Why do people enjoy watching others suffer?

this post is a tribute to Farid Younes. one of the greatest minds i’ve known, and a personal mentor to me without him knowing it. “why do people enjoy watching others suffer?” is a question he asked half a dozen years ago in class. and no one had an answer. it stayed with me until now. below is my answer to him.

have you ever seen a herd of deers?

have you seen the way they run when they feel the presence of a predator?
now image what you would feel like if you were a deer running away from the predator AND you have no idea where he is.
compare that with the feeling you get if you saw that predator running away with another deer all the way on the very opposite side of the herd.

you’ll feel a lot more secure, wouldn’t you?
do you know that once the predator gets to one of the deers, the deers actually stop running?
they would actually just stand there feeling a sense of relief wash over them. wouldn’t you be glad it’s not you?

i believe that same instinct is available in humans.
when we were living in the wild, we’ve been programmed that a predator only hunts one prey at a time.
he doesn’t need more. and so once that predator gets his prey, the others are safe.
and watching that predator get his prey, is the cue for the rest of us that we’re safe from harm.

this same instinct has remained unchanged in this day and age, even thought there are no more predators to humans.
natural disasters take more than just one person. crashes, diseases, wars, fights, they all take more than one prey.
yet when we see any one of those happening, we stop. our instinct kicks off. we’re fooled during those few second or minutes that there could only be one victim. and we feel immediately secure because we’re not the one. and that’s why we “have” to stop and watch.
we want to know that the predator got his prey, and it’s not us, so we can feel secure.

and that’s why people love to watch war news, and disastrous news. that’s why we all stop at car accidents, or fights. and that’s why people actually pay loads of money to watch 2 guys punching the heck out of each other.

a few of you might confuse this with feeling insecure and afraid from natural disasters, wars, etc. and might argue that on the contrary, when we know that we might get sick, or the plane can crash, we’ll get worried, not secure. and that’s very true. what you shouldn’t get this confused with is that the feeling of security comes only at the moment that someone “else” is getting hurt. the moment that the predator catches it’s prey. not before, and not after.

after you finish watching the news about some new type of flu, that’s when you feel worried, because your rational brain kicks it and tells you that it could be you. but as you were watching in the news that someone is japan is sick, you instantly felt a sense of relief; that’s the instinct part or your brain (seth godin calls it the lizard brain.)

to clarify this better: let’s take the deer example again. so you’re grazing in an opening, and you’re worried about predators. suddenly a predator appears, you panic and run for your life, all the while looking to see if you’re the prey or not. and whether the predator got his prey or not. the moment you see the catch, boom: instant relief and security. you say to yourself: “thank goodness it’s someone else!” moments later, while grazing again, the fear from predators comes again.

it’s in our instincts. we’re hard wired. we need those moments when we see others get hurt so we can relax, at least for those few moments when it’s happening to someone else.

update: for deeper insights into why we behave this way, and what goes on in our brains during that time, please read the comments.

yours, will.

twitter: @williamchoukeir

p.s. closely related & coming soon: how we ran animals to death + how that’s related to laziness?

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10 Responses to Why do people enjoy watching others suffer?

  1. Karim says:

    But Will, this may be the case with deers but is it the case with all animals or all humans? Don’t people watch the news out of collective concern (and in the worst cases, being war-junkies)?Also, doesn’t it also boil to how one percieves himself?When you say this is an instict, you imply permanence. Is this true?

