Do You Ever Laugh at the Misfortune of Others?

Do You Ever Laugh at the Misfortune of Others?

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Have you ever laughed at someone who made a mistake, fell down or was visibly struggling?

Has your moment of suffering ever been the butt of a joke or shared on social media? How did it make you feel?

In “Stop Posting Your Child’s Tantrum on Instagram,” Rebecca Schrag Hershberg and Daniel T. Willingham write about their concerns about parents sharing their children’s distress online:

What should a parent do when a 2-year-old shrieks inconsolably because her string cheese wrapper tore “the wrong way”? Increasingly, the answer is “snap a photo, add a snarky caption and upload it to Instagram.”

Publicly laughing at your toddler’s distress has somehow become not only acceptable but encouraged. Websites offer “best of” compilations, or canned quips readers can use when posting tantrum photos and videos (“Metallica has a new lead singer”).

As psychologists and parents ourselves, we understand the urge to laugh when a child howls because he’s forbidden to eat the packing peanuts from the Amazon box, and we also understand the impulse to make these moments public. The problem is the mockery.

They continue:

When a child cries, parents are biologically programmed to spring into action; blood pressure increases, for example, even if it’s not your kid. Because you know there’s no real danger during a typical tantrum, you joke in an attempt to silence the false alarm your ancient brain is sounding.

In addition, joking about difficulties with those who share your situation creates an in-group, a feeling of solidarity. In a classic experiment, a researcher observed that patients in a hospital ward were quick to joke with one another about their greatest discomforts: helplessness in the face of hospital routine or fear of the unknown. For parents, seeing that other children go boneless in the grocery checkout line offers the consoling knowledge that “I’m not the only one.” A popular 2015 book combined jokey name-calling with direct reassurance: “Toddlers are A##holes: It’s Not Your Fault.”

A##holes? Really? Well, the benefits of humor do come at a cost — someone must be the butt of the joke. Another hospital study noted that humor usually has an undercurrent of hostility, which is why jokesters felt compelled to respect social hierarchies. Doctors could poke fun at residents, and residents at nurses, but jokes directed up the hierarchy were not acceptable.

More formal experiments confirm the role of aggression in humor. In one, an experimenter interacted with subjects either rudely or neutrally. Later, the experimenter “accidentally” spilled hot tea on herself, and subjects to whom she was rude were much more likely to smile or laugh.

This perspective — that there’s a whiff of meanness in the tantrum-posting craze — may strike you as melodramatic. After all, he’s not crying because his dog died; he’s crying because the water in his sippy cup is too wet. It’s funny because there’s nothing wrong.

But in his 2-year-old brain, those two events may be equally tragic. The prefrontal cortex has not fully developed, making it difficult to appreciate that water can only be wet or that his dog will not return, or to regulate the ensuing emotion in either case. That his agitation is illogical makes it no less real.

Another person’s distress should not be a signal to pull out your phone, craving “likes.” That’s bad enough when it’s a stranger on a plane, but how much the more so when it’s your child, who needs your respect and compassion?

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Do you ever laugh at the misfortune of others — whether in real life or online? Why do you think people sometimes find others’ suffering funny?

  • Do you think it is ever O.K. to laugh at someone else’s pain? If so, in which situations? If not, why not?

  • Have your parents, family members or friends ever shared an embarrassing moment of yours online? What do you think of Ms. Hershberg and Mr. Willingham’s argument that parents should not share videos of their children’s tantrums?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.