Charlie Sheen: Why we like seeing "tall poppies" fall

Charlie Sheen
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(CBS) Charlie Sheen's on-camera implosion has riveted the nation in recent weeks, but why?

Psychologists say the embattled actor's seeming train wreck of a life  - rehab for substance abuse, run-ins with women and police, child custody woes, and his firing from "Two and a Half Men" - makes us feel better about our own lives.

The Germans have a word for phenomenon: Schadenfreude, which means taking pleasure at the misfortune of others.

"Schadenfreude occurs when the other person behaves in a negative way that violates values and social norms and when this negative behavior leads to a negative outcome, like being tossed off the TV show," said Norman Feather, professor of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. "This is what has happened to Charlie Sheen."

Sheen's fame? That only accentuates the boost we get from watching his downward spiral.

"Charlie Sheen fascinates us because we secretly fantasize about being a celebrity," John Portmann, the author of "When Bad Thing Happen to Other People," told the New York Daily News. "At the same time, we resent him because he stands up on a pedestal, above us. When he fails, we feel justice has been done. He's been brought back in line with the rest of humanity."

Psychologists sometimes refer to celebrities like Sheen as "tall poppies" that stand out from the crowd. And as Dr. Maryanne Fisher, associate professor of psychology at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Canada, wrote in a Psychology Today blog, people love to watch poppies being cut down to size.