Is It Wicked to Feel Glee Because the President Is Sick?

A conversation about the ethics of schadenfreude.

Glee at another’s misfortune is a tangled emotion—“an infallible sign of a thoroughly bad heart,” according to Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century philosopher. Yet ghoulish smiles have been widespread since the diagnosis of Trump, who downplayed Covid so catastrophically and now must experience it.

“I did slightly leap in the air with joy,” the actor Dominic West said in a television interview, struggling to contain his pleasure. “I think the phrase is, ‘What goes around comes around.’”

Is schadenfreude ever justifiable? Why do people feel it? And should they be ashamed?

In a new Persuasion feature—part of our bid to nudge conversations away from partisan insult and toward reasoned argument—we are calling experts for insight into news stories. In this case: Tiffany Watt Smith, a historian of emotions at Queen Mary University of London, and the author of Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune.


Persuasion:

What is schadenfreude?

Watt Smith:

Thinkers like William James in the 19th century thought a lot about why we might enjoy seeing someone else suffer in a visceral, bloody way. He thought it was an evolutionary throwback to our more violent past, a glitch. But that is not quite what is at stake with the Trump situation. It’s not that you’re enjoying seeing someone suffer in a random way. And it’s not that you’re enjoying a moment of slapstick. It comes down to this question of justice and just deserts.

From research in psychology and neuroscience, there is a lot of evidence that we get a pleasurable kick from seeing justice done. That is something that happens from very early on. There’s a study of children at a puppet show. Some of the puppets are badly behaved and some of the puppets are well behaved, but all of the puppets are punished. Children get very upset when the good puppets are punished but enjoy seeing the bad puppets punished—so much that when the researchers close the curtain, children pay with sweets to see the bad puppets punished.

But the question of what is justice and who deserves what—of course that is based on our own perspectives and the groups we form. Research has shown that schadenfreude is experienced very strongly when people divide themselves into camps or tribes because you’re using that schadenfreude to denigrate your rival, and also using it to bond your group, and give yourself a feeling of swagger and triumph. We live in a world of highly divisive politics, so this emotion is inevitable in a political moment like this.

Persuasion:

Expressions of schadenfreude are also taken as proof of the other side’s evil, so that supporters of Trump will cite this as evidence that his opponents are immoral.

Watt Smith:

Absolutely. And you have it the other way around too. I remember the rallies [against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign]: “Lock her up!” People on the left were portraying Trump supporters as not just lacking in morals but easily succumbing to a groupthink on a base level.

The thing to understand about schadenfreude is that we don’t attribute it to ourselves. We attribute it to the opposite side.

Persuasion:

If people are experiencing schadenfreude, should they suppress it?

Watt Smith:

There is a question about how we share it and how we act on it.

Face-to-face, it’s much harder to confess to your schadenfreude. Online, it is incredibly easy. So this mob sense can evolve fast and at no cost. I encourage people to take a breath and pause before being triumphant and gleeful on Facebook or Twitter—that’s the moment when it rolls out of private experience into something that has serious consequences.

Persuasion:

Tell us something else that people don’t know about schadenfreude.

Watt Smith: One of the motivations for writing my book was: “Are we living in an age of schadenfreude?” It’s a lot to do with the internet and the new social environments through which we’re navigating life. But it also has to do with this growing interest in empathy.

Empathy has become a hugely significant and loaded term in public discourse. In the last 10 to 15 years, it’s taught in our schools, seen as an unquestioned public good—something that we should all cultivate. In a lot of research on empathy, people say the opposite of empathy is schadenfreude, or that schadenfreude is the emotion felt by psychopaths.

I thought this was wrong. I was interested in trying to understand how [this emotion] is a window into parts of human life that are understandable and normal and relatable: things that make us most human, like justice—wanting to see hypocrites and queue dodgers taught a lesson.

Persuasion:

In this moment of schadenfreude about Trump, what would you want people to keep in mind?

Watt Smith:

It is a very risky emotion in the current political climate. So, while I want people to understand it and think about it more deeply, I don’t necessarily want them to run around being gleeful about other people’s misfortunes.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.