Schadenfreude. Morrissey nailed it when he wrote the song “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful,” and you know what – I agree with him.
There’s an instant feeling of warm satisfaction when someone you know didn’t get that important promotion, or they split up from their partner, or you find out that it rained on the holiday they’d been looking forward to all year.
That’s Schadenfreude, but why do some of us feel it and what does it say about us?
What is Schadenfreude?
I’m going to admit it – I get a sick pleasure from other people’s misfortunes. But what’s wrong with me? I’m normally a nice person, or so I thought. It’s just that I get this delicious feeling of pleasure in the pit of my stomach when things go horribly wrong for other people. It’s like a reflex, a gut reaction. I can’t help it.
This perverse feeling is Schadenfreude, and I’m betting I’m not the only one that secretly delights when others suffer.
“Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Gore Vidal
Schadenfreude is a German word and is made up of the words ‘Schaden’ which means damage or harm, and ‘Freude’ which means joy. So Schadenfreude literally means joy at someone’s harm.
“Now that I’ve grown old, I realize that for most of us it is not enough to have achieved personal success. One’s best friend must also have failed.” Somerset Maugham
So why do some of us get this feeling of satisfaction for other people’s misfortunes? Are we just spiteful and nasty people? Do we rejoice in every single unfortunate thing that happens to others? I was trying to think back to the last time I felt Schadenfreude and what prompted it. And actually, I began to make sense of it.
I don’t feel happy when something horrible happens to a person I love. That’s not Schadenfreude for me. For me to feel that smugness, that little frisson of satisfaction, the misfortunate person has to have done something to warrant their own downfall. That’s what gives me a feeling of Schadenfreude.
Examples of Schadenfreude
I’ll give you some celebrity examples of Schadenfreude:
Kim Kardashian shows off her huge brand new diamond ring on Instagram, then gets robbed two days later.
UK reality ‘star’ Lauren Goodyer slammed on social media after her photoshopped Instagram picture is seen to be vastly different from a TV interview two weeks later.
Footballer Wayne Rooney extolling the virtues of marriage is later caught visiting prostitutes.
The arrest of Justin Bieber on multiple charges including DUI after his childish behaviour of throwing eggs at fans went unpunished.
The public humiliation of Big Brother star Jade Goody after she was shown on TV berating actress Shilpa Shetty.
Why do we experience this dark emotional state?
So what do experts believe are the important factors behind Schadenfreude? There are four possible explanations:
- Emotions: The envy and resentment felt towards the other person reflect our own feelings of jealousy and inadequacy.
- Justice: A sense of comeuppance that the other person deserved the misfortune and now justice is restored.
- Identity: A group identity that helps the person feeling Schadenfreude fit in with other people by laughing at outsiders.
- Social comparison: We judge our lives by how well everyone else is doing. If they are worse off, we feel better.
These factors lead experts to believe there are three types of Schadenfreude:
- Aggression-based – Satisfaction when another group fails, making you feel better in your group.
- Rivalry-based – Individual competition and a desire to stand out from others.
- Justice-based – A sense that justice has been served and bad behaviour has been punished.
Studies of Schadenfreude
Studies show that if you prime children to be jealous beforehand, then even children as young as nine months old can experience Schadenfreude.
For example, in 2013, in one study, researchers held a puppet show for nine-month-old infants. Some of the puppets ‘liked’ the same food that the infants enjoyed, whereas other puppets did not.
Some of the puppets then ‘harmed’ the other puppets. The results showed that the infants preferred to see the puppets who didn’t like the same food as they do hurt rather than the ones that did.
Another study tested Schadenfreude between peers. A mother read a book out loud in the first scenario and accidentally ‘spilled’ a glass of water on herself while two children watched on.
In the second scenario, she invited one of the children onto her lap and then read the book while the second child watched. She then accidentally ‘spilled’ the water again. The results showed jealousy in the children who were not invited to sit on the mother’s lap.
In a third study, results showed that four-year-old children showed signs of Schadenfreude if a child had been horrible beforehand.
It seems that feeling pleasure at someone else’s misfortune starts from an early age. But what is the point?
Are those that feel it psychopathic monsters? Mina Cikara is an assistant professor of Psychology at Harvard University. She has studied Schadenfreude and how it relates to empathy and human emotions:
“Feeling schadenfreude is a very human experience. Even when there is not a tangible benefit to the observer or some greater social justice served, [other people’s] misfortunes are pleasurable in part because they make people feel better about themselves.” Mina Cikara
Cikara believes that the main reason we feel this way is that in order to feel good about ourselves, we compare ourselves to others.
This very notion came up the other day. I was watching a TV show called Perception. The main character is neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Pierce. He is a psychology lecturer. In one episode he asks his class a question;
‘Would you rather get a grade of B+ and everyone else in your class receives an A?’
‘Would you rather get a grade of B- and everyone else in your class receives a C?’
In the programme, the majority opted for the B- grade. Why? Because we value ourselves against our peers. We want to do better than them. But as Dr. Pierce said, why would anyone want to have a lower grade? Doesn’t that B+ look better on your CV? It does go some way to help explain Schadenfreude.
“If I compare myself with others and find that I’m not as good as [they are], I’m much more likely to be pleased when they get taken down a notch.” Cikara
Of course, as in life, usually, it is a combination of things that cause a feeling. We are complex beings after all.
Colin Wayne Leach is a professor of Psychological Studies at the University Of Connecticut. He states:
“Sometimes more than one of these things causes Schadenfreude at the same time – we can feel Schadenfreude toward someone because we dislike them, they are a rival and their loss is our gain.”
As someone who often feels Schadenfreude, at least, I can now understand why I feel it. And perhaps next time I do, I won’t feel so bad afterwards.
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