Bad things should happen to bad people!

We feel better when politicians, athletes and others we despise fail — and celebrating that helps makes us human

Topics: Books, Editor's Picks, Republicans, Rush Limbaugh, John McCain, Duke, Kentucky basketball,

Bad things should happen to bad people!Rush Limbaugh (Credit: AP/Jeff Chiu)

If you have ever checkmated someone in chess, you know the experience of winning a zero-sum game, in which one person’s gain or loss translates exactly into another person’s loss or gain. A clear memory I have from high school is taking my queen and flicking over my friend’s king as I said, “checkmate,” with understated yet pointed emphasis. Perhaps a small thing, but my friend had beaten me in an earlier match and had gloated over the win. This was low-stakes competition among high school kids, but no less intense for this fact. “Gentleman, start your egos,” as comedian Billy Crystal once quipped. I can still see the proud smile on his face when he had agreed to the rematch. As a result, beating him was a keener joy.

Although part of why beating him was so satisfying was his gloating, the zero-sum nature of the game told another part of the story. The pleasure I felt was from my winning and his losing. Both enabled satisfying gain for me.

Athletic contests are also zero-sum, and emotions are keyed on the outcome. As a parent of two girls, now grown, I spent years engaged in youth sports, sometimes coaching, but usually as a spectator watching the games. I often stepped back to watch myself and the parents of other kids on our team reacting to the ebb and flow of games. Errors by the other side would often receive as many cheers as the successes of our own team, especially as the teams’ age group increased. Sometimes, the pleasure over the other side’s mistakes more than matched the pleasure of a good play by our own kids. If you think about it, this is hardly a nice thing. When a child commits a turnover in a basketball game, for example, it is a misfortune for the child—maybe a mortifying one. Why should we feel comfortable clapping and cheering? The context of sports seems to make it kosher.

WHEN MEMBERSHIP IN GROUPS AFFECTS SELF-ESTEEM

The triumphs or defeats of our children produce personal gain or loss. Watch the faces of parents when their children perform, especially during unguarded moments, and there is little doubt that our identification with our children is usually total. The best example I can think of occurred during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. The parents of American gymnast Aly Raisman were in tense synchrony with their daughter as she performed her difficult routine on the uneven bars. The NBC “parent cam” captured their shifting and swaying, and this video quickly spread across the internet. It summed up something that all parents experience. The phrase popularized by ABC Sports, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” applies to our children’s performances as much as to our own. And so events that help them succeed, even if they involve another child’s failure, can mix pleasure with sympathy.



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Spectators feel powerful emotions, even when no family members are playing. The successes and failures of the groups to which we belong affect us perhaps as much as do our individual ups and downs. The attachments we have to groups are quickly cemented and often arbitrary, yet consequential despite these arbitrary origins. The first experiments to hint at this uncanny process were performed by the Polish-born social psychologist Henri Tajfel in the 1960s. Tajfel was as an international student at the Sorbonne at the outbreak of World War II, and he was called into service by the French. He survived imprisonment in Nazi prisoner of war camps only because his Jewish identity remained hidden. Most of his friends and relatives were not so lucky, and the terrible difference in their fates, based simply on ethnicity, spurred him to do his now classic research.

In his early experiments, Tajfel recruited British school boys at the University of Bristol as participants. The boys estimated the number of dots flashed on a screen and were then categorized into groups of either “overestimators” or “underestimators.” These categorizations were actually random, so neither group could logically assume any superiority over the other. But when these boys were given the opportunity to either favor their “ingroup” or discriminate against the “outgroup” in distributing rewards, they usually did so.

These findings are easy to replicate using even more arbitrary categorization procedures, such as randomly assigning participants to merely group “A” or group “B.” We now understand this phenomenon as the “minimal group paradigm,” and it suggests that human beings have an inbuilt tendency to categorize themselves and others into ingroups or outgroups. Why do we do this?

