What The Taylor Swift Takedown Can Teach Us About Human Nature
As you may have gathered if you spend any time on Twitter, there is an ongoing beef between famous people at the moment. The one who's really being hung out to dry by public opinion, however, is Taylor Swift, she of the giraffe legs, chart-topping albums, and highly-cheekboned boyfriend. The details of her alleged crimes have been explored in great detail by far more gossip-educated people, but for the (fickle) moment, public opinion is against her in a wild, extravagant fashion, with a #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty raging across multiple media. But let's step back from the drama and examine global reactions: what is this communal delight in the downfall of a celebrity, and what are its psychological motivations?
Most will know that the concept of garnering pleasure from another person's pain, whether it comes from their humiliation, diminishment, or "just desserts," has the German name schadenfreude, which literally means pain-pleasure. It turns out, however, that our schadenfreude for Swift and whoever becomes the next target for public dressings-down comes from complex places. To observe the punishment or disgrace of another is one thing; to revel in it, in psychological terms, is quite different.
Are we all terrible people? What on earth is going on in our brains when the #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty drama washes over our screens like a gleeful tide? Here's what the Taylor Swift drama can teach us about the psychological phenomenon that is schadenfreude .
1. We're More Likely To Enjoy Takedowns If We Have Low Self-Esteem
This one's hilarious and depressing. It turns out that, according to a 2011 study of undergraduates, one of the key sensations behind feeling schadenfreude, even towards people we don't know and aren't directly competing with, is our own self-esteem.
The study, conducted with 70 undergrads in the Netherlands, assessed the self-esteem of all their subjects, and then gave them materials to read about a high-achieving student who was set to do amazingly well with a great job, and then suffered a setback. Those with lower self-esteem were more likely to get a big kick out of it. And the researchers went further; they repeated the study, only this time they did "affirmation" exercises with some of the subjects, designed to boost their self-worth. Those who'd been affirmed were much less likely to feel good about reading the story of the big-shot student who failed.
The lesson here? We watch people like Swift stumble and fail with particular pleasure if we ourselves don't feel particularly brimful with self-esteem.
2. Our Feelings Of Schadenfreude Are Linked To Competition
The satisfaction that comes from seeing a successful person fail, even if it's not expressed in public parties and dancing in the streets, is, it seems, an inherent part of human experience. When we experience it among our own social circle, it reflects our own drive for success and recognition, because we are, essentially, competitive animals. "If you are in a zero sum situation with another individual or entity," a Tufts researcher explains, "a misfortune for them may represent a beneficial situation for you, and thus, it logically follows that you may experience a bit of pleasure." We're looking to get the most cake, and anybody else who might be going for the cake and trips makes us feel pumped up about our own chances.
But Taylor Swift isn't threatening my cake, you may think. It turns out that competitive gains in others, even if they're not personally related to us, also prompt psychological reactions; according to various studies of sports fans, people "felt more optimistic about their own abilities... after their team won," reported CNN. We often back various celebrities rather like sports fans back teams, and seeing one "win" can give us a sense of self-affirmation. So you've decided to align yourself with a celebrity in competition with Swift, you might see her downfall as a win.
3. It Enhances Our Feelings Of Social Worth When Others Are Diminished
Humans, it turns out, are innately sensitive to anything that makes us feel inferior or potentially threatens our social worth: our standing in the community, our beauty, our earning potential. Even if those threats are abstract, they're still powerful. As Dr. Ken Eisold explains for Psychology Today, schadenfreude is essentially a reaction of reassurance: the threat has been diminished, and we ourselves feel stronger, more superior, and happier. This occurs even when the situation has nothing to do with us. We haven't crashed our car or cheated on our wife; we are automatically raised in the world, even if nobody except us is comparing our behavior to Taylor Swift's.
A fascinating but seriously unsurprising study reported in the New York Times revealed that the more A-list a celebrity is, the more likely their tabloid coverage is to be negative or disapproving; we are frightened of their diminishment of our lives, and seek to reassert our worth.
4. Achievement Is Linked In Our Minds To "Deservingness"
In Australia, where I hail from, there's a depressing concept called Tall Poppy Syndrome, in which people who are seen to get "too big for their boots" are publicly lambasted and taken down a peg. It's meant to be a signal of national humility, or a demonstration of the adage "pride comes before a fall," but often it becomes a case of anti-exceptionalism, where intellectuals in particular are punished just for being good at something. And a study on tall poppies and how we react to them gives us a very interesting insight into schadenfreude in general.
The researcher Norman Feather explained in 2012 that numerous factors seem to impact how much schadenfreude, or what he calls "favor fall" we feel in others. One, in particular, is how "deserving" we feel they are of their high status; have they earned it correctly and in a just way? If not, we often feel justified in delighting in their fall. We also judge how "deserving" they are of their punishment or loss of status, and adjust our schadenfreude to that. Another is our cultural background: Americans liked the idea of rewarding proud people, while Japanese students were more fond of favoring their humbling if they hadn't been seen to "earn" their position.
5. Takedowns Might Be Based In Our Concept Of Justice
"They deserved it" doesn't have to be a component of the schadenfreude feeling, but it can be a powerful one. Interestingly, experts seem to disagree on whether feeling "justice has been served" when watching somebody's downfall is a big part of schadenfreude or not; Norman Feather thinks that "resentment" from past injustices can play a large role in our pleasure in another person's pain (i.e. if you always thought Swift treated Katy Perry badly, this is your time). However, there's actually another German word for "seeing justice done": it's genugtuung , and some experts think that's a separate emotion altogether.
Is public pleasure at seeing Swift being dragged across social media related to her past conduct, her high status, or how we feel about ourselves? It seems that the psychological result is: all three. It's human nature; it doesn't mean we're awful people. Necessarily.
Images: Getty; Giphy