At the beginning of August, I always get a little excited because I know the Little League World Series is going to be nationally televised. Baseball is a great sport and watching kids play it in its purest form is a nice treat. But that’s not the only reason to watch.
I’m not sure what it says about me as a person that I tune in to watch one team of kids lose. While they are losing, and after they officially lose, they express their tidal wave of emotions with no restraint because they are twelve year olds. I’m not sure why I appreciate one team inevitably losing. Maybe it’s because in today’s world of kid sports everyone is a winner and this is one situation where you find out pretty quickly that most of the times in life you actually end up losing. Or maybe it’s because deep down inside, I feel better knowing someone is doing worse than I am, regardless of his or her age.
I also considered that all of this was just me being bitter because I’m now considered an adult and my dreams of playing professional sports have been all but squashed and rubbed out. But, with the trusty hand of Google, I found something that explained it all.
The Germans call it Schadenfreude and it’s the pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. An article from ScientificAmerican.com points out just how prevalent it is in society:
Tabloids have long relied on people’s fascination with public failures: moralizing politicians or entitled actresses disgraced for their peccadilloes. And in recent years schadenfreude has become a prime-time staple, with models, boyfriends, parents, overweight people and recovering addicts, among others, routinely humiliated on cable television.
Scientists who get paid to study these types of things concluded that other people’s sadness actually does have a positive effect on the viewer. They compared the feeling you get from seeing these shortfalls, like the shortstop that just let a groundball go through his legs so the other team can score the winning run, to how you feel after you eat a delicious meal.
The idea of schadenfreude isn’t a relatively new idea, either. In an article published in the New York Times from 2002, there is a quote included from a 19th century British archbishop named R.C. Trench that reads: “even having a word for such a damnable emotion was evidence of a culture’s corruption”. But, as University of Kentucky professor Richard H. Smith argues, “it’s human nature”.
Also mentioned in the Times article is a study by a researcher from Flinders University in Australia named Norman Feather. He set it up so that the subjects of the study were presented with three imaginary students: one who was average, one who got “A”s because they studied, and one who got “A”s without effort. Then they were given the information that all three did poorly on a test they had taken. The subjects in the study were happier to see the student who didn’t study be unsuccessful.
Schadenfreude falls under something called the Social Comparison Theory, which is based on a simple premise: people evaluate themselves based off of the people that surround them and not by objective standards. The belief is that when the people around you are doing poorly then you look better to yourself. And when your peers are successful while you are not, it makes you feel worse about yourself.
With all of this new information provided, it now makes perfect sense why I find some nugget of happiness in watching one team of children having their hopes and dreams destroyed on national television. If reading this has taught you anything, it’s that you better record some of these little league games quickly so the next time something good happens to a friend or family member, but not you, you can pick yourself back by diving head first into one of the darkest moments for any group of twelve year olds.