Does bustin' make us feel good? Ghostbusters and the psychology of rooting for failure

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Jul 14, 2016, 7:05 PM EDT

I know what it is like to root for a movie reboot’s failure.

As the negative reviews rolled in, I experienced something that felt like glee. I found myself refreshing the page to watch as the “Fresh” rating plummeted on, and the pile-on continued in the Twittersphere.

I was OK with this. After all, every word surrounding the film had been bad for months. The script sounded like a disaster, written by people who just didn’t “get” the source material. Plus, there were fairly reliable reports about drama on set, which suggested things had gone way off track. But the most egregious offense to me was the inexcusable alterations to characters I’d loved since childhood.

Sure enough, last year’s Fantastic Four bombed.

To be fair, the movie was pretty terrible. I saw it, earlier than most of the public, and I tried to go in with an open mind, but I was left wondering if I had actually been wishing for its demise – even though I never publicly said so. If so, what was I left with after the little troll hiding out in my psyche had gotten its wish? (Other than one less superhero movie franchise, that is.) How was I impacted by even an almost-unconscious desire to see something fail, and how did it make me feel?

I find myself revisiting those questions on the eve of the new Ghostbusters movie. The subject of far more frontlash than Fantastic Four, the female-led reboot of the 1984 comedy has inspired media outlets to explore the notion of entitlement in fan culture, or ask, “Is fandom broken?” It is a topic we’ve even discussed in our Who Won The Week podcast at Blastr.

While the arguments opposing Ghostbusters 2016 -- a sentiment I disagree with but won’t invalidate -- intrigue me, I’m more specifically curious about whether a fail-focused mindset is good for us.

To some degree, it is. Until it isn’t.

Whether it’s hoping for a movie to bomb, laughing when a star athlete on a competitor’s team is injured, taking delight in the Facebook post of a rival suffering misfortune (or receiving comeuppance, depending on your perspective) – or loving it when Ned Flanders’ Leftorium goes under -- deriving a little joy from the failures of those we deem adversaries can give us a boost of self-esteem and self-affirmation.

In a 2011 research article titled “Self-Esteem, Self-Affirmation, and Schadenfreude” by Wilco W. van Dijk of Leiden University in the Netherlands (via Live Science), study participants who felt schadenfreude -- the amazing German word meaning to experience joy at the misfortune of others – tended to be threatened by someone, or experienced low self-esteem.

And in a 2009 study by the University of Kentucky, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology as “Self-Esteem, Self-Affirmation, and Schadenfreude” (via CNN), a team of researchers suggested it was natural to feel pleasure if someone else’s bad break if it appeal to our self-interest, and we are benefiting from their misfortune.

A 2010 study by Mina Cikara, Matthew M. Botvinick, and Susan T. Fiske titled “Us Versus Them: Social Identity Shapes Neural Responses to Intergroup Competition and Harm” published in Psychological Science corroborates this by specifically looking through the lens of group rivalries in sports.

The takeaway is that our brains’ pleasure-center fires up when the other team – the rival to our group identity – has a loss.

That social identity and intergroup dynamic can also be extended beyond sports teams to, say, Democrats vs. Republicans, or – to put it in a nerdier context -- Marvel vs. DC, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, PC vs. Mac, Edison vs. Tesla, classic Doctor Who vs. new Who, and so on.

And hey, victory just feels good, right? A fan who enjoys a win over a competitor might improve his/her performance, for instance, in playing darts or asking someone out on a date – as detailed in a 1992 article by Edward Hirt, Dolf Zillmann, Grant A. Erickson, and Chris Kennedy titled “Costs and benefits of allegiance: Changes in fans' self-ascribed competencies after team victory versus defeat” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Of course, within pop culture circles, fans aren’t often afforded a clear victory in terms of points scored or championships won. Instead, that win is quantified by box office numbers, and ratings. Increasingly, a group perceives a win if they’re dominating the social media conversation and taking down their opponent.

But schadenfreude isn’t all there is to wanting to see something fail. There is also an element of comparison tied to our feelings of inferiority.