One reason is that it helps us achieve a useful clarity and certainty about our self-concept. Knowing that one is an ”overestimator” not an “underestimator” clarifies who one is, and this in itself is useful. It also provides an opportunity to enhance our self-esteem because we mostly conclude that our own groups are superior to others. When it comes to evaluating the groups we belong to, actual objectivity is elusive, and we like it this way.

THE EMOTIONAL LIFE OF THE TRUE FAN

Sports fans know that the wins and losses of their favorite teams affect them in the emotional gut, even when cheering from the sofa. This may seem strange to those who have little interest in sports. But Tajfel’s findings, and the decades of research he has inspired, offer a window into the workings of fandom. A savvy and entertaining confirmation of Tajfel’s ideas is Warren St. John’s book, “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer.” St. John, a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, took a six-month sabbatical from his job as a reporter for The New York Times to tackle one core question: why in the heck did he care so much about Alabama football?

Enrolled at Columbia University in the early 1980s, St. John and his fellow students were experiencing the longest losing streak in modern college football history. But for St. John, the only team that really mattered was the football team of the University of Alabama, the Crimson Tide. Few other Columbia freshmen understood the significance of the poster of Paul “Bear” Bryant, Alabama’s legendary coach, displayed proudly in St. John’s dorm room. But at home in Alabama, the zeal of the Crimson Tide fans was unsurpassed. And St. John shared this zeal.

St. John collected most of the material for his book by spending the 1999 fall season attending every Alabama game and immersing himself in the tailgating culture of a group of Alabama fans. He bought a barely functional RV, dubbed the “Hawg,” to attend away games and to provide credibility among the group of fans who also drove their RVs to these games. The RV folks were suspicious of St. John at first, but they could soon tell that wins and losses mattered to him as much as they did to them. He was giddy when Alabama won and numb when it lost. As much as anything, this let him gain the trust of these über-fans.

More than 40 years earlier and across the Atlantic Ocean, Tajfel’s experiments had suggested that our allegiances to groups have almost astonishingly unplanned origins. St. John’s story also offers good evidence. In Tuscaloosa in the 1940s, his then 18-year-old father,Warren St. John Sr., was struggling with the decision of which university to attend. His first preference was Georgia Tech, but his parents were about to divorce because of his father’s chronic drinking problem. St. John’s father decided to stay near his parents and attend the University of Alabama. He started his own family nearby. And so, for this tangled set of reasons, his son, Warren, would attach his devotion to the Crimson Tide and would be singing the fight song “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer,” rather than “(I’m a) Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech.”

I grew up in Durham, North Carolina, the home of Duke University, because my parents chose to move there for their own set of haphazard reasons. This meant that the Duke Blue Devils became my Crimson Tide; it was as if a mischievous spirit dropped a magic potion on my boyish eyelids while I slept, as in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I awoke to see a Duke Blue Devil mascot, and I have rooted for Duke ever since.

It may seem that our emotions follow from a narrow focus on our own team’s winning or losing. But the logic of Tajfel’s research suggests that it takes two groups to tango. The British boys in Tajfel’s studies favored their own group, but they also discriminated against the outgroup. The thrill of winning means that we have won and a competitor has lost. Interestingly, this can mean that winning away from home feels better than winning at home. This accentuates that the rival is now a “loser.” St. John noted this when describing how he felt while leaving Florida’s stadium, the “Swamp,” after Alabama had beaten Florida. Whereas the visiting Alabama fans seemed drawn together by the high of the victory, the losing Florida fans seemed to separate from each other, like wounded animals needing isolation. Away from the noise of the stadium, they could remove the now ridiculous-looking paint that they had applied fastidiously to their faces before the game. For a moment, St. John felt pity for these miserable creatures. But only for a moment, because when he received a hateful look from one of them, he belted out the Alabama victory cry, “Rammer, Jammer, Yellow Hammer,” with wild, unself-conscious abandon.

