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The Daily Tar Heel

Don’t bask in Duke’s big loss just yet

Next to a Tar Heel victory, the most popular development in the college basketball season for UNC fans is a resounding Duke loss. During and after a drubbing such as the St. John’s victory on Sunday, Tar Heel fans usually take a moment (or several) to relish in the vulnerability of our nearby nemesis.

To Tar Heel fans who, like myself, find it too easy to enjoy those moments, I implore you that the only Duke losses we should celebrate are those that come at our hands.

Why refrain from delighting in their misfortunes? There are at least two reasons. The first is that our target is, after all, Duke. In 2001, they recovered from an 11-point Senior Day loss in Cameron Indoor to Maryland (an ally in our Duke-detesting cause) to beat us in the Dean Dome, win the ACC tournament and take the national championship.

And last year, in a situation eerily similar to Sunday, Georgetown, member of the Big East Conference along with St. John’s, hosted the Blue Devils and turned them away resoundingly. Duke rebounded from that setback by winning 18 of its next 19 games to take (yet another) national championship.

Those were depressing paragraphs, but the point of reliving those pieces of history is to show that a bad Sunday in late January is not necessarily going to sink a good team’s ship. (Take heart: two instances validate our suspicions of Duke’s ability — the Tar Heels’ convincing win at Cameron in March 2008 preceded Duke losses in the ACC semifinals and the NCAA Round of 32, and our win on Senior Day 2007 also propelled Duke toward first-round ACC and NCAA losses.) So no good Tar Heel fan should put too much stock into the Blue Devils’ mishaps.

But there is a deeper-seeded reason to focus on our own successes instead of the failures of our rivals. This schadenfreude — the derivation of pleasure from others’ misfortunes — is an interesting enough concept that philosophers and scientists have long found it worth examination.

Schadenfreude’s merits have been questioned since the days of the ancients. Aristotle, in “The Nicomachean Ethics,” states that “the spiteful man falls so far short of pained that he even rejoices.” Aristotle compares this spitefulness unfavorably with the enviousness of one who is offended by other’s fortune.

Jumping forward to the present day, scientific research has borne out that people will act in ways that harm those we envy in order to enjoy their deprivation or suffering. That enjoyment can be traced to increased dopamine reception in the brain, the biochemical payoff, which is the crux of the psychological concept of schadenfreude.

This biopsychological framework rebuts Aristotle’s understanding of the ethics underlying it. But the means people undertake to reap the benefit of schadenfreude belie its payoff. It is not worth dismissing Duke now when we may find occasion to celebrate our own triumph in a week’s time.

After all, the rivalry we enjoy does not thrive because we have pummeled hapless Duke teams into the ground for decades. It prospers because both programs have grown into national powers that test each other in every meeting. The real cause for celebration is that we can do to Duke what few others can 130 times in 229 tries.

Noah Brisbin is a columnist from The Daily Tar Hell. He is a second year law student from Salisbury, NC. Contact him at

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