Prosocial and antisocial behavior seem to be generally reciprocal in nature, meaning that people are nice to nice people and mean to mean people. Of course, this is an oversimplification, but the general pattern seems to hold true. When an individual abandons cultural norms, they enter a high-risk social world in which they will face increased abuses that are not as detectable to the communities that follow the cultural norms. This post is an exploration of hidden social dynamics in society such as reciprocal aggression patterns, covert sadism, corruption of reciprocal fairness, and the development of sociopathy among nonconformists. The concept of Schadenfreude may help to explain the tendency towards antisocial behavior. Being aware of these patterns is useful for leveling up your empathy and, if you are a nonconformist yourself, navigating this difficult social world.
While in a group chat with individuals I consider to be close friends, there was an interaction that caught my eye. An individual posted something involving a product of animal harm. Before going further, I will say that I actually love these people regardless of this and I think they do not intend to really hurt me, but only to playfully tease me.
This interaction might initially appear innocent from an outsider’s perspective, though, upon closer examination, it might actually be an incident of sadism (although it is debatable). The individual who posted the image is aware that I am vegan and that animal harm is emotional and triggering for me because I’ve associated traumatic stimuli like death, violence, and abuse with ordinary stimuli like the fur coat or food. Despite knowing this, they posted this and then their partner even went further to include a meme that acknowledges the specific awareness of the animal harm involved as well. It was a meme of the animal getting mad at a human for the product as if they were emphasizing that the product involved animal harm specifically.
I will say, I could very well be paranoid, but that is part of the problem with this situation: I will never know. It would be easy to deny this as a harmless interaction. It is exactly because of this deniability that it would be so easy to get away with such actions without repercussions. These kinds of aggressions could be what are often termed microaggressions.
The problem is that I am not allowed to reciprocate this aggression because of cultural norms allowing for their dominance and my unconsented submission. Consider, if I were to reciprocate the aggression by trying to trigger both of these individuals in an equivalently emotionally arousing way, I would likely seem like an asshole to the group, particularly if I trigger them by using commonly held triggers that are ubiquitous among the others in the chat. This is because the others in the group will empathize and relate to being triggered in those ways and not empathize or relate to being triggered via exposure to subtler reminders of animal harm.
The nonvegans are permitted to dominate my emotions and act sadistically in a culturally covert way by these mechanisms. If I am to retaliate, my social standings could be reduced because my retaliation will be seen as either unprovoked or unjustified aggression. This gives the sadists an open door for which they can exploit my emotions with no social repercussions.
These kinds of incidents occur quite frequently, although in most cases it is not the intention to be sadistic but rather a lack of awareness that such information would harm me. The most common of these triggers by far is the celebration of the consumption of meat and watching everyone cheer it on in front of me. Though, in the case I’ve outlined above, the person who posted actually identifies as a sadist and also has observed me express pain repeatedly over similar incidents. One of the individuals even jokingly insisted that he eats meat to spite me. I think he says this because it is actually far from the truth. He eats meat as a tradition and believes it is acceptable to do so, but he might imagine that I believe he wants to spite me so he jokingly pretends he is absurdly evil.
I realize that these interactions breed sadistic impulses within me. It is as if people are constantly picking at my traumatic worldview, my Vystopia, and all I can do is sit and watch because if I am to reciprocate aggression, it will appear like an unprovoked act of violence on my part. This is a path to sociopathy. This is a path to hating society and living on the fringe to protect my emotions. This can also be a path to the abandonment of my emotions and possibly my values as a means of coping. I could disconnect from my emotions and avoid any concern for the breaking of my values or I could disconnect from other people and immerse into my values deeper, viewing ordinary nonvegans as antisocial.
Note: I am using the term sociopathy to refer to a low empathy or antisocial person who is conditioned by their world, rendered by the systems of their life. This is sometimes termed secondary psychopathy.
Deviating from social norms and standards is a pathway to suffering, an urge for justice (very similar to revenge and fairness), and ultimately sociopathy. Recognizing this might help us reduce antisocial behaviors in society by acknowledging hidden triggers that exist in other people. Those who do not conform are going to be constantly faced with antisocial-like experiences from the conformity culture and this might eventually provoke revenge urges that lead to harming the individuals in the conformity culture. So it is in the best interest of “normal” individuals to be considerate to differences if they wish to avoid these harms from eventual sociopaths.
Justified sociopathy is what the movie Joker depicts. This is why the film was perceived as so controversial. It essentially tells the story of someone who was unfairly abused and harmed to a turning point, one that has the audience cheering on because they themselves observe the justifications and resonate with them. The Joker undergoes a transformation into a sociopath and it seems highly warranted as if the society around him was criminal and deserving of punishment. Some worried that the film would validate and attract people who felt similarly betrayed by society, resulting in theatre shootings or other problems.
Aggression-based schadenfreude primarily involves group identity. The joy of observing the suffering of others comes from the observer’s feeling that the other’s failure represents an improvement or validation of their own group’s (in-group) status in relation to external (out-groups) groups (see In-group and out-group). This is, essentially, schadenfreude based on group versus group status.