How much of the satisfaction of winning comes from the defeat of the other team? One way to consider this is to focus on situations in which a rival team loses, but not at the hands of one’s own team. After Alabama’s loss to Louisiana Tech, St. John was relieved to hear the results of another game, this one between Florida and Tennessee. Since Alabama fans dislike both teams, there will be some consolation that at least one of them will have to lose.

Any type of misfortune befalling rival teams, such as injury or scandal, is red meat for people highly invested in their own team. In July 2006, J. J. Redick, the two-time National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball player of the year for Duke University, was arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol. This was an embarrassment both for Redick and for Duke. Redick had just graduated and was waiting to learn how he would do in the professional draft. The DUI charge would hurt his chances to do well, which would mean a reduced starting salary. The university was also having a tough time, as it was still reeling from the suspension of its lacrosse team for alleged sexual crimes by team members (the charges were ultimately dropped). Redick’s misstep was unwelcome news for Duke fans, but how was it received in Lexington, Kentucky, where I now live, home of the University of Kentucky? When I came to work the following day, one of my colleagues stopped by my office early and asked, “Did you hear about Redick?” He pulled a face of fake compassion and wiped away imaginary tears. When I checked my e-mail, there was a message from another colleague wanting to know if I had heard the “bad” news. Exultation powered every typed word.

Why the schadenfreude? Alabama fans may dislike Florida, but I doubt it reaches the scorn for which most University of Kentucky basketball fans have for Duke University. Like Duke, Kentucky is a perennially strong team and usually in the running for the national championship (Kentucky won the national championship most recently in 2012; Duke won in 2011), making it a natural rival. There’s another reason. In 1992, Kentucky lost in overtime to Duke in the Eastern Regional Finals. The game was won in the last couple of seconds, when Duke player Christian Laettner performed a turnaround jump shot after having received an improbably accurate full court pass from Grant Hill. This shot had snatched away what had appeared to be a sure victory for Kentucky and a place in the coveted “Final Four,” the grouping of four teams that compete in the last phase of the National Championship tournament. To the deep irritation of the Kentucky faithful, a clip of this shot replays every spring during each phase of the national tournament (dubbed “March Madness”), and most Kentucky fans have developed a helpless distaste for Duke ever since. And so, as a rare Duke fan in Lexington, I am a target of teasing—or worse—when anything unfortunate happens to the Duke basketball program.

Kentucky rarely plays against Duke. When it does, and when Kentucky wins (as it did in the 1998 Eastern Regionals), the joy is many-fold greater for Kentucky fans than simply learning about an isolated case of Duke’s losing. But any Duke loss, misfortune, or scandal will do in a pinch. And, in these cases, the joy is clearly in the loss.

The particulars of the Duke-Kentucky rivalry may be unique, but its underlying dynamics are universal. A study using Dutch participants provided empirical evidence for what one sees in everyday life. The researchers assessed Dutch soccer fans’ reactions to an article describing the loss of the German national team, the Dutch team’s main rival. Beforehand, the researchers also measured the extent of the fans’ interest in soccer. Indeed, most fans found the loss suffered by Germany pleasing, but the loss generated greater pleasure for those most interested in soccer. These were the fans who had the most to gain emotionally from the rival’s loss. In another phase of the study, just before describing their emotional reactions to Germany’s losing, some of the fans were primed to think about losses that the Dutch team had suffered in the past. This intensified the pleasure over Germany’s loss all the more. These fans had even more to gain, psychologically, from learning about their rival’s loss. To fans suddenly concerned with their team’s inferiority, a rival’s loss was welcome news.

WHAT ARE THE LIMITS TO SCHADENFREUDE IN SPORTS?

It is extraordinary that the randomness of our team associations fails to render them trivial in their effects on us. But what are the boundaries to what will produce schadenfreude? Cultural norms, if not people’s capacity for empathy, dictate that claps and cheers stop if an opposing player gets injured. Natural expressions of true concern sweep over every face. Yet there is a distinction between the immediate emotional reaction at the moment of seeing a player injured and the quick realization of the meaning of the injury for one’s own team. Compared to a turnover or missed shot, an injury to an important player on the opposing team leads to a greater competitive gain. In addition to feeling bad for the player, is it reasonable to expect the average person to feel no pleasure over this benefit as well?

