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President Donald Trump

What Do Cuomo and Trump Have in Common?

The pleasure we take in their misfortune says a lot about us.

My cousin hates Andrew Cuomo.

He thinks he’s an arrogant bully. So Michael is taking particular delight in the governor’s recent fall from grace amidst accusations of sexual harassment and allegations that he hid the number of people who died of COVID in nursing homes to make himself look better.

It’s easy to judge Michael’s reaction as ungracious, emblematic of the polarized times we live in. What kind of person takes pleasure from another’s pain? But then I remember: didn’t I delight in how devastated Donald Trump must have felt with his electoral defeat, and before that with the karma that came from his getting COVID after minimizing the coronavirus’s importance? All of a sudden I feel a little dizzy on my high horse.

Between partisan politics, social media, and an environment in which more people are coming forward with accusations against public figures, the times are ripe for schadenfreude—the experience of taking pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. At a point when so many of us feel beaten down and uprooted by the pandemic, any situation where we can feel better about our own suffering can seem like a godsend.

Schadenfreude is a universal emotion, not reserved for politicians and celebrities. Yet, despite the fact it can temporarily make us feel better about ourselves, it fills us with ambivalence. Who wants to own up to feeling giddy about somebody else’s hardship? It can make us feel guilty and a little small. It’s little wonder that there is no word in the English language to describe it. Schadenfreude is actually a German word, a compound of schaden (“damage, harm”) and freude (“joy”).

How much joy we feel—and how much guilt—depend upon the context. A hated politician’s comeuppance or a rival sports team’s humiliating defeat elicit a sort of group schadenfreude, a good feeling we can share with others, and with relatively little remorse. It’s a little more complicated when a relative’s envied beach vacation is ruined by bad weather, or a rival at work who got a promotion we had coveted is fired.

Schadenfreude can feel more sweet when there is a sense of the mighty have fallen, especially those who are perceived as hypocrites and whom we don’t know personally or don’t like. There is a feeling of punishment and justice served. We temporarily feel better about our own lot, even smug and superior. Researchers have identified that the more insecure we feel about ourselves, the more we are more likely to experience schadenfreude. A self-confident person is less likely to take pleasure from the failures of another.

Interestingly, a 2006 experiment using brain imaging showed that men are more likely to experience pleasure at another’s discomfort while women are more likely to experience empathy. Other studies have shown that men and women both exhibit schadenfreude, and that it is most strong when something bad happens to someone of the same gender. Further, male participants exhibited more schadenfreude when a same-gendered person experienced misfortune in the dimension of social status, while women felt it in the dimension of physical attractiveness. In either case, the amount of pleasure we feel at another’s misfortune is highly correlated to the amount of envy we feel toward them. The higher a person’s social or economic position, the more we want to see them disgraced.

Schadenfreude can feel delicious or petty (or little bits of both). The bottom line, however, is that everyone takes at least a little pleasure in the defeats of others sometimes. What matters is how often, how deeply, and how this affects our actions and sense of self. So it’s OK to take some delight at the foibles of Cuomo or Trump. Just make sure you can also feel empathy at the suffering of those more vulnerable and who have an active role in your life. And try not to get down on yourself for being human.

More from Eric Sherman L.C.S.W.
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