of these bogus TV "arrests" have held up in court: It's like arresting someone for shoplifting before they've actually stuffed the merchandise down their pants and tried to leave the store.
Rather than being an example of schadenfreude, this show crossed the line to the point where the viewer is not only willing but eager for harm to come to the putative creep. It is active, not passive, and it sullies the humanity of those who watch it.
Should we be feeling the tiniest bit of schadenfreude toward Richard H. Smith and his not-entirely-successful attempt to pin down the concept of schadenfreude between hard covers? I don't think so. Though it's admittedly riddled with flaws, it's not necessarily a failure. Rather, it's an honorable attempt to explore the uncomfortable nature of man's desire to boost his self-esteem by exulting in the failures of others. That is a subject worth considering. And he does end up making the valuable point that the antonym of schadenfreude is empathy or compassion. Most of us need to remind ourselves on a regular basis of the words of Charles Chaplin's character at the end of his film "The Great Dictator":
We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. … More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
Tom Moran is a freelance writer who lives in New York.
"The Joy of Pain"
By Richard H. Smith, Oxford, 238 pages, $24.95