Schadenfreude: Feeling good about someone else’s bad luck

October 26, 2018

Embarrassing as it is to admit, few among us have not experienced schadenfreudethe German word for the sense of pleasure that people derive from the misfortune of others. This common, yet poorly understood, emotion may provide a valuable window into the darker side of humanity, according to psychologists at Emory University in Atlanta.

In a study to be published in New Ideas in Psychology in January, and covered on October 23 in Science Daily, the Emory researchers propose that schadenfreude comprises three separable but interrelated sensibilities—aggression, rivalry, and justice—and that people who experience schadenfreude feel a sense of detachment from the subject of their glee.

Indeed, says Shengshen Wang, a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology at Emory and the lead author of the paper, “Dehumanization appears to be at the core of schadenfreude. The scenarios that elicit schadenfreude, such as intergroup conflicts, tend to also promote dehumanization.”

Dehumanization can range from subtle forms, such as assuming that someone from another ethnic group does not feel the full range of emotions as one’s in-group members do; all the way to blatant forms; such as equating sex offenders to animals.

“Our literature review strongly suggests that the propensity to experience schadenfreude isn’t entirely unique, but that it overlaps substantially with several other ‘dark’ personality traits, such as sadism, narcissism, and psychopathy,” comments co-author Philippe Rochat, who studies infant and child development, . “Moreover, different subforms of schadenfreude may relate somewhat differently to these often malevolent traits.”

“Schadenfreude is an uncanny emotion that is difficult to assimilate,” Rochat says. “It’s kind of a warm-cold experience that is associated with a sense of guilt. It can make you feel odd to experience pleasure when hearing about bad things happening to someone else.”

Psychologists view schadenfreude through the lens of three theories:

  • Envy theory focuses on a concern for self-evaluation, and a lessening of painful feelings when someone perceived as enviable gets knocked down a peg.
  • Deservingness theory links schadenfreude to a concern for social justice and the feeling that someone dealt a misfortune received what was coming to them.
  • Intergroup-conflict theory concerns social identity and the schadenfreude experienced after the defeat of members of a rival group, such as during sporting or political competitions.

The Emory research study found that infants as young as eight months demonstrate a sophisticated sense of social justice. In experiments, they showed a preference for puppets who assisted a helpful puppet, and who punished puppets that had exhibited antisocial behavior. Research on infants also points to the early roots of intergroup aggression, showing that, by nine months, infants preferred puppets who punish others who are unlike themselves.

“When you think of normal child development, you think of children becoming good-natured and sociable,” Rochat says. “But there’s a dark side to becoming socialized. You create friends and other in-groups to the exclusion of others.”

Spiteful rivalry appears by at least age five or six, when research has shown that children will sometimes opt to maximize their gain over another child, even if they have to sacrifice a resource to do so.

By the time they reach adulthood, many people have learned to hide any tendencies for making a sacrifice just for spite, but they may be more open about making sacrifices that are considered pro-social.

The review article posits a unifying, motivational theory: Concerns of self-evaluation, social identity and justice are the three motivators that drive people toward schadenfreude. What pulls people away from schadenfreude is the ability to feel empathy for others and to perceive them as fully human and to show empathy for them.

Ordinary people may temporarily lose empathy for others. But those with certain personality disorders and associated traits—such as psychopathy, narcissism, or sadism—either are less able or less motivated to put themselves in the shoes of others.

“By broadening the perspective of schadenfreude, and connecting all of the related phenomena underlying it, we hope we’ve provided a framework to gain deeper insights into this complex, multi-faceted emotion,” Wang says.

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