By: Christian Boone, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
LeBron James may not be the game's best ever, as basketball Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen postulated before the NBA Finals.
No player, however, has united more sports fans.
They cheered not for the Dallas Mavericks but against the self-anointed king, he of the overhyped "Decision," frequent third-person references and "Chosen 1″ back tattoo.
Even the most casual basketball follower seemed invested in James' defeat. Noting that, James said that his detractors "have to get back to the real world at some point" shortly after Dallas won the NBA title Sunday night.
"At the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail – at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today," James told reporters. "They have the same personal problems they had today."
He has a point, according to an Emory psychologist who notes that people projecting the perspective of others most often succumb to the lure of schadenfreude -- a German word for deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of strangers.
"It may make them feel better about themselves but it reflects their insecurities," said Nadine Kaslow, a professor in Emory's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. "When we are children we learn to have empathy. Unfortunately, some people don't learn those lessons."
Their ranks seem to be increasing, judging by the culture. The popularity of reality television is built squarely on the shoulders of schadenfreude which, as columnist George F. Will recently noted, has nearly supplanted baseball as America's national pastime. There's even a song in the popular musical "Avenue Q" extolling the virtues of watching "a vegetarian being told she just ate chicken" and "tourists reading maps."
"If the source of happiness is the misfortune of others ... I doubt that this sort of happiness is really what makes life worth living," University of Michigan psychology professor Christopher Peterson recently wrote. "Why define yourself by what you hate?"
Often, it's partisan. Republicans took as much pleasure in the public humiliation if U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner as Democrats have with the foundering campaign of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
But James' comeuppance crossed party lines. Onlyhardcore Miami Heat fans and the same frontrunners who live in, say, Macon yet root for the trendy Boston Red Sox were immune.
After all, isn't it human nature to relish seeing an overinflated ego bruised?
"We all have a negative reaction to [narcissism], especially when the economy is down," Kaslow said. In tough times, "the feelings grow more intense," she said.
That's certainly reflected by the reaction of Clevelanders still smarting from their erstwhile prom king's decision to, in his words, "take his talents to South Beach." The headline in Monday's Cleveland Plain-Dealer: "Dallas Mavericks take their talents to South Beach, leave with NBA championship, 105-95, over Miami."
Schadenfreude, it seems, has a fairly long shelf life, even if its popularity is overstated.
"The reality is most people don't take pleasure in the misfortune of others," Kaslow said, though James and Clevelanders may agree to disagree with the professor on that point.