Why does it feel so good to watch videos of people behaving badly? This emotion may be to blame.

Spurred into action by the spate of videos showing racist people being horrific to others in public, a San Francisco official has introduced the CAREN Act — short for the Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies Act, with its acronym nodding to “Karens,” the increasingly common slang word for entitled or racist white women.

“This is the CAREN we need,” San Francisco Supervisor Shamann Walton tweeted about his bill, which would make it illegal for someone to make a false report based on someone’s race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender or sexual identity. (Making a false report, in general, is already a crime.)

The proposed legislation follows a state bill, introduced by California Assemblyman Rob Bonta last month, that would make racist 911 calls a hate crime. It also comes on the heels of the Manhattan District Attorney filing misdemeanor charges against Amy Cooper, the woman who went viral for calling the police with a false, racist report against a black man who was birding in Central Park, and her behavior was caught on video.

Enacting such a law could be the first step toward codifying what has swiftly become a national pastime: watching, first with outrage and then with an oft-uncomfortable sense of pleasure and satisfaction, as seemingly proud racists — or, alternately, entitled shoppers refusing to wear masks in the midst of a pandemic — are caught on video being atrocious, which usually leads to them getting fired or arrested or both, and sometimes offering wooden apologies.

Some of the most recent examples — though they come at a swift clip and are hard to keep up with — include the California couple Nicole Anderson and David Nelson being charged with hate crimes after attempting to paint over a “Black Lives Matter” street mural in a Bay Area town over the weekend, as well as a Tennessee woman, Sonya Holt, who was fired after her racist remarks and “white lives matter” chants were captured on video. Michael Lofthouse, the California man who was caught on video delivering an expletive-laced racist rant against an Asian family trying to enjoy a celebratory dinner, has offered an apology, but besides being outed in the media, has not faced repercussions (likely because he is the CEO of his own company).

In the “I won’t wear a mask” category, there’s Giancarlo Albanese, who has reportedly been kicked out of his immunocompromised-parents’ home after his infamous “f*** your mask” post that included an image of a packed July 4 party on Fire Island, N.Y. And then there was Daniel Maples (seen below), the Florida man whose downright scary Costco “I feel threatened” anti-mask tirade led to his firing after the video of his rant went viral.

So, how to account for the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for such disturbing videos and subsequent downfalls? In a word: schadenfreude.

That — which literally means “harm joy” in German — is the feeling of pleasure that people derive by observing the misfortune of others. And the rise of video evidence and social media, coupled with this particularly fraught time in society, has created the perfect schadenfreude storm. The Twitterverse knows it, too, as the term “schadenfreude” has been frequently tweeted in reference to everything from tirades caught on video to coronavirus outbreaks following early reopenings and various Supreme Court rulings and the impact on the Trump administration.

“Schadenfreude is a very complex emotion,” Dr. Jen Hartstein, psychologist and Yahoo Life mental health contributor, tells Yahoo Life. “Basically, in situations where we might feel sympathy for someone who's going through a hard time, we tend to actually feel joy within their failures. So, observing people losing their jobs or getting into a lot of trouble after a particularly troubling video or behaviors that are caught on video, we feel excited or pleased when they get fired or when there are repercussions for their negative actions.”

The feeling, in general — immortalized and popularized with the song from the 2003 musical Avenue Q, which called it “human nature” — is evidence that all of us have a dark side, according to Shensheng Wang. Wang is co-author of a 2018 paper on the concept, written as a psychology PhD candidate at Emory University, who wrote, "Dehumanization appears to be at the core of schadenfreude.”

Schadenfreude is complicated. (Photo: Getty Images)
Schadenfreude is complicated. (Photo: Getty Images)

Norman Feather, professor emeritus of psychology and social work with Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, was an early researcher on schadenfreude and the social psychology of justice. He tells Yahoo Life via email that the kind of pleasure people may feel from watching bad behavior and its consequences is quite complicated.

“People would feel pleasure or schadenfreude when people who behave badly get their just desserts,” he says. “My research shows that, but the pleasure can be moderated by a number of factors. For example, if the outcome involving punishment of some kind has serious consequences for the offender, people may feel a degree of compassion.

Thus, the outcome and its consequences are important. Conflicting emotions may occur depending on the perceived consequences.”

So, the idea of deservingness — which differs from the type of joy derived from seeing a celebrity or politician knocked down a peg, Feather explains, would certainly play a part, and relate to “a person’s underlying values and to the social norms that are part of the context.” For example, while one person might have felt horror followed by glee regarding the Amy Cooper saga in Central Park, others, depending on their values and personal experiences, may have felt some degree of compassion — particularly when it came to her losing her job and becoming tabloid fodder. (Ironically, it’s the birder Cooper called the police on, Christian Cooper, who seems to be feeling much of the compassion here, telling the New York Times, “Bringing her more misery just seems like piling on.”)

Adds Feather, “People may also feel guilty and ashamed that they take pleasure in how they respond to the negative outcome that the offender has received. This may be especially so if the schadenfreude is shared publicly, as on social media. So, the schadenfreude may be an uncomfortable one, depending in part on a person’s values and the norms that are part of the social context.”

That notion was underscored by the Emory research, in which Philippe Rochat, Emory psychology professor and co-author of the study, wrote, "Schadenfreude is an uncanny emotion that is difficult to assimilate. It's kind of a warm-cold experience that is associated with a sense of guilt. It can make you feel odd to experience pleasure when hearing about bad things happening to someone else."

So, can any good come out of the feeling? Feather is unsure. “Maybe schadenfreude helps one to cope with potential dangers and, in that sense, may be useful. One anticipates that the violation of social norms leading to a deserved negative outcome will somehow right the wrongs, and you feel happy about that.”

But Hartstein worries it may be an emotion that gets us nowhere fast. “The problem with public shaming is it doesn't necessarily teach us any new behaviors,” she says. “It's not really saying, ‘Here's the behavior that was wrong. Here’s why it's wrong. Here's what we should do to fix it.’ So, it's not necessarily changing anything. And we have to be aware of that.” Mainly, she says, because there’s always a chance that people are going to jump on the bandwagon to public shame so that they can have their own 10 minutes of fame — “rather than using it as a tool to teach new behaviors that are more effective in the world.”

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