Image from Wikipedia Commons

Image from Wikipedia Commons

Ever been to a circus act before? Were you awed by elephants playing with hula hoops? Amazed at how the trapeze artists seamlessly flew through the air? Mystified at motorcyclists racing around a steel ball cage at breakneck speed? Impressed at any smiling eccentric clowns doing any juggling acts as the internal monologue in your head asks “Damn son, where’d you find that hand-eye coordination?” Nobody?

Well imagine if those acts were prolonged for ten months straight and had nearly a thousand jugglers in the troupe each with nearly a thousand random objects to juggle. That equates to a whole ton of clowns, but not a whole ton of smiling ones after a while. Sooner or later over those ten months one of those clowns is bound to slip up and make fools of themselves in front of the entire crowd. You might be wondering if there’s circus troupe that’s actually depraved and sadistic enough to do this to their clowns. There is. It’s called the American public high school system.

Whether or not you like to admit it, if you’ve ever walked within the walls of a high school, chances are you’ve either been one of the clowns in that analogy, one of the laughing spectators, or both at one point or another. High school can be a pretty awkward time in a really awkward place, and four years is a lot of time for you to experience both sides of the cringe coin. So how would you properly articulate this embarrassing misery that the circuses known as American public high schools perpetuate? With German words, of course! Any language that can make “I love you” (Ich liebe dich) and “Thank you” (danke) sound vaguely threatening in the right cadence must have some pretty apt words for pain and suffering, and boy does German.

Schadenfreude (pronounced sha-den-froi-dah), literally translating to “harm-joy” in English, is a word for the pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune. It’s parallel to fremdschamen (pronounced frehmd-scheam), which is the sensation of feeling secondhand embarrassment from the embarrassment of others. Adolescence is inherently awkward. You’re stuck in this weird quagmire between being seen as a kid in some ways and an adult in others, your mind and body are grotesquely metamorphosing into something anew, and you have little to no control over any of it. But why do we sometimes can’t resist grinning from ear to ear or intensely cringing at that awkwardness if it’s at someone else’s expense, especially in high school? Well, because science. And psychology. And Internet listicles. So without further ado here’s a putrid listicle with psychology and scientific stuff. Read it. Or don’t. I could care less. Unless you step on a Lego and fall down a flight of stairs as you read this. Now that’d be some comedic gold.

1. Schadenfreude stems way before high school

It’s a no-brainer to parents or anyone who’s ever babysat that little kids sometimes revel in being demonic hellspawn who would overthrow civilization and detonate the entire world’s nuclear stockpile if meant getting that one toy they wanted for Christmas. Granted there’s some hyperbole (just a bit) in there, but nonetheless, kids can be pretty evil little monsters sometimes. Obviously you don’t just pop fresh out of the womb with a concrete sense of right and wrong. It takes years to learn that, and learning requires a lot of trial and error. So it’s only natural that with those errors comes either laughing at those errors or feeling intensely ashamed at them.

A study by the scientific journal PLOS ONE showed that children as young as two are capable of experiencing joy from other people’s pain. The experiment involved a group of 35 moms reading stories to their kids and one of the kid’s friends. The toddlers weren’t very happy when mom was giving their friends more attention, and that anger led to jealousy. So unsurprisingly those kids were found to be pretty amused when karmic revenge befell their parents when they did something like say, drop a glass of water all over their book. Schadenfreude can escalate way beyond a glass of water, but why? Well…

2. Misery loves company

In an article for Scientific American, writer Emily Anthes examined a few other studies about the implications of schadenfreude on older minds. The first one she talks about sheds some light on the duality between fremdschamen and schadenfreude. Back eons ago in the ancient period of 2009, a neuroscientist by the name of Hidehiko Takahashi gathered 19 volunteers into a room and asked them to read about the fictional fortunes and misfortunes of fictional people, and to report the feelings they elicit. As they did this, Takahashi’s team simultaneously had MRI scans hooked up to their brains. When the participants reported feeling envious, the anterior cingulate cortex (or, in English, the part of your brain that experiences psychical pain) was lighting up on the MRI like a slot machine in a casino, suggesting that, shocker, envy’s a pretty unpleasant feeling.

