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Academic Minute

Dr. Susan Fiske, Princeton University - Baseball and Schadenfreude


In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Susan Fiske of Princeton University reveals what baseball rivalries can teach us about why we sometime take delight in the misfortune of others. 

Susan Fiske is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Her research addresses how stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are encouraged or discouraged by social relationships, such as cooperation, competition, and power. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

About Dr. Fiske

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Dr. Susan Fiske - Baseball and Schadenfreude

After my former student Mina Cikara was heckled for wearing a Boston Red Sox hat to a New York Yankees game, I was compelled to join her in exploring why people fail to empathize, based entirely on stereotypes. Through several experiments we found that people are actually biologically responsive to taking pleasure in the pain of those they envy – a malicious glee known as "Schadenfreude." By measuring the electrical activity of smile muscles, we show that people smile more when bad things happen to someone they envy rather than those they pity, admire or scorn.

Drawing on Mina's experience, we brought in two groups – avid supporters of the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees – and showed them baseball plays such as striking out or hitting a homerun. As expected, intense fans reported pleasure when their team made a good play or their rival made a bad play, and their brains’ reward centers lit up. They didn't react this way when their own team played a third neutral team – the Baltimore Orioles. But—and this is the kicker— they were happy, and their reward centers lit up, when their rivals lost to the Orioles, showing pure Schadenfreude. Likewise, the activation of their brain’s reward centers correlated with their reports of having heckled, insulted, threatened, or hit a rival fan.

While we used sports as an example, it's important to remember this study isn't just about sports rivalries. It's about intergroup rivals of more consequence. These findings have broader policy implications: Other countries stereotype the United States as a successful competitor, which brings us prestige, but at a cost, because they may take pleasure in our pain. Perhaps we need to consider a more humanizing approach to our allies. This is not, after all, the World Series.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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