“. . . this has been one of the most enjoyable political moments of my lifetime. I wake up in the morning and rush to find my just-delivered newspaper with a joyful expectation . . .”

So wrote Jonah Goldberg in a column in the National Review Online

What created this special joy?

Encouraging gains in the housing? Job creation? A reducing deficit?

No, the troubled roll out of the Affordable Care Act.

He was not alone. He was part of chorus of people with similar, equally savored, equally joyous reactions.

It is “schadenfreudarama,” to use Goldberg’s own characterization.

Why the lip smacking delight? After all, critics of the Affordable Care Act, such as Goldberg, claim that, “. . . millions of Americans’ lives have been thrown into anxious chaos as they lose their health insurance, their doctors, their money,

or all three. . .” and argue that there is “still-folding violence” being inflicted “on the economy and our liberties.” Ouch.

Indeed, Goldberg noted that these outcomes are “no laughing matter” and are “not particularly amusing.”

And yet he insisted that “If you can’t take some joy, some modicum of relief and mirth. . .” in the bungled introduction of the program, “. . . then you need to ask yourself why you’re following politics in the first place.”

For Goldberg, and others, a main source of their pleasure is their intense dislike of Obama, based on what they think is his hubris, now brightly contrasted, finally, with incompetence. They delight in this arrogant “Narcissus” brought down, and deservingly so.

Deservingness is a wonderful thing when it comes to schadenfreude. Normally, we are ambivalent about taking pleasure in the suffering of others. Even if we gain from the suffering, we pull the long face. But misfortunes that seem so obviously deserved liberate our pleasure. Who can suppress the delectable blend of schadenfreude and righteous gloating?

Goldberg emphasized that much of his joy is “political and ideological,” and, therefore, “beyond fantastic.” Clearly, politics is a form of tribal blood sport, and the source of great pleasure or pain, depending on whether our own party is winning or losing. But most of us probably recognize that our political leanings distort our perceptions of deservingness. And so when the salient facts seem to so clearly favor our side, it must be especially satisfying to be able to dismiss the charge of bias.

A recent set of psychological studies on political schadenfreude provide good evidence for what we observe every day in the rough and tumble of politics. The research, led by social psychologist, David Combs, compared reactions of Republicans or Democrats to a range of events during presidential or mid-term elections from 2004 to 2008. Some of the events were minor and inherently “funny” (such as President George Bush falling off a bicycle or Senator John Kerry choosing to wear a ridiculous-looking NASA suit). As one would expect, Democrats found the Bush mishap more humorous than Republicans; and visa versa for the Kerry outfit. What was striking was how extremely different these reactions were as function of political party. Republicans and Democrats were living in different worlds when it came to what triggered their schadenfreude.

More relevant for understanding current reactions to the Affordable Care Act, was the final study in the research. Republicans or Democrats read an article describing ostensible actions by either the then Senator Barack Obama or Senator John McCain that caused economic hardship to a large group of citizens. Overall, most participants were concerned about the harm, regardless of party affiliation. However, Republicans were also much happier (e.g. “secretly pleased about the economic problems”) than Democrats over this harmful event when it could be blamed on Obama; Democrats were happier than Republicans when it could be blamed on McCain.

The degree of party identification was also correlated with the pleasure. The greater the identification, the greater the pleasure.

Interestingly, participants from both parties reported equal and low levels of schadenfreude if their party identification was also low. When we keep of tribal instincts in check, our emotions probably reflect the better angels of our nature

See the book, The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature, for more on the topic of schadenfreude. 

About the Author

Richard Smith, Ph.D.

Richard H. Smith, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. He studies social emotions.

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