Not all public figures are equally beloved, and sometimes when more controversial celebrities get sick, it may negatively affect people’s health intentions. In a study of people’s reactions to radio host Rush Limbaugh’s announcement of a lung cancer diagnosis and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s announcement of a diagnosis of COVID-19, researchers at Penn State found that those who took pleasure in their misfortune were themselves less likely to take steps to prevent lung cancer or COVID-19.
“Schadenfreude is the emotion of feeling pleasure in another’s misfortune,” said Jessica Gall Myrick, associate professor of media studies. “In our study, after learning the news of a politician’s illness, if people felt schadenfreude, they were much less likely to intend to take the actions that would prevent either lung cancer or COVID-19.”
In general, previous research by Myrick has found that coverage of celebrity ailments can raise public awareness of serious illnesses, which can then serve as a motivation for people to avoid bad activities or start new healthy routines. But most studies on the topic examine how the public responds to well-liked celebrities. Respondents were not asked if they liked or disliked the person reporting the illness in the current study, but rather if they felt schadenfreude upon hearing the news of Limbaugh and Paul.