Victor Bloom MD
Among my recent psychological readings I came across this word, "schadenfreude," for which there is no English counterpart. Translated literally from the German, it means "shameful pleasure." For some reason the emotion is recognized in the German language,best replica watches but not the English, perhaps due to a cultural difference. In our culture it is so shameful to have pleasure over another person's misfortune that there is no word for it, and often the feeling, while present, is not even conscious, perhaps only a barely recognized feeling of satisfaction that the misfortune of another is not our own.
Many of our automatic reactions are a legacy from primitive times, when a certain emotional reaction led to natural selection. Ages ago, those who were in power would laugh at the misfortunes of the weak and vulnerable; they would pass on their genes to many more babies and so populated the earth. They would laugh out of satisfaction with their own power and the demonstration that others had less of it. There is an inborn will to power, an ambitious drive to succeed where others fail, so that our DNA would prevail. Survival of the fittest meant the survival and predominance of what we now consider ugly traits.
The most benign example of 'schadenfreude' is the tendency to laugh when someone slips on a banana peel. Quickly though, we catch ourselves and hope the hapless victim has not hurt himself. We stifle our tendency to laughter. Similarly, we find it amusing to see someone get a pie in the face in some old movie or television show. What is so funny about that? Think about it. I think we are pleased that someone else gets the pie-face, while we remain high and dry. Slapstick is what used to delight the audiences of The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello.
What happens if we go to the more serious examples of schadenfreude? When we do this, we must realize some of the underlying motives of why we watch the TV news and read the newspapers so avidly, and why the newspapers and TV news are so full of bad news. What is it we read in the newspapers? In politics we see numerous examples of graft and corruption, the buying and selling of favors to 'special interests.' ¨In business we read about embezzlement and fraud, old people losing their life savings to unscrupulous con-artists. In public projects we read about cost-overruns and the illegal siphoning of public moneys. We read of crime and punishment, the suffering of victims, victims of domestic violence, of shooting rampages, of natural disasters, such as forest fires, chemical explosions, toxic waste, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought, pestilence, terrorist acts, war, political imprisonment and torture, sexual harassment and rape, kidnapping, hunger, neglect, perversity and scandal, just to name a few of life's slings and arrows.
We bemoan the fact that the 'news' is so negative, so full of pain, suffering and violence, and yet the media advertisers have learned that reports of pain and suffering increase the viewing audience and entitle the publishers and networks to sell ever more advertising commercials at ever greater rates. Sensationalizing pain has become very profitable in the marketplace. What is it that attracts viewers to this shameful exploitation of the suffering of others? Could it be 'schadenfreude?' Could it be that the masses are glad to see that the suffering is of others, not themselves? Of course the best of us refuse to be lured by such cynical exploitation of base motives, but it is undeniable that many are attracted to watch the pain and suffering of others at a safe distance, while the wholesome few look the other way.
Why is this? Beneath our outward show of confidence lies a deepseated insecurity. Deep down we know we are vulnerable. We were all helpless babes at one time. The memory of this time is imprinted deep in our memory banks. As we grow up we become more adaptable and able to defend ourselves, but the old fears of external danger persist in the depth of our beings. If others get hurt and we are not, we are secretly gladM, and as we become more and more civilized and sensitive to the pain of others, we know this tendency is not admirable.
Schadenfreude is within us even though we don't have the word for it. It helps to explain the popularity of the Roman gladiators and the bullfight in Latin countries, and perhaps the popularity of boxing and wrestling here at home. Some other guy is getting beat up. It is the bull who dies. When there is a massacre, it is other people are shot and killed. When there is a famine, it is others who are hungry. We donate money and food to ameliorate their suffering, but altruistic acts also function to salve our consciences.
In our culture, 'schadenfreude' is deeply repressed, and I run the risk of 'kill the messenger' to be the agent of bringing this psychological phenomenon to light. Still, I feel it is betteër for us to know ourselves than to be ignorant of such things, and I am optimistic that knowledge of this shameful and primitive tendency will help us to be ever more sensitive and altruistic, rather than simply be passive and apathetic or blithely amused in the event of the suffering of a fellow human being.
Dr Bloom is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University School of Medicine. He is a member of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and on the editorial board of the Wayne County Medical Society. He welcomes comments at his email address--- firstname.lastname@example.org