Tiger Woods and the Psychology of Spiteful Glee

It's not enough that Tiger Woods' name is dragged through the mud; he must be tarred, feathered and humiliated.

A brief check on Google Trends shows that the last week has brought a thirty-fold increase in searches on "Tiger Woods." Just as a comparison: when Woods won the U.S. open, the spike was nowhere close to that volume. Google News feeds something about Tiger Woods every few minutes now.

It is dismaying to watch the spectacle: Terabytes of gore fill cyberspace with truly important speculations like "how many mistresses does Tiger have?" The Google stats show that while humans have an endless need to idolize, the pleasure of enviously destroying the demigods of celebrity is even greater. The infotainment system wouldn't keep producing "news," gossip and speculation about the private lives of celebrities, if there wasn't an insatiable hunger for it. What, then, is behind the human obsession with celebrity, and the pleasure to see them fall? The burgeoning discipline of Experimental Existential Psychology can explain some of it.

Evolution has led to the point where humans are in an impossible plight: we are the only animal to have knowledge of our death, and it turns out that we can simply not bear this knowledge. We make every conceivable effort to deny what we know: that we will one day cease to exist. As a result, we obsessively look for ways that give us the feeling that we will not disappear without trace.

Since the dawn of history, fame has been one way to deny our mortality. The Homeric heroes put their lives at stake to perform acts of bravery that would be sung about for all generations to come. They were willing to die for immortal fame.

That seems paradoxical: why should we be willing to die for fame, if fame is supposed to protect us from death-awareness? The answer is to be found in what one of the founders of modern existential psychology, Ernest Becker, has called "symbolic immortality." We feel protected from the fate of vanishing without a trace if we believe that we will live on in other people's minds or through the impact of our deeds. Hence we are willing to die for fame, literally.

That leaves a little problem: the overwhelming majority of humankind (99.999 percent might be a good estimate) will never be known beyond our immediate circle. We create families, because close relationships are immensely important and gratifying. But we also do this because we do not want to die alone, and because we are terrified of being forgotten. Think about how horrible it sounds to say "he died, abandoned by all" and how comforting it sounds to say "he died, surrounded by his loving family and friends" (as if this means that in the latter case, the loved father, grandfather, uncle, brother etc is less dead than the poor guy who died alone).

We feel that the more people know about us, the more immortal we become. What can we pedestrian mortals, with our drab lives that will never command the interest and fascination of the masses, do about this? Not much, except partaking in the lives of the demigods who are touched by the grace of fame; these people who, unlike us, live in the minds of so many. If for a believing Catholic, touching a relic of the cross puts him in touch with eternity, now an autograph of Tiger Woods or Michael Jackson's glove gives fans an intimation of immortality.

"But wait a minute," my dear reader is likely to say. "According to your theory, we should make every effort to keep our idols on the pedestal that we've put them on. But you just told us that Tiger Wood's fall is generating much more interest than his demigod status before that!"

Good point. The reason that many love seeing their idols crash is twofold: we want our idols to be immortal, but we also want to know that celebs are made of the same materials as we are. After all, if they are too perfect, we would not feel that we belong to the same species as they do and hence lose our connection to immortality. Hence many derive great pleasure from concluding with satisfaction that Tiger Woods is as tortured by unrequited desire and by insecurity as the rest of us. This keeps alive the glimmering hope that one day, like Susan Boyle, they will rise from obscurity to immortality.

The second reason why we enjoy seeing our idols crash is that while we need celebs, we also want to have some brief moments in which we feel superior to them. German has a great term for the pleasure of seeing them fall: Schadenfreude, best translated as "spiteful glee." Hence Tiger Woods' misery gives more pleasures to the multitude than the most perfect shots he played in his brilliant career.

This is amplified by a feature of U.S. culture. It is not enough that the media drag Tiger Wood's name through the mud. He must be tarred, feathered and humiliated. Hence the next stage in the script: Tiger Woods, like Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer and many others before him, is now supposed to tearfully atone for his sins and to say how base he has been. Behind the moralism, spitefulness lurks: this is the ultimate moment of triumph of Mr. and Mrs. Average: now the "simple folks" are actually superior to the demigod, because they occupy the moral high ground.

Fortunately, Tiger Woods has so far not given in to the pressure of playing along with the baser aspects of human nature; at the time of writing he has primarily asserted his right to privacy. For many of us that's perfectly fine: we will continue enjoying and admiring the masters of any craft without expecting them to be superhuman.

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