  2. Anonymous says:

    karim: i believe it’s the case with all animals who at a certain point in time had predators. and i believe that we had predators. and yes, i imply permanence, because of the specific and unique structure of our brains. the smallest part of our brain, also referred to as the lizard brain, is the brain we got at the very first. we had this brain before the bigger emotional part that came later, and the biggest rational part that came even later.we had this lizard brain for millions of years, and for this reason it’s more powerful than the other 2 (considering their young nature). and unfortunately, this lizard brain controls the instinct part of us. and all are instincts that tool millions of years to develop are hardwired in that brain. so even this permanence that i imply doesn’t mean forever, it just mean a very long time until the other 2 newer brains are strong enough to shut the lizard brain up.the lizard brain is responsible for survival; its job is to make sure that you’re well fed, well hydrated, and well rested, so that in case of emergency, you’re ready to get up and run instantly. that’s why we always have internal conflicts. you have to work but you don’t feel like it. and laying down is always easier then working. being lazy is the easiest thing to do. it’s the lizard brain, hard wired to protect you.do you see how it starts to make more sense? the pleasure that we get from watching others suffer is for the few first minutes that the lizard brain in control. then when the emotional & rational part kicks in, we wake up and become human again.

  3. Karim says:

    <div dir="ltr"><div>I have to run, but I can say this:</div> <div>It is very rare that I see humans derive pleasure from a percieved inhumane pain that the other is recieving, unless the pain is categorized as &quot;entertainment&quot;, or unless the pain of the other bolsters oneself. On the contrary, people feel very strong compassion for the suffering of others, and in many cases shed a tear. The issue at hand, to me, boils down to anamilistic competition. The tiger feels stronger when its pray becomes weaker, but on the other hand, deer huddle together for??a reason. I cant right now, but I will soon send you videos of herds (probably herds of deer as well) interfering to save a fallen member.</div> <div>I also happen to think that culture strongly defines means of thinking and means of acting. The lizard part of the brain most certainly is not very powerful in a hypothetical saint or a monk.<br></div></div>

  4. Anonymous says:

    you’re absolutely right karim, humans don’t derive "joy" and "pleasure" out of others receiving pain. i believe they get a sense of "relief", relief is the more accurate word. like a deer getting a sense of relief because another deer was the victim, and not her.i’ve tried to look at it from many angles, and i can’t seem to neglect the sense of relief i get when someone else is chosen for something painful, instead of i.the only thing that i’m saying is this sensation of relief that comes right after fear & worry, creates such a drastic change in emotions, that i have to admit, it is pleasant at some level. this is the part that i’m assuming is hard wired. (as i’m sure it’ll be less & less prominent as we tame it)of course monks, saints, & even very competitive people in the business world have created their way of overcoming the lizard brain. very productive people, i would assume like you and i, have our own ways of managing the lizard. yet unfortunately, we remain the minority.please keep sharing your thoughts, my note isn’t something i’m preaching. it’s brainstorming, and a collective ground for anyone interested to put his input, so that we may all reach deeper/greater insights.

  5. Karim says:

    <div dir="ltr">I agree, William :)<br><br></div>

  6. Anonymous says:

    thanks karim, i love your mind. and have your email. i’ll send you an email now 🙂

  7. Farid Younes says:

    William 1-?? L’homme noble est un cr??ateur de valeurs. ?? Merci pour ta noblesse.2-?? On n’a que peu de reconnaissance pour un ma??tre, quand on restetoujours ??l??ve. ?? Chapeau bas Ma??tre William.3-Revenons au sujet :I have the following questions:Does the fear is the cause of the fact that the pray run away from the predator. If no, what it is? If yes ? Fear from what? Pain? Hurt? Damage? Death ? Does the prey is conscious about all these feelings/facts/predictions? Although it is a very interesting interpretation (knowing that all phenomena are group of facts selected interpreted, resembled by the interpreter), it can converge along with 2 of my own observations: 1- why we enjoy watching the fire in the chimney and we didn???t enjoy watching other heat sources? 2- why we enjoy looking the dbi7a while eating du nay? Are these genetic traces coming from the primate???s status/society? Enjoy alors et encore.Ps1: all quotations are for F. Nietzsche.Ps2: don???t forget to write my English faults and send them to me as you used to do upon my request.Farid Younes

