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Schadenfreude: pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.

A quick fill-in-the-blank exercise if you will:

Vikings/Packers fans are __________.

Republicans/Democrats are _________.

Public/private sector employees are ______.

Union members are _____.

Rich/poor people are  ______.

Liberals/conservatives are _______.

Homosexuals are _______.

Your dander up at all?  If not, try a different combination, and consider the following excerpt from a very real sports blog I changed just slightly in order to make my point:

“. . .we Packers/liberals/republicans get to bask in the joy and ecstasy of not just a victory, but also in the delicious Schadenfreude that comes from a debilitating Vikings/conservatives/democrats loss. That makes it twice as sweet!

Their loss and pain is our gain. Why? Because the Vikings/unions/conservatives and their fans/supporters are our enemies. They and so many of their fans/supporters epitomize all that is soulless and wrong, albeit inept.

Given the good nature of most Packers/liberals/private sector employees, the importance of this is sometimes lost. We know how to love our Packers/republicans/union members, but sometimes we forget how — or why — to hate the Vikings/liberals/public employees and those who support them.”

Now, relax.  This propagandizing is just all in good fun right?  To be fair, surely Vikings/democrats/conservatives use this sort of language too.  And so do Bears fans and Pistons fans, and Minnesota drivers, and deer hunters, and loggers, and DNR officials, and business owners, and city council members, and terrorists, and hate groups.

The key step here–and it’s amazing how easy this is to do–is to separate or distance oneself from another in order to create an “Other”: an entity that different from you. Once that distinction has been made, this “Other,” just naturally becomes less human, more monstrous and much easier to hate or fear.  This “Other” then easily becomes the enemy, and the more pain and misfortune he or she suffers, the better.

In any contest, we prefer the side that is more like us.  Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the Association Principle.  The distinguished and prolific author, Isaac Asimov put it this way:

“All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality . . . and what you want to prove is that YOU are better than the other person.  Whomever you root for represents YOU; and when he (or she) wins, YOU win.”

The ego-self is clearly at stake.  Our prestige rises when our side wins, and it falls when our side loses.  We feel real and escalating emotions of joy and pride the higher the perceived stakes.  Just listen to the language fans use after a victory.  We say, “WE won!” and “WE’RE number one!” not “They’re number one!” or “Our team is number one!”  Unless, that is, our team has just lost, in which case we will often distance and protect our fragile ego-self by saying, “They lost. . . the bums.”  The devil is in the pronoun.

Looked at objectively, this is insane.  Seen through the lens of a sports fan or political junky or religious fanatic however, not only does this make perfect sense, it’s an admired trait!  The more emotionally invested a person—the better fan or voter or follower he or she is.  The more pain they feel after a loss, the more euphoria they feel after a win.  We call these people true and diehard fans/constituents/believers.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I am Viking fan/public employee myself.  Over the years, this association has given me the unique opportunity to feel very real and physical stress responses during the course of any game, political contest, and professional career—muscle tension, increased heart rate, sweaty palms—as well as the emotions of joy and agony—lately, mostly agony.

Love me or hate me, it is clear that somewhere deep within in our warped and fragile psyches, we believe that the Vikings and public servants everywhere really are me.  For many, this makes me less human, more monstrous, easier to kick when I’m down.  The enemy.

Perhaps however, bigger questions loom, like: Who are you? Are we really that much different?  Do our associations really make us winners and losers?  And, what is it, exactly, that you win, when I lose?