Sports Are for Schadenfreude

The emotions of watching Brazil's loss to Germany at the World Cup


The primary emotion surrounding Brazil's 1-7 loss to Germany in yesterday's World Cup semi-finals: shock. In a sport notorious for 0-0 draws, it's just bizarre to tune into a match between two famous teams in the advanced stages of the world tournament and see shot after shot hit the net unanswered. Here in The Atlantic's office, staffers gasped at the TV as the total rout unfolded. Surprise is surprise, whether it happens in an athletic contest or in a TV show.

Out on the Internet, though, the gawking seemed shot through with glee. There were World War II jokes, of course. But also there seemed to be a communal fascination with images of Brazilians crying.

I clicked, I scrolled, I read the mocking comments, and then I felt gross for doing so. What's the fun of seeing people miserable?

Then I learned of this tweet:

Oh, right, yes: schadenfreude. It's only natural. A study released just last week says that even toddlers take joy in the misfortune of others. In the early aughts, psychologists out to study schadenfreude, lo and behold, focused on European soccer fans. And they seemed to find what you'd expect: that the intensity of the feeling depends on the sufferer's relationship to the beneficiary's team's status, and that people more invested in the sport feel it more.

But schadenfreude is also generally thought of as wrong, or improper—a deep impulse it's usually best to rise above. The pious and the humanist alike preach good will towards all, that everyone's connected, and that the world's only made worse when one person's sorrow is the direct source of another's happiness. Might sports be the one public sphere where it's basically acceptable to feel good because other non-fictional human beings feeling bad?

The worlds of celebrity gossip and politics come to mind as competing examples. But tabloids are seen as tawdry precisely because they turn real humans' failures into entertainment. Politics are also seen as debased, and they come with a built-in social/moral justification for snickering at the latest scandal or high-profile defeat: When something bad happens to a bad policymaker, it's good for society.

In athletics, meanwhile, codes of sportsmanship say you shouldn't pick on losers. But those codes apply most strictly to the people on the fields. Germany's players are being extraordinarily gracious about their win. German fans are happy to focus on the fact that their team's now in the finals. But Americans psyched that people a hemisphere away watched their countrymen endure a humiliating defeat on the globe's largest stage, in a tournament where the U.S. has already been eliminated—what's that about?

It's probably the flip side of envy. Sports encourage people to pin their sense of their self-worth and the worth of their community to an arbitrary contest, resulting in huge highs and crazy lows. Brazilians have been confident and excited all tournament; despite being seeded only two spots higher than America, they've swaggered at the World Cup in a way that the U.S. never felt it could. In June, Leon Krauze at TNR wrote of the historically rooted pleasures of rooting against Brazil. A Duke alum told me that watching yesterday's game must be like what a lot of people feel whenever Duke basketball loses—the deflation of the entitled.

For sports skeptics like me, as I wrote last week, the World Cup can make you feel like an android trying to understand human emotion. Yesterday, it was jarring to see people so quickly and so unashamedly throw together galleries of bawling Brazilians. Then I remember what fun it is to watch reaction videos to Game of Thrones massacres. Fiction, non-fiction, scripted, or sports, entertainment allows emotions too intense, or too ugly, for the normal world.