  8. Anonymous says:

    merci farid tellement. vous avez jouez un grand r??le dans ce que je suis aujourd’hui. chapeau bas a toi aussi.Revenons au sujet:yes, i believe that fear is the reason the prey runs away from the predator. and i believe it is fear of pain. i don’t know about fear of death. this is a big question that i can’t even begin to think about right now (are animals aware of death?)i have experienced this fear in dogs when i received my first dog when i was very, very young. i had no experience with training dogs at all. when my dog peed on the floor the first time, being ignorant, i hit her (i’m sorry about that, i am now a vegan that practices 100% non-violence). what happened every time after that, is this: when she pees on the floor, she instantly starts crying, and she runs away and hides from me in a corner in the room.this shows that animals have an awareness to pain, and will actually take action to prevent themselves from getting hurt. so, at the least, it is the fear of pain that makes them sun away.furthermore, i believe that animals are not aware of the consequences of long-term damage or injury. i will try to demonstrate this using the same dog: carrying my dog the place where there was pee on the floor, and hitting her ‘after’ she peed, did not stop her from peeing. after research, i found out that dogs do not associate between things that happen at different times. so when i hit my dog when i make her smell the pee, she learns that smelling the pee means pain. but she cannot associate that peeing on the floor means pain. so after i learned this, i watched her carefully, and as soon as she stared peeing, i hit her. and that was it. she learned. she associated peeing with pain.this at least shows that dogs associate between 2 different things that happen at different times. to go back to the deer example. if a deer is attacked and injured, and then runs away, after minutes, i believe that she will not know that the injuries are because the predator attacked her. i also believe that she will only feel the pain, and NOT wonder why she is feeling pain.now of course there are 2 assumptions here. 1: that what applies to dogs, also applies to deers. and 2: what applies to deers also apply to humans.i believe these 2 assumptions are safe to assume, because dogs, deers, reptiles, all animals, and even humans, have the same "lizard" brain, which is the primitive, limbic system that we all have in common. different animals and humans have "additional" brain parts on top of that. but it’s the lizard brain that controls hard-wired instinct, it’s also the most powerful of all brain parts. and the theory i’m proposing, the sense-of-relief or joy of watching others suffer, is generated ‘only’ from this basic, ancient, lizard brain.your 2 other questions:1. i believe that we DO enjoy watching other heat sources. people are attracted to light and shiny things, a lot more than they attracted to non-light-emmiting objects. and all light-emiting-objects are also heat sources. even if the heat itself is negligible. so i believe it actually simplifies itself to this: we enjoy watching light. we enjoy feeling warmth. and these are also hardwired in our lizard brain, which is responsible for our survival. it is safer to have heat, not cold. it is safe to have light, not darkness.p.s. don’t forget to fix my mistakes in french :-)2. same answer as "why do we enjoy watching others suffer"

  9. uncivilizedsociety says:

    I have always known people who took extreme joy in watching others be hurt and even causing it pretending that they had nothing to do with it. It is the deep part of us that is glad it is happening to someone else. People are motivated to do this by Jealousy mostly but sometimes when someone suffers a loss, they like to see others hurt worse than them. People are not as civilized as we take credit for. We have tremendous and horrible animal instincts and the cave man comes out most of the time. People will gang up on the weakest, the nicest and the one that poses little threat because they can team bully as if it were a sport. It is a sport to alot of women. Women will cause others horrible grief because they are scorned and love to watch someone else hurt. Sometimes the things we fear the most, we like to watch someone else suffer thru it just to see how someone else would handle what they fear. People are basically Evil, Not basically good. People will help others if they are more Blessed than most but for the most part, humans are just down right mean and evil. I know because I am a woman and I have been guilty of this many times. I have loved watching others go thru what I fear would happen to me. I also dislike so called "NICE" people, they probably are able to be nice because nothing BAD has ever happened to them and those I like to see hurt the worst. Sorry, but that’s my truth.

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