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Competition Fuels Schadenfreude, Research Shows

Sep 4, 2018
Originally published on September 4, 2018 9:17 am
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People learn young that we're not supposed to be happy when something bad happens to someone else. But what if that other person plays for a sports team that you despise? Is it OK then? Shankar Vedantam, the host of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast, reports on sports rivalries and schadenfreude.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Schadenfreude is the German term for feeling pleasure in light of another person's misfortune. It's the research focus of psychologist Richard Smith. He teaches at the University of Kentucky, a school that's famous for its basketball program and its rivalries.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils against Coach Cal and the Kentucky Wildcats early on.

VEDANTAM: Smith asked Kentucky students to respond anonymously to a report about an injury to a star player on the rival Duke team.

RICHARD SMITH: We showed pretty clearly that, especially people who were highly identified basketball fans, were quite happy when the rival player for an opposing team got a severe injury.

VEDANTAM: He discovered that they felt good when an opposing player got hurt. Now, you could argue that fans felt good not because they were happy about the injury, but because the injury meant their own team was now more likely to win. Psychologist Mina Cikara at Harvard addressed this concern.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: Yankees suck. Yankees suck. Yankees suck.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: Red Sox suck.

MINA CIKARA: We would recruit these hardcore Red Sox and Yankees fans. And they would see baseball plays unfolding while they were lying in the functional MRI machine.

VEDANTAM: She found that fans experience pleasure not only when their team defeated their rival, but when their rival was defeated by other teams.

CIKARA: You haven't benefited materially in any way. You only feel pleasure because it feels good to watch your rival fail.

VEDANTAM: Among people who reported the most pleasure, Cikara discovered that you could see activation in a part of their brains called a ventral striatum.

CIKARA: So two weeks after we scanned them, we sent all of our participants a web survey where we asked them how likely they would be to engage in a variety of aggressive behaviors. And the thing that we found that was really exciting for us as academics, but probably bad for the world, was that those people who exhibited that much more ventral striatal activity when watching their rival fail two weeks earlier in the scanner were the same people who then told us they would be that much more likely to threaten, heckle and hit a rival fan.

VEDANTAM: In other words, the amount of pleasure you take in a rival's failure is a potent predictor of how far you might be willing to take matters into your own hands.

CIKARA: Often times, I hear things like, oh, the schadenfreude, this is just relegated to the domain of sports, you know, context in which it really doesn't matter. But actually, it turns out it's present in situation - in the most dire of human conflicts and situations.

VEDANTAM: Cikara says schadenfreude can even play out in war.

CIKARA: A couple years ago, when skirmishes in Israel started to heat up again - I think it was 2000 - the summer of 2014, people started sending me a link to a story about people in the Gaza Strip or people in Israel who were sitting on their couches watching bombs get lobbed at the other side and cheering.

VEDANTAM: In other words, regardless of whether your spectator sport is a baseball game or a war, schadenfreude shapes how you feel and how you act. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

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INSKEEP: Shankar Vedantam is host of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast and radio show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.