But at the same time, the scans showed that schadenfreude triggered the subject’s striatum, a part of the brain involved in processing rewards. So in a way, fixating on other people’s negatives can make us feel positive. And, even bigger shocker, Anthes suggests that despite most studies dwelling on individual schadenfreude, group schadenfreude can be even more potent. In one social experiment, psychologists Wilco Van Dijk and Jaap Ouwerkerk organized teams of two people to play a game where they exchanged money. After several rounds of moving cash back and forth, the participants were allowed to vote players or teams out of the game, and it was found that the participants tended to enjoy voting out entire teams instead of individual players. Researchers aren’t totally sure why this so-called group discontinuity effect happens, but one of their most shocking hypothetical theories of all was that, gasp, group members feed off the emotions of other team members.

So how does all this scientific nonsense relate to the ten month circus otherwise known as high school? Well, think about it. There’s no money at stake, but like it or not you’ll occasionally have group projects or assignments which, according to these experiments, are psychologically inclined to suck. Your hormones and grotesque mutating body and striatum and negative feelings are all bouncing off one another like a pinball, and this is only amplified by other people. Even with friends you sometimes won’t always be on the same page, and in a perverse way it can feel good to see them proven wrong once in a while.

But the end of the article leaves off with an ominous note. University Of Connecticut psychology Colin Leach did a group study in 2009 on prejudice. Shocker to end all shockers: the more schadenfreude a subject reported, the more they seemed to affirm their prejudices, and Leach and his colleagues concluded that schadenfreude could be tied to even more insidious group conflicts than high school drama, such as the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide. “It’s subtle,” Leach warns of schadenfreude, “But it has this potential to turn into something else, to be a first step on a slippery slope.”

Is it? Should you feel guilty and atone for your petty drama? Is there a correlation between spilling a glass of water on a book and wishing somebody in your group stepped on a Lego and violent international war crimes that violate the Geneva Convention? Well…

3. It’s all good to feel good about bad (or bad about bad stuff. Something like that.)

Not only does the magic of psychology and science lend credence to the possibility that stepping on Legos and genocide go hand in hand, it also claims that wanting suffering for the sake of comeuppance is actually, shocker, totally normal. Obviously not if you want it to the degree of war crimes and genocide, but you get the idea. I hope. Princeton University researcher Mina Cikara had this to say: “A lack of empathy is not always pathological. It’s a human response, and not everyone experiences this, but a significant portion does.”

Much like the 2009 Takahashi experiment, the team hooked up equipment to study brain activity (only this time using electromymograms to study electrical activity in the brain). Interesting, even when the patients declined to report it out loud, the electrical activity seemed to show that most patients took pleasure in the misfortunes of the people they envied in the examples the researchers showed them. Cikara also had this to say about the experiment, something I think is very applicable to the circus of high school:

“We need to remember this in terms of everyday situations. If you think about the way workplaces and organizations are set up, for example, it raises an interesting question: Is competition the best way to get your employees to produce? It’s possible, in some circumstances, that competition is good. In other ways, people might be preoccupied with bringing other people down, and that’s not what an organization wants.”

Is competition good? I don’t know. But if there’s anything to take away from these experiments, apart for German, remember that even when you’re stuck in the heat of the juggling act, juggling one stressful thing after another, struggling to toss the Algebra Chainsaw in between the Live Hand Grenade of Overwhelming College Preparations, remember that feeling a little sardonic once in a while isn’t petty or doesn’t necessarily make you a terrible person. It’s perfectly fine, according to all of these people that are more intelligent than me in just about every way, so I assume that has to mean something, right. In life, what goes sometimes can also come around, and if it comes back around to any bullies or naysayers or Martin Shkrelli, all the more power to you. If not, that sucks, but that’s also a part of life, a periodic sour dosage of Fremdschamen for you or somebody else.

What do you think of schadenfreude and fremdschamen? Do you have any memorable stories of feeling either in high school? Is competition a good thing or a bad thing for you? Do I ask too many dumb questions? Feel free to let me know in the comments.

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