It’s not so strange to feel schadenfreude when COVID deniers get COVID, psychologists say

Hundreds of thousands of people follow a Reddit forum called “HermanCain Prize“which, despite its name, does not exist to honor the late businessman and politician. The group exists to make fun of those who denounce or challenge public health measures (vaccines, wearing a mask, social distancing, etc.) then later die from COVID -19 contaminations.

But the infamous subreddit isn’t the only place internet users flock to share the schadenfreude towards COVID skeptics and deniers who contract the disease. A glance at Twitter or Facebook reveals people showing vulgar images to reactionary politicians demanding treatment after falling ill Where react to the hospitalization of a skeptic of the COVID-19 vaccine asking, “Who can resist schadenfreude opportunities like this?” “

Some might find this to be a cruel trend, while others might see it as an example of someone getting their right dessert. Yet media commentators are taking note. Recently wired decried a popular BBC article about a man in Los Angeles who mocked COVID-19 and then died from the virus. Other subtitles like r / LeopardsAteMyFace (750K members) and r / CovIdiots (117K members) exist to poke fun at people who have denied COVID-19 science; or, in the case of the first group, voted for policies and politicians who would harm them, and then were (predictably) hurt by them. The Herman Cain-themed subreddit itself is named in honor of reactionary Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain; media like Slate and Mel Magazine have covered the thread in a critical light, but it has 310,000 members at the time of writing.

Cain, in particular, was a big supporter of Donald Trump, who sadly flouted medical advice on COVID-19 during his presidency. After Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, there have been numerous reports of people feeling conflicted over his infection. As a human being, Trump’s life certainly has value; yet many felt justified in celebrating his infection given that he had actively exacerbated a pandemic for political ends. Author Emma Kennedy wrote that she only wanted Trump to go to jail and therefore hoped he would be better soon; a Midwestern Christian told Salon last year that she struggled to sympathize and see poetic justice in Trump’s plight.

Indeed, maybe the instinctive negative reactions to online celebrations of the suffering of others don’t really understand how psychology works. As therapists and psychologists told Salon, it can be therapeutic, even cathartic, to share the schadenfreude – especially in times of crisis like now. And such individual emotions can be much more complex than the internet lets them appear. As therapist Amalia Miralrío said, “When we talk about emotions, we can have several emotions at once and all parts can be true. So we can be really happy that he is sick, and we can also hold on to that value that we don’t like to wish people harm – both sides can be true. “

Schadenfreude, a word borrowed from German, translates to “the pleasure one person derives from the misfortune of another person”. While its borrowed word status might suggest that this is a rare emotion, that is not true in this case. Indeed, it is something that many of us feel all the time, so much so that it is often exploited by sitcom writers. Laugh at a bad guy get it repeatedly hit in the groin by a rake? It’s schadenfreude. The pleasure of seeing a villain freeze to death in a liquid nitrogen explosion? It is also the schadenfreude that you feel.

Like Shensheng Wang, a doctoral student in psychology at Emory University who has written on schadenfreude, Salon said via email, researchers have linked schadenfreude to everything from “perceived injustice of others” to the perception that misfortune has happened to someone “who does not deserve high status.” So it makes perfect sense for people to feel schadenfreude as it reinforces their deeper beliefs about good and evil; “The moral assessment of the victim plays an essential role in obtaining the schadenfreude”.

Scientists only have ideas about the neurological mechanisms behind schadenfreude, because “neural evidence suggests it may be linked to greater activation in the ventral striatum”, although this correlation has not been proven to be true. being causal. Wang added that from a clinical point of view, schadenfreude is not inherently healthy or unhealthy. It depends on the context, because “many negative emotional experiences (eg anger, fear and shame) can be both adaptive and maladaptive, and I think schadenfreude is no exception.” Some of these factors could certainly be applied to people who revel in the woes of the anti-science mob. Wang said that people can feel schadenfreude because of “intergroup conflicts” influencing feelings at the group level, or against the suffering of an individual because they feel “malicious envy – the pain caused by a comparison. upward that motivates to pull others down rather than up. . “

