Why Do People Find Joy in Other’s Adversity? – Blaine Pollock

The pleasure that one gets from the misfortunes of others is termed Schadenfreude.  It is a German word that means “harm-joy”.

It is more or less the feeling of delight when one sees another fall or suffers a misfortune.  Until recently, researchers believed that children did not develop such a refined emotion until the age of seven, but a new study of schadenfreude, shows signs as early as two.

The opposite of schadenfreude is sympathetic joy or “happiness in another’s good fortune”.   Envy is unhappiness in another’s good fortune and is considered a counterpart of schadenfreude.  The last part of this foursome is sympathy, which is “unhappiness at another’s misfortune”.  Other words for this are pity or compassion.

The word became increasingly popular when it appeared on an episode of the Simpsons.  Lisa, the main character defined it as the German term for ‘shameful joy’, or taking pleasure in the suffering of others.

Many studies on this are based on the social comparison theory, which is the idea that when people around us have bad luck, we look to better ourselves.  Researchers have also found that people with low self-esteem are more likely to feel schadenfreude than are people with higher self esteems.

A 2003 study examined intergroup schadenfreude within the context of sports, in a soccer competition.  The study focused on the German and Dutch football teams and their fans. The outcome of this study suggested that the emotion of schadenfreude is very sensitive to circumstances that enable people to feel such malicious pleasure towards a sports rival.

Brain scanning studies are showing that schadenfreude is correlated with envy in patients.  Heavy envy feelings kick started physical pain nodes in the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulated cortex (the brain’s reward center), were activated by news that the people envied had suffered hardship.  The magnitude of the response could be predicted from the strength of the previous envy response.

A 2006 experiment about justice served suggests that many more men enjoyed seeing bad people suffer. The study was planned to measure empathy, by observing which brain centers are stimulated when subjects inside an fMRI watch someone experiencing physical pain.  Researchers anticipated that the brain’s empathy center of subjects would show more stimulation when those seen as good got an electric shock than would occur if the shock was given to someone the subject had reason to regard as bad.  For male subjects, the brain’s pleasure centers also lit up when someone got a shock that the male thought was well-merited.

Another later study indicated that the hormone oxytocin may be mixed up in the feeling of schadenfreude. In that study, it was said that when subjects in a game of chance were pitted alongside a player they considered egotistical. After inhaling oxytocin through the nose, it improved their feelings of schadenfreude when their opponent lost as well as their feelings of envy when their opponent won.

A study conducted in 2009 provides evidence for people’s capacity to feel schadenfreude in response to negative events in politics.  The study was designed to determine whether or not there was a possibility that events containing objective misfortunes might produce schadenfreude. It was reported in the study that the likelihood of experiencing feelings of schadenfreude depends upon whether the individual’s own party or the opposing party is suffering harm. This study suggests that the domain of politics is key territory for feelings of schadenfreude, especially for those who classify themselves strongly with their political party.


Author: Blaine Pollock