Dr. Travis Langley, Professor of Psychology at Henderson State University in Arkansas – and author of multiple books examining the psychology behind Batman, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Marvel’s Civil War, and upcoming titles about Doctor Who and Star Trek – said humans begin comparing ourselves to others from the time we are toddlers, and want to do the things we see other people doing.

“Psychologist Alfred Adler, who had been a sickly child envious of his healthy older brother, believed that feelings of inferiority motivate all human goals,” said Langley. “To keep from feeling that way, we can build ourselves or focus on our strengths, instead of our weaknesses.”

Langley added that we may try to boost our superiority by “tearing other people down." That tactic is easier, but not constructive, and doesn’t motivate us to better ourselves. While this certainly sounds like the preferred method of commenters, trolls, and some of our less tolerable friends online, Langley reaches a little further back to the late 1990s for an example.

“There’s a phenomenon known as ‘the Jerry Springer effect’ dating back to when Springer’s show enjoyed its greatest popularity,” he said. “People watch things like that sometimes to make themselves feel better about their own lives by seeing that other people have it worse; there’s a reassurance in that.”

With regards to social media, Langley noted that research findings on it, and its effects, are mixed. But he said, before social media, "a horrible thought could more easily pass through a person's head without popping out onto the Internet and into other people's lives."

He added that trolls can reinforce each other, and egg one another on -- but so can those who stick up for one another. He said a whole army of support "can suddenly appear to put a hater in place and provide reassurance to the person getting picked on." Though it is easy to see how a negativity bias where we are more easily influenced by negative information than good, could exacerbate things on social media.

Langley: "Twenty compliments won't make one insult go away, and it's very easy to insult online" 

Langley also said sometimes we want someone else to learn a lesson, and so, we root for their failure:

“Maybe you’re happy Batman v. Superman underperformed, or the movie Jem and the Holograms outright bombed so Hollywood might instead make better movies – movies you consider to be better, that is. Maybe you rooted for Constantine to fail because you wanted filmmakers to cast movies more appropriately in the future. Even though I don’t really think that’s at the heart of the objections to the new Ghostbusters, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the haters convinced themselves that it was.”

Looking back on my feelings about Fantastic Four, that’s what I believe I wanted: for the studio to learn a lesson, and be better. (And to be clear, my objections had nothing to do with Michael B. Jordan’s casting, but because the film didn’t appear to reflect the spirit of the comics; whether I had any right to expect that brings us right back to the question of fan entitlement mentioned above.)  

Still, quietly rooting for a movie’s failure and actively participating in it strikes me as quite different. Planting negative reviews is different than simply not buying a ticket. Tweeting (or posting a YouTube video) about how you’ll not watch it is different than spoiling plotlines on social media. Disagreeing with a critic who posted a positive review is different than spotlighting (or worse, doxxing and physically threatening) them, or absurdly claiming they’re on the take from the studio.

There comes a point when wishing for failure crosses over into a delusional sense of duty to ensure its destruction. It is not so much internet activism as internet vigilantism – parties, who feel marginalized or victimized, believe they’re meting out justice for a perceived wrong. It is also worth noting that humans enjoy a little revenge, especially when we feel betrayed. And, according to that 2010 “Us vs. Them” paper, fans experiencing schadenfreude may express a willingness to harm a rival.

That is, if it’s left unchecked.

Rooting for failure and taking joy in the pain of others may be natural, but it shouldn’t necessarily be encouraged. Our society still thrives on empathy, sympathy, and compassion. 

So feeling guilty after feeling schadenfreude is a good thing as well.

That is where I kind of netted out after my feelings about Fantastic Four. I don’t want to root for the failure of something that many people worked on, took pride in, and wanted to see succeed. For me, I decided it wasn’t a healthy space for my mind to be in, and reflected a personal weakness.

On the upside, not rooting for failure will prevent a whole other affliction should a movie I’m not into become a box office smash: Gluckschmerz.

Although it sounds like an ooze trail left by Slimer, gluckschmerz (a made-up word dating back to 1983) is the opposite of schadenfreude, and means to experience pain from the pleasure of others. Currently the GB reboot is experiencing a healthy 74 percent "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And if the box office follows suit, the anti-Ghostbusters 2016 contingent may be as familiar with gluckschmerz as schadenfreude by the end of the weekend.