This is because schadenfreude may not even be a particularly big problem for many people who experience it. In 2015, a group of researchers – one in the Netherlands, one in the UK and one in the US – conducted a schadenfreude study. They agreed that schadenfreude is distinct from jubilation – the reasoning being that jubilation occurs when you actively cause someone else’s adversity; while schadenfreude involves the most innocuous acts of passive observation and pleasure. Their article opened with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous German philosopher:

“Seeing others suffer is good, making others suffer even more: it is a harsh saying but an ancient principle, powerful, human, too human, to which even apes could subscribe.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an interesting twist that complicates Nietzsche’s dichotomy: We now see people taking advantage of the suffering that others inflict on themselves, but which they feel implicitly deserved. Therefore, even if they did not cause this suffering themselves, they are still gloating. At the same time, the researchers found that “just as Nietzsche suggested, schadenfreude is modest, stealthy, and guilty pleasure that doesn’t give much to those who experience it.” Jubilation is more pleasurable because the person experiencing it has actively caused the suffering of his enemy and, if he is lucky, knows that his target has been “then made to testify his pleasure at his defeat.” . People who jubilate feel physically invigorated, almost as if they are “walking through the air” over their defeated rivals. “A small smile and quiet satisfaction is all people seem to get from schadenfreude.”


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That said, schadenfreude may not be the most accurate term to describe the emotions at play in the COVID-19 era jubilantly – at least not in all cases. Colin Wayne Leach, Professor of Psychology and African Studies at Barnard College, was the main author of the aforementioned article; four years later he published another essay, this time in the book “Philosophy of Suffering: Metaphysics, Value, and Normativity”, in which he identified a German term that more accurately describes the feeling of seeing justice done to another considered. as deserving: Genugtuung.

“In German, the term schadenfreude is generally not used for a more intense satisfaction in seeing justice prevail because someone has obtained a deserved reward which put him in his place or because a wrongdoer has been punished rightly so, ”Leach told Salon via email. “Genugtuung is the word for the satisfaction of seeing justice prevail.”

This seems to better correspond to why some people respond happily when people who hurt others by denying COVID-19 are themselves infected. He described a simple psychological dynamic: When people who deliberately spread misinformation about COVID-19 get sick and die, it looks like “just punishment.”

“With Genugtuung, the psychological motivation is to want to live in a ‘just world’ where those who do evil suffer and those who do good flourish,” Leach explained. “Taking pleasure in someone who suffers for their just merits affirms the value and importance of justice in our lives.”

There is also a less moralistic motive: Democrats, liberals and people who follow science may appreciate seeing the “other side” lose. In this hyper partisan political moment, this is perhaps not surprising. Partisans living in deeply bifurcated societies routinely dehumanize their opponents, which is not necessarily a good thing for social cohesion. Yet it’s as common on the right as it is on the left, even though those on the right have different ways of doing it with their alleged opponents.

Indeed, many researchers argue that indulging excessively in schadenfreude (or genugtuung) deepens social divisions and leads us to dehumanize other human beings. This is arguably evident in the distaste for COVID-19 deniers who fall ill, as the mass schadenfreude towards them demonstrates. To the extent that this can happen, it is difficult to defend either sentiment on a moral level.

At the same time, to deny entirely our fundamental nature as human beings – the tendency, which Nietzsche suspected exists even in apes, to revel in the suffering of those we consider deserving, and for them to know that we appreciate their pain – is probably impractical as well. Psychology tells us that those who jubilate are at least not abnormal to do so; each person must decide for themselves what to do with this information.

As for the Herman Cain Awards? It’s hard to predict if this specific manifestation of schadenfreude will last, but it’s hard to imagine that the underlying frustration will go away. There’s a reason President Joe Biden trotted his sharpest rhetoric while delivering a landmark speech on vaccine mandates. When he said that “our patience is running out” he was doing more than making a political point. He was talking about a deeper anger that is starting to bubble to the surface – even if, in some cases, it involves some of humanity’s ugliest impulses.



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