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Stephen Mason Ph.D.

How We Love to See Others Suffer

Better You Than Me Mate

The other day I happened to come across one of those Survivor shows that have become a staple of so much prime time TV. A dozen or so people were delivered to an island that, in terms of physical comforts, bore a striking resemblance to New Orleans after Katrina. There was only bottled water to drink and nothing like showers or toilet facilities. A soup kitchen would have been a luxury, bedding was beyond imagining and there were bugs everywhere. Now, to make things worse, along with somehow surviving their arrival in Hell, this accumulation of woebegone humanity was expected to somehow compete in a series of mentally demeaning, physically demanding games.

Let's see if I got this right Mr. TV Host, you want me to climb a pole and stand on one leg until the pain causes me to fall 50 feet into a lagoon? For this you will give me a toothbrush and, if the guy on the other pole succumbs to spastic cramping first, you'll throw in some toothpaste? How about, Mr. TV Host, I kick you hard enough so you fly over both those poles?

Clearly, I wouldn't last long as a contestant because millions of Americans would be sorely disappointed at not getting to see two grown men suffer in agony for a crumb of comfort. Stand on one leg indeed! What kind of a nitwit do you have to be to want to watch such a performance? I can understand Navy SEAL teams training for combat but nobody pretends that's entertainment.

I have to think that seeing others in pain is the primary appeal of such shows. That and maybe getting a squint at women who haven't bathe in a week...but let's forget that part. Viewers will, of course, object to this analysis by arguing that they are far more interested in seeing the competition. Their interest, they will tell you, is in learning about the contestants, their personalities and the different coping strategies they devise. Baloney!

As I see it, this is nothing more than an example of Rationalization, which is defined as the process of thinking up more acceptable reasons for less acceptable behaviors. How many people, do you suppose, would tune in to watch a show called Spa Survivor where contestants are sent off to a 5-star resort to compete in card games? You'd still have unique personalities, strategies and a cash prize but if there was no suffering - only pedicures followed by a gourmet lunch - would there be an audience? See my point? The Survivor shows must inflict pain in order for the viewer to experience true vicarious involvement.

But there's no need to be surprised at the delight Homo Sapiens take in the wretchedness of others. It's perfectly normal. Everyone knows how the Romans had their fun with the Christians but few realize that when the tables turned and Christianity became the official religion, the Coliseum was the site of even more blood and gore. During the Dark Ages, witches at the stake were always good for a laugh but that was God's work after all. And when human kindling ran low, one could always fall back on anthropomorphism and throw some bulls and bears into a pit. Today there are dog, cock and bullfights in other parts of the world along with boxing matches right here at home.

So why, you ask, do people like seeing others in pain. From a pie in the face to slipping on a banana peel to tripping down a flight of stairs and all the way to dancing at the end of a rope, the joy comes from the fact's not you. It's a vicarious thrill. It allows us to get so very close to humiliation, to danger, to abject terror and yet walk away clean. Wow! This provides a great sense of comfort and security, power and control. It's such a high it can be addicting. The Survivor painfully balances on one leg to receive a cash prize and the prisoner painfully balances on one leg to avoid an electric shock and you just know that in both cases it hurts like Hell...and it's not you. As George Washington is supposed to have said after returning from battle and finding a few bullet holes in his jacket: There is nothing quite so exhilarating as being shot at...and missed. This holds for movie-goers watching the Terminator; kids playing video combat games; crowds cheering the blood soaked matador; masses roaring their approval at an execution...Better You than Me Mate.