St. John certainly admits to the impulse. He describes one game against Louisiana Tech in which, toward the end of the game, quarterback Tim Rattay was leading Tech to what appeared to be a go-ahead score. Rattay had been shredding the Alabama defense with accurate passes, and the Tech offense seemed unstoppable.

A minute forty left. This time Alabama rushes five linemen. Rattay pumps his arm as the pocket collapses on top of him. As he stumbles backward, his cleats bite the turf awkwardly, violently torquing his right ankle. A hulking two-hundred-forty-pound mass of red in the form of linebacker Darius Gilbert smothers Rattay at the thirty-five. He gets up limping. Tech calls time.

I have an unsporting feeling: I’m happy he’s limping.

But Rattay is able to stay in the game, and he continues to move the team forward and very close to a score. Rattay takes the snap again and, before he can set up to pass, finds himself in the grasp of two Alabama linemen. One has him by his tender ankle and the other by his upper body, creating a twisting effect. He is driven to the ground headfirst as his ankle is wrenched a second time. He is badly injured, hobbles off the field, and collapses on the sideline bench. How does St. John feel about this? It is good news. As St. John summarizes the result,

He has thrown for 368 yards and three touchdowns, and now he’s finished.

Hallelujah and amen.

Are St. John’s sentiments atypical? I doubt it. Some susceptibility to feel this way is part of what it means to be a true fan. When Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ quarterback, tore his anterior cruciate ligament at the beginning of the 2008 season, few fans outside the New England area seemed to show much sympathy. Some New York Jets’ fans were admonished for voicing open joy. But one Philadelphia blogger, Andrew Perloff, came to their vigorous defense. He argued that it would be absurd not to celebrate if a rival quarterback got injured. Perloff may be an outlier, but in the world of spectator sports, emotions run high and frank expressions of schadenfreude are more common than in other areas of life. In sports, people are freer to voice their darker feelings—the same feelings that in most other contexts would be shameful.

Research shows that the average fan is quite capable of being pleased over injuries to players on opposing teams. Charles Hoogland, Ryan Schurtz, and their fellow researchers at the University of Kentucky asked students to respond anonymously to an article describing either a mild (wrist sprain) or a severe injury (knee tear) to a star player for Duke University’s basketball team (later, they were told that the event was fictitious). They also completed a measure assessing how identified they were with Kentucky basketball. The results were illuminating. Students who cared little about basketball felt no schadenfreude but considerable sympathy for the player. Naturally, sympathy was greater when the injury was severe. The highly identified fans experienced these events very differently: they tended to be pleased over both injuries. The severe injury produced less schadenfreude than the mild, but even the severe injury produced a significant amount of pleasure. Most students who reported feeling pleased also indicated that they felt this way because injury would help the Kentucky team and hurt the Duke team. This was the main reason, along with a basic dislike of Duke. With a few extreme exceptions, the pleasure these fans felt was mild, especially when the injury was severe—but that many felt any pleasure at all suggests how “negative” events happening to others are interpreted in the eye of the beholder. Being a highly identified fan flipped the normal meaning of the event: a “bad” thing happening to the rival player was, to a degree, “good.”

