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When I was a kid, I sucked at sports. I caught baseballs with my face. I caught footballs in my throat. I was awful. But at the end, there were participation ribbons. They sucked too. But participation ribbons may have saved lives. Let me explain.
Everybody’s a winner!
Participation ribbons have become participation trophies. Championship and MVP trophies are a constant. But now, there can be awards for “Best Team Player” and “Best Attendance” and “Most Improved” and “Best Attitude”, etc. Potentially, everyone could end up with an award. This practice has been critiqued in columns, blogs, and even on TV shows, like "The Middle." But it might be a wise practice.
Schadenfreude is a German word for the feeling of pleasure you take from another person’s misfortune. “Schaden” means “harm,” and “freude” means “joy” in German. We take pleasure when our enemies – or even friends - fail. Schadenfreude is a mean and dirty part of human nature.
Not too long ago, some Dutch social psychologists conducted a series of studies to explore schadenfreude. In one study, participants took a test to measure their self-esteem. Then, the participants read an interview about a brilliant student, who was later found to have done badly on her thesis. The worse the participants felt about themselves, the more pleasing was this student’s failure (items such as “I couldn’t resist a little smile” or “I enjoyed what happened”).
A second study was conducted. The procedure was similar. But this time, the participants were broken into two groups. In one group, the study proceeded as before. But in the other group, after reading the brilliant student’s interview – but before reading about her bad thesis – the participants were given a prompt to think “self-affirming” thoughts about their important values. The participants in this other group – who experienced the self-affirming thoughts – were less inclined to take pleasure in the student’s failed thesis.
“There’s nothing like a little success to blunt the influence of low self-esteem,” writes Richard H. Smith, a psychology professor. Smith also wrote a book, “The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature” – which explores schadenfreude on multiple levels in our culture.
Back to the Participation Trophies
Recently, the “Facebook Killer” used mindless violence in some twisted way to deal with his romantic failure. How many Americans are just teetering on the brink? How many of us are dealing with the toxicity of low self-esteem? Whose pain and agony will they take pleasure in?
So, maybe participation ribbons and trophies aren’t so bad. A ribbon. A trophy. A random compliment. A perfunctory get-well-soon card signed by your co-workers. A token “Happy Birthday” on Facebook. Little bits of “self-affirming thought” can keep the demon of schadenfreude away, which gives the better part of our human nature a chance to hold on for dear life.
Van Dijk, W., van Koningsbruggen, G.M., Ouweerker, J.W., & Wesseling, Y.M. (2011), Self-esteem, self-affirmation, and schadenfreaude, Emotion, 11, 1445-1449.
Smith, Richard H. (2013), The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.