Schadenfreude: Deriving Pleasure from Someone Else's Misfortune

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Schadenfreude: Deriving Pleasure from Someone Else's Misfortune

Psychologists from the Emory University stated that schadenfreude reveals the darker side of humanity / Photo by Anna Koldunova via 123RF


People have their own dark side. Despite us learning to be kind and be compassionate for people around us, there's still something that triggers us to think or act negatively. For instance, there is a part of our brain that gets turned on whenever we see some people fail. We tend to laugh or be satisfied with someone else's misfortune. We may feel compassion at times but there's a part of us that also chuckles. 

Schadenfreude gives us pleasure. This term comes from two German words, “Schaden” and “Freude,” which mean harm and joy, respectively. An article by the Medical Xpress defined this complex psychological phenomenon as "the sense of pleasure people derive from the misfortune of others." Although most people will not admit it, the feeling is familiar for many of us especially in these times of pervasive social media. In fact, a 2018 review article conducted by the psychologists from the Emory University stated that schadenfreude reveals the darker side of humanity. 

When we see someone else's trials and misfortunes, people respond in two ways: schadenfreude and empathy. Growing up, we are taught that empathy is an essential value we need to learn. Although schadenfreude is not taught during childhood, researchers showed that children as young as two years old can experience it. All it takes is a little competition to trigger the reaction.


A Deeper Look into Schadenfreude

According to an article by the Business Insider, Emile Bruneau, a social and cognitive scientist, had traveled around many parts of the world to investigate conflicts. Some of these are Democrats and Republicans in the United States; Israelis and Palestinians in Israel; and Americans and Mexicans on the Arizona border. He found out that it doesn't matter what the conflict is because the root of it all is schadenfreude. The findings in the study conducted by the psychologists from Emory University are similar to this. 

According to the researchers, schadenfreude comprises three separable but interrelated sub-forms. These are aggression, rivalry, and justice. The evidence they gathered from this study came from three decades of social, developmental, personality, and clinical research. In an interview, Shensheng Wang, one of the authors of the study, said, "Dehumanization appears to be at the core of schadenfreude. The scenarios that elicit schadenfreude, such as intergroup conflicts, tend to also promote dehumanization."

Scott Lilienfeld, one of the authors, also stated that schadenfreude substantially overlaps with some “dark” personality traits, such as psychopathy, narcissism, and sadism. Many psychologists view schadenfreude through the lens of three theories. One of these is intergroup-conflict theory where people experience schadenfreude after the defeat of members of a rival group, and it also concerns social identity. Another is the deservingness theory that concerns social justice. Lastly is the theory that focuses on a concern for self-evaluation. 

The study's findings suggest that the three motivators that drive people toward schadenfreude are concerns of self-evaluation, social identity, and justice. "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 said. 

Additionally, there's a study in 2015 published in the journal Psychological Reports that suggested that the experiences of schadenfreude are linked with depression. According to an article by the U.S. News, the study showed that moderately depressed people reported feeling more pleasure with others' failures. According to research co-author Catherine Chambliss, other people's success is unbearable to witness for depressed people because they tend to compare themselves with them, which makes them feel worse. 


When Does Schadenfreude Usually Occur? 

People with low self-esteem are more likely to experience schadenfreude, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Emotion. This has been corroborated by a series of other studies published in the September 2013 issue of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. The researchers found out that envy plays a major role in the underlying feelings of schadenfreude. Even worse, it can be contagious.

Researchers from the University of Zurich found out that schadenfreude occurs primarily in highly competitive working environments / Photo by Getty Images


A study conducted by the researchers from the University of Zurich found out that schadenfreude occurs primarily in highly competitive working environments. According to an article by the Science Daily, some of the negative dynamics within a working environment that increase the likelihood of people to experience are schadenfreude competition, envy, and intergroup tension. The researchers also stated that people might be probably bold in feeling this when the victim is deemed to have deserved the mistreatment. 

Additionally, the findings of the study showed that schadenfreude can create more cycles of mistreatment within the working environment. Jamie Gloor, one of the authors, said, "If schadenfreude becomes pervasive among employees, mistreatment could also become the norm." Thus, it is important for an organization or company to promote team-based rather than individual incentives and develop shared visions. 

Moreover, it is important to create and maintain fair procedures and policies to reduce the possibility of envy and resentment within the working environment.



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