Since the dawn of time (or at least since the dawn of YouTube), people have been laughing out loud at the misfortune of others. ‘Fail Videos’ account for over a billion YouTube views. What is it about watching people get gravely injured that is so appealing? Why do we feel this way? What makes us enjoy the pain of others?
Schadenfreude. It is a term that comes from the German words Schaden and Freude, which respectively mean damage and joy. It basically means to take spiteful, malicious delight in the misfortune of others. We live in a society defined by competition and comparison. When you see someone fail, dopamine, an organic compound that correlates to pleasure, is released in your brain. Your psyche gets rewarded with a little boost of dopamine, and you feel superior and better off than that person.
Schadenfreude is particularly strong when the person in question is arrogant or even successful. That’s the reason we are delighted when celebrities fall from grace; it’s why the downfall of high achievers like Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong get so much attention and media coverage.
In our society, these feelings extend towards our social in-groups. The more we identify with our in-group - like our favorite sports team for example - the more susceptible we are to schadenfreude, like when a rival team loses.
Where schadenfreude becomes extremely poisonous is in the universe of politics. Schadenfreude is a feature of in-groups and out-groups in competition, and it should be no surprise that it festers in our political parties, where the victory of one side almost always means a defeat of the others. In studies on schadenfreude by the University of Kentucky, it was shown that intensity of party’s affiliation strongly predicts whether events produce schadenfreude in their members. For example, in American politics, when the Republican party missteps or one of its members commits a gaffe, Democrats report feelings of schadenfreude and vice-versa.
What complicates things is that politics influence the well-being and suffering of millions of people. The failure of your opponent group can often objectively spell bad consequences for everyone. And yet the most disturbing findings on the study of this subject show that even in these cases people report schadenfreude, as long as their opponents lose out.
Scary as that is, you can take solace in the fact that most people understand that these feelings are socially inappropriate, which is why they’re felt but not spoken about out loud. People who report feelings of schadenfreude at objectively bad news like an economic downturn hurting the opposing party are also deeply ambivalent about having that emotion, or at least they were before Donald Trump decided to run for the presidency.
One of the things which troubled me about the 2016 US presidential election was the presence of schadenfreude amongst Democrats and other opponents of Donald Trump. He seemed to free people up somehow, release them of their inhibitions. Ambivalence about schadenfreude in politics is the result of the fact that on some level we believe our opponent group is genuinely trying to help but is going about it the wrong way. Trump, on the other hand, is so cartoonish; is so nakedly self-serving that any reservation that people might have on basking in his blunders just evaporated.
Donald Trump is the perfect figure for schadenfreude. He checks every box. Arrogant, successful. Trump offered for guilt-free schadenfreude. For many, it was just as enjoyable as watching a fail compilation video of him making appalling comment after appalling comment.
At the start, when his decision to run for the presidency was seen as a joke, there seemed to be little harm in expressing schadenfreude. But it had an adverse effect as the news media considered this feeling as interest from the public and as a result, gave an enormously lop-sided media coverage to his campaign which made Trump the focus of everything. It was maybe the first time in US history that collective schadenfreude influenced a political outcome to such a large extent - and that’s not a joke at all.
What we must realize at the end of the day is that schadenfreude is a drug, a craving for which we must keep in check. Because like with any drug, a growing tolerance will eventually mean a growing desire for more of it. It is not a force which should be allowed to influence decisions in politics but it is a powerful one nonetheless, truly one to be reckoned with.