Other research shows that there may be an evolutionary “wired-in” basis for such reactions to a rival group’s suffering. In their Princeton University social neuroscience lab, psychologists Mina Cikara, Matthew Botvinick, and Susan Fiske obtained brain scans of either diehard Boston Red Sox or New York Yankee fans as they watched simulated baseball plays. These plays featured their own team and their rival playing against each other, against a neutral team, or two neutral teams playing against each other. After each play, the participants reported their levels of pleasure, anger, and pain. Own-team winning, beating the rival, and seeing the rival fail against a neutral team all produced more pleasure than did seeing two neutral teams compete against each other. Losing to any team and seeing the rival succeed produced more anger and pain. The brain scans concurred with self-reports. Activation of brain regions associated with pleasure (the ventral striatum—putamen, nucleus accumbens) was also linked with baseball plays in which participants reported being pleased. Activation associated with pain (anterior cingulate cortex and insula) was linked with plays in which participants reported feeling pain. Thus, how the participants’ own group was doing compared to the rival outgroup showed close connections with reward and pain systems in the brain. A rival’s failure is a good and pleasing thing, whether our own group is doing the vanquishing or another, neutral group is doing it. It gives a pleasing boost to our ingroup identity, which is an important ingredient in our overall self-feelings. As Cikara and her colleagues argue, because these brain systems respond to basic, rudimentary reward and pain situations, they probably developed very early in our evolutionary history. But they may have further evolved to help us respond adaptively to the beneficial or threatening aspects of intergroup contact.

There was another interesting finding in these researchers’ study suggesting the intense motivations that can underlie schadenfreude. Their participants were contacted a few weeks after giving their reactions in the scanner. They completed a Web survey designed to assess their willingness to harm rival fans or nonrival fans by heckling, insulting, threatening, and hitting. Participants expressed a greater willingness to do these things to rivals than to nonrivals.

There does seem to be something about intergroup dynamics that brings out competitive instincts. When groups are rivals in sports, competition is a given, but the psychology of intergroup relations suggests many reasons why the competitive mindset will be amplified. Social psychologists Chet Insko, Tim Wildschut, Taya Cohen, and others have done many experiments that compare interactions between two individuals with interactions between two groups. Groups end up being more competitive than individuals. This “individual-group discontinuity effect” is remarkably robust and easily replicated. Why? First, it is easier to serve the interests of our group than our own narrow interests without seeming greedy. Second, we are apt to see it as our duty as a loyal group member to favor our group. Far from feeling greedy, we take pride in serving our group’s interests. Third, we are much more likely to attribute competitive motives, as well as a host of other negative traits, to outgroups than to individuals; outgroups are more difficult to trust and thus require our vigilance. Finally, any aggressive actions we do take seem to be a collective group action rather than our own individual action, and this diffuses our responsibility for the nastiness that may result. No wonder intergroup relations can be so overloaded with conflict.

If you follow golf, you have probably noticed the difference in both players’ and spectators’ reactions to Ryder Cup matches compared to regular tournaments. The Ryder Cup is a biennial, three-day event that pits the United States against Europe in a series of competitions between players from each team. As sports go, golf is subdued. Player and spectator norms dictate proper decorum and sportsmanship. The bouncy, Gangnam Style dance that Korean golfer James Hahn displayed after sinking a long birdie putt during the final round of the Phoenix Open in February of 2013 was memorable in part because it was so unprecedented. In regular tournaments, spectators display approval at every good shot made and collective groans at every shot missed. On the back of tickets for one major tournament, the Masters, a sentence reads: “Applauding mistakes is no part of the game of golf and we hope that visitors to the Masters will henceforth observe the etiquette and retain their reputation as among the most knowledgeable and courteous of golfing spectators.” Players themselves may be elated if a competitor chokes, but we wouldn’t know this from their inscrutable demeanors. However, these norms do not apply quite so consistently for the Ryder Cup matches, especially in recent years.

The 1999 Ryder Cup involved an improbable comeback victory for the United States team. As the drama unfolded, the emotions of both players and spectators intensified and erupted openly. The competition came down to a final pairing between American Justin Leonard and Spaniard José María Olazábal. There were two holes to go (the 17th and 18th), and all Leonard had to do to ensure victory for the U.S. team was to win one of the holes or tie both. On the 17th hole, both golfers made the green on their second shots. Leonard’s ball was more than 40 feet away, a very difficult putt. Olazábal’s was just over 20 feet away: tough but makeable. Leonard putted first and holed it! Even though Olazábal had yet to putt (and, importantly, making it would have extended the match), American players, some fans, and even wives rushed onto the green in celebration. The green was cleared for Olazábal to putt, but he missed. There was celebration over this too! So much for the gentleman’s game of golf when play is intergroup.

