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Why do some delight in the pain of others? - (4/21/2020)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro 

Jim came into the pharmacy and whispered to the pharmacist, "I heard you got some cancer in your neck? I guess even healthcare professionals got sick too. Were you a heavy smoker?" The only smoke coming from the pharmacist was the steam coming out of his ears. "Where does this guy come off judging me?" the pharmacist thought. "I could see a slight smirk on his face." He was reminded of a surly old aunt who once said, “Jane was always telling me that my cigarettes would kill me. Guess who died from lung cancer?” she said with a cackle.   

Are some people rude, or just thoughtless? Schadenfreude (SHOD-en-FROY-deh) is a sense of joy or pleasure that one feels when observing the misery of others. Psychologists consider it a mental disorder if it becomes extreme. For example, watching one of The Three Stooges get hit in the head with a 2 by 4 can be hysterically funny. Conversely, if one happily goes to funerals several times a week, specifically to see children get buried, the behavior borders on the perverse. 

Whether or not one exhibits schadenfreude says more about the person than the person who is suffering. A 2010 Dutch study had the study subjects read two interviews. The first interview was about a college student who had high grades and was about to secure a dream job. The second interview was about the same student whose grades had slipped so far that his chances of getting the coveted job were dramatically reduced. The study subjects answered several questions about how they felt about the student. These ranged from “I felt sorry for the student,” to “I enjoyed what happened to the student.” The researchers concluded that those subjects who had low self-esteem were more likely to be threatened by the student’s successes and were relieved to the point of happiness when he failed. 

Research has shown that three conditions will invoke schadenfreude. The first condition is when failure is perceived as deserved. Example: An incumbent, selfish president loses his bid for reelection. The second is when someone experiences failure who is otherwise envied, idolized or admired. This might explain the popularity of supermarket tabloids. Third, this emotion may be experienced when the perceiver gains something, emotional or tangible, from another person's bad luck. One could be jealous of a friend’s sports car, only to feel elated when his friend totals the car. When the covetous person cuts the brake lines that result in the car’s loss, schadenfreude becomes malignant, if not felonious. 

A higher rate of depression has been observed in patients who experience schadenfreude. In a 2015 study published in Psychology Reports, participants with moderate depression reported feeling more schadenfreude versus their less depressed peers. In fact, the less-depressed participants were more empathetic when confronted with the misfortunes of others. In such cases, the depressed person should be encouraged to obtain medical help to elevate their mood disorder. In the case of the pharmacist, why was he so reticent to explain the etiology of his malignancy? Cancer still carries a stigma for some people. Disease can provoke fear, ostracism, and the belief that the person did something wrong. In Mexico, for instance, a study revealed that one in three people believe that any person with cancer "will die an awful death." Because of this, people with disease keep it quiet, so they are not viewed as weak or having one foot in the grave. However, concerning Jim, perhaps assessing why the pharmacist was sick made him feel better about himself and overall less threatened. He should rein in that useless emotion.

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Rx-Press.com.


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