Schadenfreude Nation

With the new year–and the inevitable resolution-making–fast approaching, I find myself thinking a lot about vices. In addition to revealing a lot about our society (why is lust a sin, again?), they make a fun lens for exploring evolution and neuroscience. After all, the reason that it’s so tough to stop boozing or sucking down cigarettes is because they–and other bad behaviors–are hijacking neural pathways that have, over the course of evolution, been perfectly honed to process pleasure.

Or take another particularly nasty human trait: schadenfreude, that small, private rush of glee that we may feel when someone else experiences a misfortune. As I write in a recent story in Scientific American Mind:

From an evolutionary standpoint, schadenfreude makes a lot of sense. The world is a competitive place, and an individual benefits, for in-stance, when a sexual competitor breaks a leg or a hunting rival falls ill. “Anytime someone suffers a misfortune, that’s an opportunity,” says social psychologist Richard H. Smith of the University of Kentucky. “Life is essentially relativistic; [others’]  misfortunes are good for the self.”

The story, called “Their Pain, Our Gain: Why Schadenfreude is Best Enjoyed in Groups,” looks at research into one particular kind of schadenfreude.

Most of the psychological research has focused on the schadenfreude that people feel toward individuals—such as when a girl who dissed you in high school goes through a nasty, high-profile divorce. But a few investigators are beginning to explore how schadenfreude plays out between rival groups, such as nations, political parties or sports teams. They are finding that such intergroup schadenfreude can be even more potent, and insidious, than individual schadenfreude. It may, in fact, be the first step toward more malicious group interactions, driving deep-seated prejudices that can ultimately lead to violence.

For more on what researchers are learning about intergroup schadenfreude, read the whole story (PDF).

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