Schadenfreude

Biebs’ mugshot in 2014

Justin Bieber can’t catch a break.

Over the years he’s been involved in quite a few questionable acts, like recklessly speeding his Lamborghini around a neighborhood full of kids, or spitting on fans from a balcony. He’s in the middle of trying to make a comeback with his “I’m Sorry” tour. The tour is actually called Purpose, but one of the flagship songs is “Sorry.” It’s an apology, but not to just an ex-girlfriend like Selena Gomez, but to all his fans.

Well, last week, a video captioned: “Justin Bieber threw a fan’s gift out the window” went viral.

There was a collective: Tisk tisk.


Last summer, I was in a bad state. My arms, feet, and face were covered in a rash. I itched everywhere. At first I thought it was some kind of allergic reaction that would go away, but it just kept getting worse.

It got to the point where I needed to see a doctor. It wasn’t an “I’m dying” kind of emergency, but it seemed like something I should get checked out soon, and often I need to make an appointment with my primary care physician a month out. What kind of care covers that gap? Urgent Care. There’s a crop of new Urgent Care clinics popping up all over Chicago, so I thought I’d check one out to see what they had to say.

I showed up at a nearby clinic and met with a doctor. Before I had even finished explaining what was wrong, in less than 30 seconds, she concluded I had a skin parasite, one of the worst cases she’s ever seen.

She asked if I’d been to any third world countries or had sex with anyone with similar symptoms. Uh, no, and WTF!?

This didn’t sound like something I had, and I told the doctor so. But she was adamant.

The prescribed treatment was crazy — multiple coatings of my body in a harsh chemical. My wife and our 1 year old child would also have to go through all this. We’d have to steam or throw out any bedding, sheets, couches, clothes, yada, yada. Off they sent me back into the world with my prescription and a good luck.

I started crying on my way back home. How could this have happened?

I realized I better get a second opinion before bringing my family through this hell. It wasn’t easy getting a same day appointment with a dermatologist, but I finally tracked one down whom I drove a couple hours to go see.

After looking me over, “Oh wow, we’ll get you fixed up right away. You have a contact allergy. See your feet, that’s where it started. You’re allergic to something your feet have been in contact with. Looks like you’re allergic to something in or on your sandals or shoes given the pattern the rash has on your feet.”

(The Urgent Care doctor hadn’t even looked at my feet, even when I told her they were the worst part of my problem.)

And just like that, I walked out of that office with prescriptions for antihistamines and some steroidal creams. 24 hours later I was already mostly better. 72 hours, and I was 100% again and relieved. I can’t believe how much agony I just avoided.

But I was also now really curious, how could the Urgent Care doctor have been so wrong?


From 1970 to 1998, a group called the Red Army Faction, or Baader-Meinhof Gang, was an active terrorist organization in West Germany. They did what you’d expect of a terrorist organization: murders, bombings, kidnappings, etc. But it’s still a pretty obscure group.

In 1986, a reader of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Terry Mullen, first learned about the Baader-Meinhof Gang. And then again that named popped up in quick succession in some random reading he was doing.

That’s an odd coincidence Terry thought. You hear about something, and then it seems like you keep hearing about it. For example as I write this I keep seeing the word “Schadenfreude” everywhere. It’s in the Wall Street Journal today. It’s in a random article I just saw as I researched this.

Terry gave it the name the “Baader-Meinhof phenomenon”. It’s also known as a “Frequency illusion”. When we are recently exposed to something that gets our attention, now we see it frequently.

Why? In the Invisible Gorilla experiment I’ve written about recently, most participants miss that a person in a gorilla suit slowly crosses their field of vision. They are too engrossed in even a simple task to see it.

But once you know of the gorilla experiment, it’s impossible to miss the gorilla. Our brains love to pattern match. They observe the things we’re looking for.

The funny thing about the gorilla experiment is that even though we become good about finding the gorilla, we miss all the other things that unexpectedly happen in our field of vision during that same experiment, like when a player randomly leaves the game, or when the scene changes colors. All before our eyes, but it’s missed.

Schadenfreude isn’t being said or mentioned any more today than it is any other time. But now it’s a gorilla to me. It caught my eye, and now it’s on my mind, so I can’t help spotting it over and over. But think about all the other interesting things I’ve missed today because my mind is stuck on something else.


Going back to my allergic reaction. I asked the dermatologist how could the urgent care doctor have missed this. The dermatologist had a simple answer, “They’re urgent care doctors. Most people who go to them have the same things. That’s what they expect to see, so that’s what they see. They miss a lot of the other things.”

It’s a great reminder about how much we miss in our lives because we’re stuck looking for something else. Are you feeling particularly self-loathing? It’s too often a self-fulfilling prophecy. As you roll around the ways you’re not succeeding in your mind, you miss the opportunities right in front of you.


I want you to watch that Justin Bieber video again, please. But this time turn the sound up. Listen carefully. Watch Justin talk.

Justin says, “Why’d you throw it at me.”

The fan just threw that “gift” at Justin’s face. I’m pretty sure most of us might have a reaction like that if someone threw something at our face.

Schadenfreude. It means:

Pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.

Imagine what opportunities you’re missing as you spend time trying to catch others messing up theirs.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, you should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us make better decisions. And if you find yourself overwhelmed while organizing your small business, check out how Highrise can help!

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