Personal Preference: Lust, Avarice and Schadenfreude

(Last Updated On: June 5, 2014)

fish kissing pulliver 200pxScience Fact:  Personal preference is a lot more than “I know what I like.”  It embraces a wide range of emotions and has even encouraged scientific study.

Three especially visible forms of personal preference may be categorized this way:
– Lust – “I want it”
– Avarice – “I want more”
– Schadenfreude – “I don’t want you to have it!”

Consider a few personal preference items that seem to fit neatly into one or another category.

Lust is desire taken to extreme.  A popular object of this affection is chocolate: in my experience, people have a personal preference for one specific type – white, milk or dark – with nuances within these, and the preference is pretty stable over time.  Let’s leave aside the quibble that because white chocolate has no cocoa solids, some consider it’s not really chocolate.  Chocolate is a good example of a personal preference that doesn’t depend on what other people are doing: it’s quite close to “I like what I like.”

Avarice is the emotion of someone who already has a lot, but who always wants more.  It often manifests as a “grass is always greener” feeling.  An example that I found vivid as well as circular involves California as a place to live.  In many of the 47 states, California looms as an Eden on earth, a highly desired residence, perhaps because of its benign climate plus its Hollywood glamor.  However, when I moved to California I found that many of my friends, having discovered that Paradise had traffic and smog, had their eyes set on a loftier goal, a true Promised Land: Hawaii.  And ironically enough, as I spent time in Hawaii I met many locals with “island fever,” who felt confined and trapped and wanted nothing more than to move to the Mainland.  The relative and mutable nature of Avarice in no way discounts it as a driver for personal preference.

Schadenfreude is the most interesting of all manifestations of personal preference.  Lust and Avarice can be understood as extensions of the struggle to survive, but Schadenfreude seems to bring in ill-will as well, which may explain why it has been the topic of a number of psychological studies.  Literally “joy from injury,” it’s a gentler cousin of sadism.  We find Schadenfreude all around us, perhaps because hearing about someone else’s misfortune is the most inexpensive way for us to feel better about ourselves!  The immense popularity of news coverage of natural disasters and active shooter situations stems not only from the inherent drama of an unfolding story, but also the “thank goodness I’m here and not there” effect.  Publicity of missteps of the famous and notorious generally rises from Schadenfreude as well.

It’s so popular to celebrate another’s misfortune or misdeeds that there’s practically an industry of poking fun.  Consider a few examples:
America’s Funniest Home Videos (many of which are not)
– Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” sketches
– Photos of Wal-Mart shoppers circulating in e-mail
– Redneck and ethnic jokes
– Political jokes
Darwin Awards
– The Ig Nobel Prize

Science Speculation:  Lust and Avarice are familiar as two of the Seven Deadly Sins.  And Schadenfreude sounds a lot like the definition of Envy in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers translation): “love of one’s own good perverted to the wish to deprive other men of theirs.”  It’s not hard to see that Pride (in the form of conspicuous consumption) and Gluttony (excessive consumption) could be added to the sins of personal preference.  Only Wrath and Sloth seem to get a pass.

Personal preference taken to an extreme is clearly a social evil if not a “deadly sin.”  Should modern societies do anything to discourage excesses in personal preference, or can we rely on conscience and human interaction to moderate the ills?

Drawing Credit: pulliver, on openclipart.org

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