Do you remember the story of Dr. Pete and the pleasure I took in seeing him collapse into a pathetic ball of psychological distress? Schadenfreude through the roof. However, had I actually known he suffered from panic attacks, substance dependence and social anxiety, I would have been much more empathic to his situation. Instead, it was just funny, because he was suffering and I was not.
We see schadenfreude in sports all the time, especially when our own team beats another. We love to talk smack to the deflated fans (just read any team’s message board for the trolls who rub salt into the wound). Why do we take such pleasure in the suffering of others? Is it the recognition that if someone else is in a worse spot, then we are better than him? We certainly behave that way. If so, then in turn, could the “fact” we are better mean we might have greater longevity? Non-Darwinians hate this idea, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pose it.
Consider the subconscious thought process of a hard-core Alabama Crimson Tide fan after a win:
Alabama beats Tennessee at football, therefore
WE are better than Tennessee at football, therefore
WE are better than Tennessee at life, therefore
I am better than someone from Tennessee.
It's a ludicrous jump from winning a game to individual superiority over one not truly connected to you in any real, meaningful way. At the end of the day, you two simply share differing sides of a singular interest. But don’t think that mental leap doesn’t exist; just watch rabid fans’ statements about themselves after the game.
We see a similar phenomenon in politics. People cheer when politicians talk about letting other die due to lack of health insurance. Why would anyone want to see another die? Most don’t, but when we establish a principle and go all in on it, it allows us to believe we are truly better than those who don’t share our take. Therefore, when they fall, it’s not that we so much enjoy their demise as we do our own ethos. This is evolution: we will go on and they will not.
Here is what is so important about schadenfreude: for those who aren’t sociopaths or gluttonous fans, they can actually stop the process and reconnect with society when they recognize what they are doing. The cognitive leaps happen so quickly and so involuntarily that we don’t even catch them until pointed out afterwards. How many times have you chanted “We are # 1,” only to realize a day or so later that whatever made you (or your sports/political team) so great isn’t all that important? How long does a superiority fix truly last unless it’s fed by the media or a complete lack of self-awareness? Not very long, because you see that a game is just a game and that watching someone die, regardless of reason, doesn’t pack as much emotional punch as it did while you were cheering and holding up your candidate’s campaign sign. It’s recognition that eradicates our pleasure in someone’s suffering. Unfortunately, not enough of us do it, and very few do it as quickly as they should.
In some regards certain people really are better than others. Not in a moral, 'my life has more value' sense. But, in the sense that Trent Richardson is better at football than the vast majority of other college players. Ron Paul is more consistent in his ideals than most other politicians.
The first step in getting over the masturbatory glee in seeing others crushed beneath whoever you support is to learn that you are not Ron Paul, and you are not Trent Richardson. If someone else dies because they didn't have health insurance, you don't get a 1-Up. If Richardson wins the Heisman, Nick Saban won't be sending you a replica. Start looking more at yourself, what you're doing with your life.
Pretty soon, failure won't seem so funny.