Monday, August 12, 2013

Richard H. Smith's "The Joy of Pain"

Richard H. Smith is a social psychologist who studies social emotions at the University of Kentucky. He has a degree in English Literature from Brown University and a Ph. D. in experimental social psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2008 he edited the book: Envy: Theory and Research.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his recent book, The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature, and reported the following:
Page 99 focuses on the reality TV show, To Catch a Predator, a popular show that still lives on in reruns and on YouTube. Predator fits the main theme of my book because it is a good example of how people’s tendencies to find pleasure in the misfortunes of others can be exploited. Using a chat line, the producers of this show lure men to show up at a site in which they expect to meet an underage girl or boy. The host of the show, Chris Hansen, makes a surprise entrance instead and proceeds to question these men about their intentions, usually catching them in one lie after another. After the prosecutorial exchange has run its course, Hansen uses a variation of this line (which has become the source of much parody on various other shows):

“I have to tell you that I am Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC and we are doing a story about computer predators who try to meet teens online for sex.”

Cameramen appear from around corners, and “humilitainment” is now in full throttle. As Steve Winn of Slate Magazine put it, the show has a “queasily transfixing” appeal. Why? My thinking is that the producers have selected a fringe slice of humanity that gives almost any viewer a potent “downward comparison” thus providing a dependable, and pleasing, self-esteem boost. Also, since child predators are so reviled, and, in this instance, their behavior so unforced and intentional (the sting features of the show notwithstanding), the humiliation of these men seems utterly deserved --- hence schadenfreude, guilt-free. Oscar Wilde noted that, “on an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure,” but I let readers be the judge about whether Predator crosses ethical lines.

In other parts of the book, largely using current psychological research and theory, I analyze examples of schadenfreude-causing events – from the exposing of an embarrassing vice of a self-righteous politician, a rival sports team suffering a humiliating loss, to when an envied friend suffers a small setback. In one chapter I suggest that understanding the nature of schadenfreude, especially when inspired by envy, may help explain the brutal treatment of the Jews by the Nazis. Finally, although I don’t think there is any way of eliminating the emotion, I suggest some ways to minimize its prevalence and intensity.
Learn more about The Joy of Pain at the Oxford University Press website.

Rosanna Smith did the illustrations for the book. She graduated with a degree in Art from Yale University in 2010. She is currently getting her Ph.D. in Organizations and Management at Yale University where she is studying perceptions of creativity.

--Marshal Zeringue