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The “mere presence of a vegetarian can make omnivores feel morally inferior,” reports Christie Aschwanden in a New York Times review of The Joy of Pain by Richard H. Smith (12/24/13). Research by social psychologist Benoit Monin shows this, and the reason is that omnivores “anticipate judgment.” “Vegetarians need not say a word; their very existence, from a meat eater’s point of view, is a moral irritant.” The remedy is for the omnivore to see a vegetarian succumb to juicy steak, because this allows omnivores to believe they “are not as inferior” as they thought and “assume the contrasting position of moral superiority.”

What the omnivores are feeling is Schadenfreude, or “pleasure derived from the pain of others” – a German word that is  “so apt we’ve adopted it in English.” The thing about Schadenfreude is that it “provides a potent antidote” for envy. A powerful person’s downfall brings him or her closer to one’s level and allows “enviers to feel better about themselves.” The concept is grounded in the notion, proposed by philosopher Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, that humor often arises “from a sudden sense of superiority.” Richard observes that unfavorable comparisons offer “sudden glory.”

He writes: “Do we watch reality television for precious insights into the human condition? Please. We watch for those awkward scenes that make us feel a smidgen better about our own little unfilmed lives.” The thing that really makes Schadenfreude work is that “bystanders play no role in the target’s misfortunes … It’s the lack of participation on the part of the witness that gives Schadenfreude its gleefulness and makes its acknowledgment permissible – your target has fallen and you had nothing to do with it.” Richard thinks it’s okay “to embrace the opportunity it provides to indulge our dark sides.”