Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Ha Ha, Loser

You know what schadenfreude is: taking pleasure in someone else's suffering. You're familiar with the concept; you've likely experienced it at some point. A group of researchers at Princeton, led by professor Susan Fiske, have now put it to paper, as per the thesis of student Mina Cikara, who is now an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon. The question wasn't so much will they find it as much as why does it happen and can they predict who will have that response.

It was published in the September edition of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. It's one of those articles you're going to have to pay a bunch of money to read. Didn't catch how much it's going to run you.

Here's how things went down:

*In the first experiment, subjects were hooked up to an EMG, which measures electrical activity in your facial movements. They were then shown a picture of some stereotypical person such as a drug addict, a student or a rich person, paired with one of several possible activities, such as winning $5 or getting splashed by a taxi. They were then asked, for each pair, how they would feel if the given event happened to the given person. People may have said the right things, or they may not have, but regardless of what they told the researchers, their faces showed what they really thought: they liked bad things happening to rich people. And they hated good things happening to rich people. The rich in general brought the strongest responses either way.

*In experiment 2, subjects were hooked up to an fMRI- functional magnetic resonance imaging- which measures blood flow in the brain. They were then shown the same photos and activities as in the first experiment, and asked to give a number, from 1-9, regarding how okay they'd be with the event happening to the person. This went just like the first experiment did: the subjects were out to eat the rich. The same subjects came back two weeks later and took an online survey in which they were presented the option of giving electric shocks to certain people in order to spare several others.

The results of that: shocky shock shock. The researchers didn't think the subjects were willing to go quite that far, but apparently so.

*In the third experiment, things got played with a bit. The people that subjects were shown in the first two experiments were picked out based on their ability to generate a particular emotion: the rich generated envy, for instance; students generated pride; the elderly evoked pity; drug addicts evoked disgust. (Those appear to be the only four emotional responses they were looking for.) This time, the stereotypes got swapped around, as the people shown were given various different scenarios regarding the same pictures: one subject would be told the banker was in fact the stereotypical banker (generating envy), but another would be told he was doing pro-bono work (generating pride), another would be told he was funding a drug addiction with his salary (generating disgust), and another would be told he was actually unemployed but still dressing to go to work (generating pity). The question here, of course, is do the subjects follow the picture or follow the background. The subjects followed the background.

*Then came the final experiment, regarding the initial inspiration for Cikara's thesis in the first place. Cikara, you see, is a Red Sox fan. What had happened was that Cikara went to Yankee Stadium to watch her Red Sox play the Yankees. If you've ever gone to a rivalry game as a fan of the visitors, you know exactly what kind of treatment she got. It was a perfect subject to use: you might be able to tell a researcher what you think they want to hear regarding what you want to see happen to someone else in general life, but you're not going to be able or willing to hide who you root for at a baseball game. All subjects here were prescreened for fandom of either the Red Sox or the Yankees, hooked up to an fMRI, and then asked to watch a Red Sox/Yankees game, with their brain activity monitored in accordance with what was going on in the game. As one might predict, when fortunes went in favor of their team, it got positive responses. I don't think you really needed to be told that.

After this, both fandoms were shown games in which the two teams played a neutral opponent, the Baltimore Orioles, against which neither team has a strong rivalry. When their own team played the Orioles, there wasn't all that much of a response either way, as, again, neither fanbase has much of anything against the Orioles. Then they were shown a game in which their rival lost to the Orioles, and oh, they loved that part. Two weeks later, the subjects were given an online survey and said they were more likely to heckle, insult, threaten or even hit a rival fan while watching.

The ultimate takeaway was that generally, people just try to go along to get along and even if you feel envy towards a group, if they're not out to get you, you're not out to get them back. When the groups are placed in direct competition with each other, be it economically, in a job search, in a sporting event, then the knives come out, because the other person's failure is, in a way, your success. The researchers even tied this to the perception of the United States abroad: namely, we're the rich guy people want to see splashed by a taxi.

It's best left to sports.

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