Our Pleasure in Others’ Misfortune

The New York Times:

The world’s highest-paid athlete began his spectacular downfall by crashing a Cadillac S.U.V. into a fire hydrant and a tree. Initial accounts of Tiger Woods’s 2009 accident reported that his wife had broken the vehicle’s window with a golf club to free him, but when word spread that the couple had been fighting over allegations of his infidelity, the smashed window became a metaphor for his shattered reputation.

The wicked delight over that turn of events has a German name so apt we’ve adopted it in English. Schadenfreude, or “harm-joy,” is the pleasure derived from another’s misfortune, and Richard H. Smith, a University of Kentucky psychology professor, has built a career around studying it and other social emotions. He previously edited an anthology about envy, a close sibling to schadenfreude.

As perverse as the emotion may seem, it serves an adaptive function, Dr. Smith argues in this enjoyable book. It stems from social comparisons, which allow us to assess our talents and determine our status in the social order. The urge to make these comparisons appears hard-wired — studies show that even monkeys and dogs measure themselves against their peers.

Schadenfreude provides a glimpse into what the psychologists Roy F. Baumeister and Brad J. Bushman have called “the most basic conflict in the human psyche” — the friction between our selfish impulses and self-control. “We are all savages inside,” the author Cheryl Strayed wrote in her Dear Sugar column at the website The Rumpus. “We all want to be the chosen, the beloved, the esteemed.”

Read the whole story: The New York Times

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