SCHADENFREUDE AND THE BLOOD SPORT OF POLITICS

There are other arenas in life where partisan instincts carry the day—such as in politics. As in sports, any misfortune befalling an opposing party candidate, from sexual scandal to verbal gaffe, improves the chances of one’s own candidate or party winning. In the heat of political campaigns, particularly as election night approaches, most events are interpreted through their implications for victory or defeat, even if a misfortune creates general negative effects for everyone. For example, dispiriting economic news might seem to have no positive outcomes for anyone, and yet for a challenger trying to defeat an incumbent, an economic downturn might be good news indeed—because the blame goes to the incumbent. The prospect of winning is the outcome that matters most and so the “bad news” creates schadenfreude.

The partisan interests driving the emotions of those invested in politics can sometimes be difficult to uncover, however. The political costs of appearing to lack empathy over bad news are great—much more so than in sports. Regardless of who is losing politically, both sides are required to put on a long face, their actual feelings notwithstanding. Yet the suspected inconsistency between actual and presented feelings is probably why politicians and their allies often accuse their opponents of experiencing unseemly joy when negative events bring good political news. For example, early in the presidential campaign of 2012, President Barack Obama claimed that Republicans greeted with great enthusiasm the bad news of rising gas prices. They were “licking their chops” over the political opportunity, even though this hurt the average consumer. He added, “Only in politics do people root for bad news.” There is little doubt that political motivations can promote schadenfreude, often camouflaged by mock concern. A juicy scandal suffered by a political adversary is an unfailing trigger. But is it actually true that schadenfreude also occurs when the misfortune is general in its negative impact, affecting more than the specific outcomes of a political adversary? I collaborated on a series of studies led by social psychologist David Combs in which we examined this question. We assessed participants’ political party affiliations and the intensity of their affiliation. Approximately two months later, just before the 2004 U.S. presidential election and again just before the 2006 midterm elections, we gauged their reactions to news articles entailing misfortunes of two types. Some were partly comic in nature and embarrassing to either the Republican or Democratic Party (e.g., President George W. Bush falling off his bicycle and Senator John Kerry dressed in a comical outfit during a tour at NASA). Others were objectively hurtful to others regardless of political party, yet had implications for the outcome of an upcoming election (a downturn in the economic news and troop deaths in Iraq). We expected that party affiliation would predict the amount of schadenfreude felt by the participants.

This is exactly what happened. For the comic misfortunes, the results were straightforward. Democrats found the article about President Bush much more humorous than did Republicans and vice versa for the article about Senator Kerry. Echoing the findings for sports, this pattern was stronger for those highly identified with their party and thus more concerned about the outcome of the election. Essentially, the “same” event was seen as either very funny or not depending on the political vantage point.

But more interesting were the results from the questions about the two “objectively negative” misfortunes. Democrats found both the economic downturn and the troop deaths more pleasing than did Republicans. Once again, this was all the more true for those highly identified with their party and invested in the outcome of the election. Overall, these feelings of pleasure were not extreme. And yet it was true that these objectively negative misfortunes were pleasing to some degree. Because the pleasure increased with strength of identification, it is likely that this pleasure was linked to resulting political gain. I should note that Democrats felt considerable ambivalence about both the economic downturn and the troop deaths. They seemed to welcome the potential political windfall that might follow from each event, yet they still wrestled with the fact that the news was generally bad for almost everyone. By contrast, Republicans reported less overall negative affect as the result of these events. This might be because Republicans were trying to downplay the seriousness of the problem so that they would have less reason to feel troubled by bad things brought about by their party.

