Schadenfreude: The Joy in Others’ Woes

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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 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.

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Fall 2012 issue.

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