April 21, 2010

Scandalous Schadenfreude

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“There is only one thing worse than being gossiped about,” Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “and that is not being gossiped about.” Easy for Oscar to say — he lived well before the days of JuicyCampus and mass e-mail. Our moms repeatedly told us, “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But despite their motherly scolding, we just can’t help ourselves — and neither can they.

The reality is that gossip is a substantial part of our interactions with others; researcher Jennifer Drapkin found that nearly two-thirds of adult conversation concerns people who are not in the room. Gossip fascinates us — and media coverage tends to reflect our interest. Publications from Scientific American to Cosmopolitan feature pages of commentary, advice and research on the topic. It seems puzzling; we know we shouldn’t gossip and we all know from experience that it is painful and miserable to have people gossiping about us, but we still do it. So, why can’t we stop gossiping?

Many evolutionary psychologists argue that gossip actually isn’t so bad — in fact, it has many adaptive functions. Gossip plays a critical role in how we gather necessary information, how we bond with others and how we learn what types of behavior are unacceptable. These researchers suggest that when our new sorority sisters make comments like, “Did you see what Jenny was wearing last night? And by that, I mean what she wasn’t wearing,” we learn that it isn’t cool to go out in a shirt that looks like it was sold in the lingerie department.

Ralph Rosnow, a psychologist at Temple University has gone has far as to suggest that not gossiping can be indicative of a problem, commenting that, “If people aren’t talking about other people, it’s a signal that something is wrong — that we feel socially alienated or indifferent.” Maybe the evolutionary psychologists are right, but many people remain unconvinced that gossip can all be justified as social bonding or “information sharing.”

After all, we couldn’t help but talk about O.J. (finally) going to jail, the thirteenth woman to admit she was sleeping with Tiger or Britney’s shaved head. While it is possible that we are just trying to communicate that robbery, affairs and drastic haircuts aren’t socially acceptable, that seems like an incomplete explanation. Jack Levin, a sociology and criminology professor at Northeastern University, says that the function of gossip is actually to help us make social comparisons. He suggests that reading tabloids or hearing about our neighbor’s misery over a cup of coffee makes our own problems seem less significant. This starts to tap in to what a group of psychology researchers from University of Kentucky reported in their June 2009 paper about a concept called “schadenfreude.”

The hit Broadway show Avenue Q has a whole song about schadenfreude, the feeling of happiness at the misfortune of others. One character tells another, “Sorry Nikki, human nature / Nothing I can do, it’s schadenfreude / Making me feel glad that I’m not you.” The song runs through a slew of comic and witty examples of the phenomenon — many of which tie in with the findings of the study.

In exploring the “when and why” of Schadenfreude, the Univ. of Kentucky researchers found three conditions that lead to the experience of schadenfreude. The first condition that leads us to be happy about another’s misfortune is when we gain something from their bad luck. The Avenue Q characters ask, “Don’t you feel all warm and cozy, watching people out in the rain?” If watching them makes us feel warmer — and in turn better off — we are experiencing schadenfreude. The second condition that sparks the feeling is when we feel like another’s misfortune is deserved. This may explain why we secretly smile when, as the Avenue Q song quips, exes get STDs: “Serves her right for dumping me to ‘experience’ abroad!” The third condition is when misfortune befalls someone who we envy. Britney Spears’ breakdown story is a prime example: After years of watching the teen superstar making millions, winning over fans and performing to pop-star perfection, everyone was talking about her sudden downhill spiral. The flicker of satisfaction you feel when a straight A student gets a B or a CEO gets sacked (as the song goes) may be your envy getting the best of you.

However, the concept of schadenfreude may not always just be cynical. In fact, it may sometimes be helpful not only for our minds but also for our bodies. One study of breast cancer patients found that those who heard about cancer patients who were worse off improved physically. If schadenfreude does really make us feel better about ourselves, this may offer a plausible reason why we just can’t stop gossiping about the misfortunes of our roommates, second cousins and celebrities.

Professional gossiper Perez Hilton said in an interview, “I don’t try to be objective. I don’t want to. I’m not the New York Times.” As psychology research points out, he doesn’t have to — some cynical part of us is ready to devour the stories about whatever celeb embarrassed themselves at Tuesday night’s red carpet event — maybe we’re jealous that we would never be invited, that their date is Hugh Grant or that our singing will never be to an audience other than a shampoo bottle in the shower — it doesn’t matter, we relish their misfortunes.  RLD

Original Author: Emily Weinstein