In our initial studies, we did not find that Republicans also experienced schadenfreude over an objectively negative event. This was a quirk of the period when we ran these studies, a period when scandals were the province of Republicans, not Democrats. Bad news on the economic or military front almost always had negative implications for Republicans, whose party was in power. However, we had no reason to believe that political schadenfreude was only something Democrats would feel. In another study, we took the liberty of constructing an article that portrayed a negative event that could be pinned on either Democrats or Republicans. The time period for this study was the tail end of the 2008 primary campaign, after both the Democratic candidate, the then Senator Barack Obama, and the Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, had earned their respective party nominations. The article claimed that during the previous year the candidate had pushed through legislation that directly led to higher mortgage foreclosures that devastated the fortunes of many homeowners. The article stressed these broad, negative effects. As in the previous studies, we assessed party affiliation and party identification. Again, the pattern of findings was strikingly dependent on which candidate was associated with the misfortune and the participants’ party affiliation and degree of identification with their party.

Republicans were more pleased than Democrats when Obama was the cause of the misfortune. The pattern reversed when McCain had pushed the bad legislation through. Those strongly identified with their party showed the pattern all the more. Just as in the competitive realm of sports, when it comes to political fortune, people naturally focus on their own party’s success, regardless of how others’ outcomes might be affected. As comedian Stephen Colbert put it during the summer of the 2012 presidential campaign between incumbent President Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is there’s plenty of bad news, which is great news for Mitt Romney.”

The influence of group identification on schadenfreude is powerful, but it fits with our inherent social nature. Humans have always lived in groups, and our individual survival has probably been linked with the advantages of being part of a strong group. Group identification is therefore quite automatic and can lead to ingroup favoritism and outgroup antipathy—and schadenfreude when a rival outgroup suffers. Schadenfreude seems the signature emotion in the competitive rough and tumble of sports and politics, where group allegiances are so intense.

Sometimes sports and politics travel together. Historian Peter Gay grew up in the pre-war Berlin of the 1930s. In his memoir “My German Question,” he describes what it was like to cope with persecutions that he and his family suffered as Jews until they made their escape on a ship to Cuba in 1939. He found refuge from the increasingly vile treatment of the Nazis by immersing himself in sports. He developed passionate attachments to teams and was keenly happy when they did well and miserable when they lost. Also, since he and his father hated the Nazis, they both began identifying with America rather than Germany. By the 1936 Berlin Olympics, they supported “the Americans passionately.” They attended most of the events, and their hatred of the Nazis and their love for Americans led to great swings in emotions depending on the outcome of the various games. Gay remembered one event most keenly, the women’s 4 × 100-meter relay, in which the highly favored German team lost because they dropped the relay baton:

As long as I live I shall hear my father’s voice as he leaped to his feet . . . “Die Mädchen haben den Stab verloren!,” he shouted, “The girls have dropped the baton!” As Helen Stevens loped to the tape to give the Americans yet another gold medal, the unbeatable models of Nazi womanhood put their arms around each other and cried their German hearts out. . . . Schadenfreude can be one of the greatest joys in life.

Gay is understandably unapologetic about his and his father’s schadenfreude, and the deservingness of a misfortune can go a long way in disconnecting schadenfreude from shame. I am wholly in sync with his experience. I get goosebumps thinking about Jesse Owens defeating the German sprinters as Hitler watched from his stadium seat. Aryan superiority indeed!

Unfortunately, what we see in sports and politics can bring about another sort of chill. The emotions often produced by intergroup relations may also encourage extreme forms of conflict, such as ethnic and religious strife and wars between nations. In this sense, schadenfreude, as natural as it is to feel, may be a kind of gateway drug, closing the door on compassion and encouraging darker emotions and actions.

Reprinted from “THE JOY OF PAIN: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature” by Richard H. Smith with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2013 by Oxford University Press

Richard H. Smith is the author of "The Joy of Pain" and "Envy." He is a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky.

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