A recent study examined Americans’ feelings of schadenfreude and sympathy toward Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis in 2020. The findings, published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, revealed that Democrats expressed more schadenfreude and less sympathy toward Trump’s diagnosis compared to Republicans. Democrats were also more likely to think that the diagnosis would sway people’s votes in the upcoming election.
Schadenfreude, a German word that has been adopted by the English language, describes a feeling of pleasure at another person’s misfortune. This emotion tends to occur within competitive environments, often when there is a conflict between two groups. Study author Joanna Peplak and her co-authors wanted to explore the role of schadenfreude within a particularly heated intergroup context — the latest U.S. presidential election.
“I have been interested in schadenfreude (i.e., feeling pleasure in others’ misfortunes) for some time now and have been primarily conducting research on individual and development differences in children’s and adolescents’ experiences of schadenfreude in social interactions,” explained Peplak, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California-Irvine.
“My primary research questions include: When and why do individuals experience schadenfreude? Do frequent experiences of schadenfreude influence how we treat others? Although schadenfreude is primarily thought to be immoral, can it reflect moral facets as well?”
“For this paper, I was interested in investigating similar questions except in the political context—specifically in response to former President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis within weeks of the Presidential Election. My goal was to shed light on the emotions that contribute to partisanship and voting behavior,” Peplak said.
In October 2020, it was announced that then president Donald Trump had contracted COVID-19. The 2020 election campaign was particularly competitive given Trump’s controversial politics and the ongoing pandemic. Because Trump was perceived by many to have mishandled the COVID crisis, some Americans may have felt that he deserved his diagnosis, particularly Democrats.
Peplak and her colleagues opted to investigate feelings of schadenfreude (and its opposite, sympathy) among the American public in response to Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. The researchers also explored whether these feelings influenced citizens’ voting intentions.
About a week after Trump’s diagnosis was announced, 506 Americans answered an online questionnaire. With both open-ended questions and scale items, the survey assessed participants’ levels of schadenfreude and sympathy concerning Trump’s diagnosis. Participants were next asked whether they thought the diagnosis would affect their and other Americans’ voting intentions in the upcoming election.
In general, the respondents reported slightly more sympathy than schadenfreude. As expected, Democrats demonstrated more schadenfreude than toward Trump compared to Republicans. But even among Democrats, the levels of schadenfreude were not high (about 3 on average on a 5-point scale).
“Given the political climate prior to the 2020 Presidential Election and the influx of media responses that displayed individuals’ schadenfreude, I was surprised that feelings of schadenfreude in the sample of Democrats we surveyed for this study were relatively low,” Peplak told PsyPost. “This may be because our participants took COVID-19 diagnoses seriously. That is, even though Democrats may not have liked and/or agreed with former President Trump, their feelings of schadenfreude following his diagnosis may have been tempered by the relative severity of the diagnosis.”
The researchers next assessed the nature of participants’ feelings of schadenfreude and sympathy. There are said to be different subtypes of schadenfreude depending on the cognitions behind the emotion — deservingness-based schadenfreude, competition-based schadenfreude, and malice-based schadenfreude.
By coding participants’ responses to the open-ended questions, the researchers ascertained that the higher schadenfreude and lower sympathy among Democrats was motivated by deservingness beliefs and very little malice. For example, of the total sample, 43% indicated that they felt Trump deserved his diagnosis, 16% expressed care for his well-being, and only 5% expressed malice. These themes were associated with participants’ level of schadenfreude — Americans who expressed that Trump deserved the diagnosis or expressed malice toward him demonstrated higher schadenfreude.
Interestingly, respondents felt that Trump’s diagnosis would impact others’ voting intentions more than their own. Democrats were especially likely to anticipate a shift in votes. Across the sample, of those who thought votes would change, most (76%) thought it would sway more votes toward the Democrats. When they expressed why they thought this, most felt that Trump’s diagnosis would help voters recognize Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic.
Neither schadenfreude nor sympathy was linked to anticipated shifts in voting intentions. However, feeling that Trump deserved his diagnosis was. The authors report, “Those who believed then-President Trump’s diagnosis was deserved (cognition strongly associated with schadenfreude) were four times more likely to believe the public would change their vote to the Democratic Party.”
Peplak said the study provided three important takeaways:
“1. The groups that you belong to and associate with shape your emotional reactions. We found that schadenfreude was higher in Democrats and sympathy was higher in Republicans following former President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis.”
“2. Schadenfreude might not always reflect hatred or malice. We found that many participants experienced schadenfreude following former President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis because they believed it reflected deservingness or justice following his mismanaged response to the pandemic.”
“3. Experiencing schadenfreude in response to a political event may (indirectly) influence voting behavior. We found that the more Americans believed Trump’s diagnosis was deserved (a belief strongly related to experiences of schadenfreude), the more likely they were to think others would change their vote to the Democratic Party in the 2020 Presidential Election.”
Overall, the study shed light on how emotionally charged political events may influence the public’s thoughts about an upcoming election. But the authors noted that their study only examined voting intentions and not voting behavior. It would be interesting for future research to explore whether emotions like schadenfreude might actually change voting behavior and influence election results.
“There is still much to be learned about schadenfreude in the political arena and whether and how feeling schadenfreude might change behavior,” Peplak said. “For example, future work should seek to answer questions such as: Does expressed schadenfreude (e.g., via social media) expand political party divides? Does schadenfreude based in correcting injustice motivate us to correct our own injustices?”
The study, “Schadenfreude and Sympathy Following President Trump’s COVID-19 Diagnosis: Influence on Pre-Election Voting Intentions”, was authored by Joanna Peplak, J. Zoe Klemfuss, and Peter H. Ditto.