Rivalry-based schadenfreude is individualistic and related to interpersonal competition. It arises from a desire to stand out from and out-perform one’s peers. This is schadenfreude based on another person’s misfortune eliciting pleasure because the observer now feels better about their personal identity and self-worth, instead of their group identity.
Justice-based schadenfreude comes from seeing that behavior seen as immoral or “bad” is punished. It is the pleasure associated with seeing a “bad” person being harmed or receiving retribution. Schadenfreude is experienced here because it makes people feel that fairness has been restored for a previously un-punished wrong.
Those who are forced to live through unfairly abusive situations may develop resentment towards those who have unfairly pleasant lives. Our urge to induce fairness can include both improving one’s own life or leveling out the quality of other people’s lives. At this point, it is probably clear how abuse could factor into a kind of schadenfreude-induced sociopathy.
One possibility is that when people experience Schadenfreude, they undergo a state (temporary) process similar to that experienced by individuals with high levels of psychopathic personality traits: motivated by certain situational and perhaps to a lesser extent dispositional variables, the perceiver tends to dehumanize the victim, temporarily losing the motivation to detect the victim’s mind, much like a psychopath.
Individualism is a kind of value that permits deviance from social conformity. In essence, individualism allows us to abandon ingroups and allow ourselves to hold personal values that contradict others’. In order for individualism to work without immense social conflict, we have to abandon our values or the emotions surrounding our values. Otherwise, we will find ourselves resenting those who cross our values, which essentially induces schadenfreude. While individualism has benefits like an acceleration of new ideas, it might also have detriments, like breaking the cohesion of communities.
It often feels as if there are two choices that can be made for someone who holds values that are not shared by other people. Erase one’s emotions and empathy to fit in (feeling nothing about my values, acting highly Machiavellian) or become an antisocial actor who wants them to suffer (justice schadenfreude).
Besides individualism, there are many other common schadenfreude patterns that emerge from de-synchronicities in people.
Individuals facing homeless often become angry and resentful of their place in the society. Part of this is an issue of relative deprivation, a concept I’ve covered before. Relative deprivation describes being deprived of some resource or something that others have. This concept is important because it seems that most of our unhappiness with resource deprivation is about the unfairness of others having access rather than being absolutely deprived of the resource. The homeless are almost a symbol of peak relative deprivation since they are deprived of almost all resources. Because of this, they are often bitter and resentful.
Rivalry schadenfreude may be closely tied to this problem of relative deprivation. Those experiencing this kind of schadenfreude are upset that others have some kind of unfair privilege, advantage, or resource and our urge is often to bring them down a notch. The aggressive demeanor that is common among the homeless may not necessarily reveal anything about their inherent tendencies or even of their drug use, but instead, reveal their rivalry schadenfreude stemming from relative deprivation and an urge to punish others for their unfair privileges. They are essentially become radicalized by their situation.
A lot of social justice movements are focused on relative deprivation in relation to ethnic or other identities. Consider that sometimes it isn’t a material resource we are deprived of but also respect or dignity. Almost paradoxically to this (it isn’t actually), beliefs about relative deprivation may even underlie the rise of the Nazis, as they often focused on Jewish people having some sort of unfair power or privileges. Populist movements seem to often exploit such schadenfreude by warning of the threat of losing one’s privileges (the robots are taking our jobs!). This seems to touch on both aggressive and rivalry schadenfreude.
You could probably guess that such patterns apply to the dynamics between the rich and the poor too. We are often antisocial to the rich. We see memes about sending Jeff Bezos to space and never letting him return to Earth. To many, this would be justice. The rich are unfair. Part of the problem with this is that those who are rich will observe this hatred and it will lead them to feel justified in losing empathy for the poor. Many rich people probably experience others around them using them for money and abusing them in various ways that most poor people probably don’t acknowledge. Eventually, it becomes a situation of us-versus-them.
It is important to consider how such antisocial dynamics can unfold within individuals and realize that they are even common. It is probably the case that our genetic behavioral profiles are less diverse than our environmental contexts as a species. Those who exist as rich or poor are probably less variable in genes than in situations, circumstances, and subjective experiences. Although, this is really just an intuition or hypothesis that I would need to substantiate as I develop my thinking as time goes on.
Our empathy is contingent on an awareness of the other’s feelings and life experiences. The more we share others’ life experiences, the more we can make sense of them and have empathy. Being considerate of others’ suffering requires an awareness of it. The more different we are from each other, the more we are likely to fail to understand others and thus the door for accidental non-empathetic behavior opens. Once people have been subject to low empathy behaviors, then the door to reciprocal intentional low empathy and antisocial behavior opens. Being aware of this is important for preventing such patterns from unfolding.
Those who go on to become actual sociopaths may even fall into these patterns of justified sociopathy, although it is probably only one path to such behavior. One may somehow like or fetishize antisocial behavior and their motive could be merely the excitement of it.
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Wang, S., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Rochat, P. (2019). Schadenfreude deconstructed and reconstructed: A tripartite motivational model. New Ideas in Psychology, 52, 1-11.