Jenga and Schadenfreude

People love the suffering of others. In particular, we love what psychologists call public display of failure (PDF). When someone experiences disaster in public, we cannot look away. First, we want to enjoy the physicality of the destruction—the burning down or demolition of a building, the bombing of a city or hospital, the explosion of a bottle, and even natural corrosion if it is sped up using time-elapse (fruit rotting, ice melting, bodies decaying, ants cleaning flesh from bones). Second, we want to enjoy the suffering of the wounded party. Third, we want to check out their reaction. How do they handle it?

The fact that humans have an innate Schadenfreude faculty is the thing I hate most about them. If I bring it up a lot I’m not endorsing it; it’s because I’m worried and want someone else to genetically engineer it out of existence. Here are some of the studies:

Hurting others

1992

You would rather make less money than see me make more than you

Bazerman, M. H., Loewenstein, G. F. & White, S. B. (1992). Reversals of Preference in Allocation Decisions: Judging an Alternative Versus Choosing Among Alternatives.

2010

Money makes you happier only via higher rank

Boyce, C. J., Brown, G. & Moore, S. (2010). Money and Happiness: Rank of Income, Not Income, Affects Life Satisfaction.

2003

Monkeys hate when neighbor gets more

Brosnan, S. F. & de Wall, F. (2003). Monkeys reject unequal pay.

2009

You are happier when surrounded by the poor

Firebaugh, G. & Schroeder, M. (2009). Does Your Neighbor’s Income Affect Your Happiness?.

2015

Wealthy neighbors decrease your happiness

Haushofer, J., Reisinger, J. & Shapiro, J. (2015). Your Gain Is My Pain: Negative Psychological Externalities of Cash Transfers.

1998

You are happy to make less money if others make even less than you

Solnick, A. & Hemenway, D. (1998). Is more always better?: A survey on positional concerns.

2009

My pain gives you biological euphoria

Takahashi, H., Kato, M., Matsuura, M., Mobbs, D., Suhara, T. & Okubo, Y. (2009). When your gain is my pain and your pain is my gain: neural correlates of envy and schadenfreude.

BoxPress Teachable Moment BoxPress Speculum
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This is why we love Jenga. When Jenga is going on, everyone in the area must watch. Public disaster is coming. We can call point an open our mouths. And the person responsible for it—they will be looked-at. We feel the thrill of someone’s house burning down and seeing the demoralized owner, who is also the arsonist, and we get to look into his eyes.

People love playing Jenga because others like watching it. Isn’t it obvious that Jenga is a public game, a spectacle for others? Don’t you want others to watch? As many as possible? And they want to, because to start playing is simultaneously to announce that disaster is nigh. Starting a game of Jenga is like setting the timer on a bomb; or announcing, “Hey everyone! I’m going to balance a huge glass of water on my fingertip while being tickled” or “I’m going to hold my breath and dive in the pool and then a witch is going to cover the entire surface with a sheet of glass.”

We like to play Jenga because we know that others like to watch it. We know this because (1) we ourselves delight in the PDF of others, and (2) everyone has a theory of mind. So if you aren’t delighted by the demolition of a high-rise, the suspense before a disaster that must happen, and the coming of shame, then you are in the minority (see the articles above), and should have as many children as possible.