Schadenfreude: The Joy in Others’ Woes

Picture, if you will, a beautiful pageant-hopeful; she is tall and poised, with long golden hair that cascades softly down her shoulders. Her makeup is impeccable, and her smile is warm and, well, perfect. Her name is Lauren Caitlin Upton, and she is vying for the chance to become the 2007 Miss Teen South Carolina. Though Upton ends up coming in third place, she unfortunately will not be remembered for that accomplishment; what she’ll be remembered for is uttering a gaffe that would become one of the most memorable quotes of 2007.

Upton became a huge web sensation after she botched a question regarding what her thoughts were on why a fifth of Americans could not locate the United States on a world map. Miss Upton’s response, in its entirety, was: “I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh … people out there in our nation don’t have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as in South Africa and, uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future, for our children.”

Though Upton openly admits she was overwhelmed by the national attention — and didn’t fully understand the question — it didn’t stop the media from mocking the then 18-year-old with alarming enthusiasm. Upton was touted as being a “quintessential blond who only relied upon her looks,” and her error was viewed over 11 million times on YouTube alone. Upton’s flub was featured on Fox News, The Huffington Post, People, MSNBC, and the “Today Show.” Commenters delighted in her public misstep while they lamented on her slip-up with a joyous vigor.

While it is easy to understand society’s fascination with Upton, it becomes more complicated when trying to dissect the reasons behind the collective glee that occurred over her misfortune — namely, what was it about this gaffe that would make millions of people collectively agree that she deserved public humiliation? After all, Upton didn’t personally assault or harm anyone, and in her follow-up interviews the young teen appears to be humbled by her experience and even affable; yet seeing her fall from her pedestal became a guilty pleasure of 2007.

The emotion that everybody was collectively feeling might best be described by the word “schadenfreude,” which means taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. What makes schadenfreude a complex term is that the pleasure we feel when we witness a person’s misfortune is not derived from seeing them in pain but in the delight in watching their fall from grace — particularly when the person is in a position that we might see as enviable. In fact, researchers believe that the higher a person’s social or economic position, the more we might wish to see them dejected, because it unconsciously gives us permission to feel better about ourselves. It’s to be noted that envy or resentment play a huge role in the fluidity of these emotions; after all, very few of us, if any, wished ill toward Mother Teresa, but gosh, Martha Stewart was a little too perfect, right?

Though many of us readily admit that these feelings are somewhat obscene, why is it then that we are unable to rise above them? While it could be easily implied that this recent rise of reveling in catastrophes could be threaded to our 24-hour access to social platforms, science, and psychology suggest that schadenfreude is evolutionary and is woven into who we are.

Dr. Mina Cikara, social neuroscientist at Princeton University and co-author of the paper “Stereotypes and Schadenfreude: Affective and physiological markers of pleasure at outgroups’ misfortunes,” published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, found that more activity in the ventral striatum is correlated with how much pleasure people report they feel towards another’s misfortunes. “This is all part of a bigger structure called the basal ganglia, which has classically been studied as a motor region, but more recently it has been linked to reward process, but more than that a learning and motivation process,” writes Cikara. “It gets engaged when something comes out better then you thought it would be. Oftentimes you see engagement of this area when they are given money, but you also see it when people get positive (social) feedback. What’s interesting is that it’s not just related to absolute levels of surprising positive outcomes, but also relative ones.” Dr. Cikara also reported that she saw a strong response in the basal ganglia when people learned that they had surpassed another person. “It’s not just I got three dollars and I’m happy, it’s I hope to find out that I got three dollars more than you have.”

The phenomenon of schadenfreude can help to account for many feelings we associate with anyone that we view as being superior to us. We feel validated to know that there is justice in the world when someone gets taken down a peg — especially if you resent that person. Cikara suggests that social comparison is a huge part of the puzzle in understanding schadenfreude. “There are many routes to schadenfreude; people have identified resentment as being a really big one. When someone who doesn’t deserve everything that they have received suddenly has an aspect taken away, then that becomes satisfying [to us].” Many researchers also believe that our delight might stem from a sense of relief, especially when we view others’ misfortunes as something that could have possibly occurred in our lives.

A study done in 2008 by Dr. Richard Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, invited two groups of students to assess a video about medical school applicants. The first group was shown a video featuring a young, good-looking man who had a BMW and a girlfriend, and who boasted about his ability to get A’s without even trying. The second group was shown a video of a young man from an impoverished background who had no car and no girlfriend, and who studied hard yet squeaked by with B’s. Not surprisingly, the students viewed the young man in the first video as being in a desirable position.

However, when professor Smith showed each group an epilogue, it was revealed that neither of the young men was going to medical school; they had both been arrested for stealing from the school lab. Both groups’ responses in the questionnaire regarding the incident indicated they had experienced more delight and glee with the fall of the rich, good-looking applicant.

“If someone is out there that you envy, it means that they are advantaging in some kind of way that is important to you, and it’s creating a very powerful emotion,” says Smith. “What misfortune would logically do is create a pretty powerful psychological dividend. Because of their misfortune, they become less enviable and a major misfortune would not only make them less superior, but possible inferior. It has a psychological effect on you that makes you feel good about yourself. From a psychological point of view, it’s a perfectly natural emotion. When we are doing better then others, then that’s good. Who wants to be inferior?”

Schadenfreude is not only reserved for those who have disparaging thoughts against the usual suspects, it can also relate to personal life situations. An example of this occurs frequently in work environments. For instance, let’s say that you’re up for a life-changing promotion. They have narrowed it down between you and a coworker. The person you’re competing against is nice and all, but you have always felt that they’ve had more advantages at work, and things come effortlessly for them. Days before you’re about to hear who got the promotion, your coworker is caught embezzling funds, and now you’re the one who gets the raise. Though you might not have felt any malicious emotions towards this individual, a part of you might be a little happy that it is you who came out on top and a tad satisfied that misfortune has struck someone you viewed as competition. “So much of life is comparative, whether we like to admit it or not,” says Smith. “Oftentimes, when someone is suffering it means that they are not as good as we are, so we get a boost. It doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing we feel; it’s just that there is a logical gain from another’s misfortune.”

While the concept of schadenfreude seems to be rooted in ignoble sentiments fused with gleeful gusto, it’s probably not an emotion we should cultivate. It shows us how susceptible we are to enjoying other people’s misery at the expense of cultivating our powers of empathy, which could possibly engender a longer-lasting, more fulfilling happiness.

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