On Oct. 28, a man broke into the home of Nancy Pelosi and brutally attack her husband Paul Pelosi with a hammer. Paul was recently discharged from the hospital after suffering a skull fracture and other serious injuries.
What makes this tragedy especially troubling is that some people responded with delight. Politicians such as Ted Cruz mocked and trivialized it. Donald Trump Jr. posted an image of a pair of underwear and a hammer next to the caption: “Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready.”
As humans, we are susceptible to what the Germans call schadenfreude — a compound of the words schaden, which means harm, and freude, meaning joy. We feel schadenfreude when we feel pleasure at another’s pain. It is the opposite of empathy.
Science has established that when we view someone as unlike us, we’re more likely to feel pleasure in their pain. This can lead, not just to mocking their pain but adding to it. Violence against “the other” is often justified by dehumanization — the process of stripping someone of their personhood. This allows the brain to sidestep the built-in brakes against harming one’s own species. “The other” is seen as subhuman. How does this happen?
Dehumanization begins with a belief that “the other” is intellectually or morally inferior and that their ideas or way of life will contaminate our group. “The others” are compared to animals or other derogatory terms. You’ve likely heard this type of language used (snowflakes, deplorables, etc.). For example, Hitler often referred to Jewish people as vermin. During the Rwandan genocide, members of the country’s minority Tutsi population were called cockroaches.
Dehumanizing language is often followed by threats of violence. One GOP candidate recently released an ad referencing “rino hunting” with violent imagery. Regardless of his intentions with this messaging, it gives his base a sense of superiority and justification for mistreating the other side.
We have evolved to live in communities and cooperate with one another. Too often, however, our willingness to cooperate with others depends on how similar we think they are to us. In hunter-gatherer societies, those who formed attachments to caregivers, were loyal to their in-group members, and were wary of “the others” were more likely to survive. We’ve evolved to bias “the self,” meaning those who look like us, act like us and think like us.
Current technology allows us to see the neural mechanisms in our brain related to empathy, compassion, and yes, schadenfreude. When we see someone in pain, often our own pain receptors are activated. However, if the person in pain is someone we don’t relate with (someone of a different political party, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.), our brain centers related to empathy may go quiet. Even worse, our reward centers can be active.
It’s natural to feel pleasure when our group succeeds at something, but the joy we feel when “the others” lose can be just as powerful. We can get trapped into zero-sum thinking when we’re more motivated to see the other side lose than to see our side succeed. As neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky said, “In-group parochialism is often more concerned about Us beating Them than with Us simply doing well.”
The adaptive ability of our early ancestors to quickly assess who was friend and who was foe was lifesaving. However, this ability is often maladaptive now. Researchers have found that contempt for “the other” isn’t confined to groups with vastly different values than us but can include trivial differences like sports teams or food preferences.
While our brains are wired to create “us” vs. “them” on a whim, these distinctions are very malleable. The lines we draw between groups are often arbitrary and can easily be blurred with intentional practice. For example, researchers recommend reading fiction to increase empathy and practicing compassion meditation to expand our in-group.
Understanding our natural tendencies to demonize “the other” can help inform us of how to become better advocates of peace. We must all do our part to diminish this destructive “us” vs. “them” mentality. Every single one of us (especially those we have elected to lead us) must condemn dehumanizing language, celebrations of harm and violent imagery. Our future is not a zero-sum game where harm done to the other team benefits us. We can create inclusive rhetoric and policies that benefit everyone when we remember that we all belong to the same human race.
Veronika Tait graduated with a degree in social psychology from Brigham Young University. She is currently an assistant professor at Snow College.