So you've suffered an embarrassing and public setback, and the people who dislike you are rejoicing. Their glee at your misfortune is called schadenfreude. Should you hang your head in shame, or should you consider their happiness a huge compliment?
The Joy of Shame
Schadenfreude is the good, old-fashioned joy that we take in other people's misfortune. It has given many a person reading this a warm glow on cold nights, but then again it has tormented a few, as well. If anything adds sting to an injury, it's the insult of other people taking pleasure in it. Perhaps, though, the joy of others at our misfortune shouldn't trouble us so much.
Groups of people can feel joy at the pain of other groups. We know this to be true in groups like fans of specific sports teams and people who are loyal to certain consumer brands. Even groups artificially thrown together, during the course of lab experiments, will feel some loyalty to an in-group, and hostility towards an out-group.
When it comes to sports and brands, however, the joy in another's sorrow often has to be whipped up using inflammatory language. One study showed that the schadenfreude that was induced in one press statement completely disappeared when people were issued a press statement with more neutral language. (It's not surprising. "Smug X fans had the smiles wiped off their faces when their over-hyped team screwed up," evokes a very different emotion than, "X fans leave the stadium disappointed by last-minute loss.")
Group schadenfreude can be ugly, but it's not the deep personal joy that one person feels when another human gets kicked around. This really is a compliment, because, according to most scientist, the biggest predictor for the schadenfreude is envy.
Envy or Responsibility?
Most psychological studies of schadenfreude attempt to weigh two factors: envy and responsibility. Some studies pin schadenfreude on one factor, some on the other, but both are nearly always considered. And they're never entirely independent.
Naturally, people feel more satisfaction when someone is tripped up by their own pride, hypocrisy, or foolishness than if that person is struck by lightning out of the blue, but there are many levels of what scientists call "deservingness." Some people get what they deserve in terms of disaster, and some people get what they don't deserve in terms of success. People who are judged to be undeserving of their success cause more schadenfreude, when misfortune happens to them, than people who are deserving — regardless of whether they caused their own misfortune or not.
This might give us the feeling that schadenfreude and righteousness overlap. Perhaps schadenfreude is the wholly moral pleasure we get when we think the universe is balancing the books, causing pain to people who bring it on themselves, and taking down people who have been unjustly elevated. Ah, but not so fast. One experiment shows that morality and schadenfreude don't mix. The study stated that, "Male participants watched a videotaped interview of an average or superior male student who had recently suffered either a deserved or undeserved setback. Participants' envy enhanced schadenfreude regardless of deservingness of the misfortune. The manipulation of deservingness, however, had no effect on schadenfreude." When we envy someone, we often enjoy their pain, regardless of whether they deserve it or not. The fact that, in this study, both the watchers and "superior" targets were male wasn't a coincidence. Other studies have shown that people more readily gloat over the misery of people of the same sex. We enjoy the destruction of people we want to be.
Envy isn't always spawned by the superiority of others. Sometimes it's sparked by our feelings of inferiority. As it's rarely ethical for researchers to start an experiment by making a volunteer feel deeply inferior in his or her social group, researchers again turn to sports teams when studying this. In one study, people didn't feel joy when another team lost, until their own team suffered a major loss. Once they felt good and dejected, they rejoiced in the unhappiness of the rival team the next time they lost. They also felt joy when a third team, unrelated to either, lost. The researchers interpreted this as maliciousness, but arguably it was just another form of envy. People learned to desire the sense of triumph that they thought others felt, and were gratified when it was stripped away. Bottom line, a part of us wants everyone to be as miserable as we are.
The End of Schadenfreude
Knowing that you're an envious wretch, craving news about other people's misfortune so you can feel better about your own pitiful life might take some of the fizz out of the feeling of schadenfreude. How do you rid yourself of this sign of inferiority? Well, you could try playing video games, provided they're the right kind of video games. One study showed that even a few "prosocial" video games reduced people's schadenfreude when they learned of other people's setbacks. Practicing helping others makes us less likely to be happy when others are in need of help. So go ahead and give a lot of people presents in Farmville or something.
There's also brain damage. This is qualified, as damage to specific areas of the brain tended to stop the ability to recognize emotions in others, not eradicate them in oneself, but schadenfreude has always been about "turning the tables" on someone, and this might stop the need for those tables to be turned. An injury to the interior parietal lobe can damage a lot of abilities, including the ability to do math, work with language, and recognize facial expression. Damage to the lobe on the left hemisphere eliminated the ability to recognize envy. Damage to the right damaged the ability to recognize "gloating." If we can't see schadenfreude in others, maybe we won't experience it ourselves.
In the end, empathy is the silver bullet with which to put down the raging werewolf of schadenfreude. We might like seeing other people brought low, but we don't actually like thinking of what their pain realistically feels like. Mel Brooks has a famous saying, explaining the difference between tragedy and comedy: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." Up to a point, truer words were never spoken. That point is when people start imagining the horror and pain of what it would be like to drown in a sewer.
And that might be the most noble part of the entire schadenfreude concept. There's a lot of ugliness in schadenfreude. Often there is the ugliness of the objects of schadenfreude, the people who are arrogant, spiteful, or negligent. Then there are the self-righteous people taking joy in what they judge to be the deserved pain of others. And finally there are the people who take joy in schadenfreude for no other reason than it gratifies their desire to see people who have achieved great things taken down. The fact that much of that can be erased when we spare a moment to think of the suffering of others is a comparatively beautiful idea.
Not fun — that I'll grant you — but beautiful.
[Via The Dark Side of Brand Community, Malicious Pleasure, The Green-Eyed Monsters and Malicious Joy, When People Fall From Grace, The Roles of Invidious Comparisons and Deservingness in Sympathy, Exploring the When and Why of Schadenfreude, Impact of Responsibility for Misfortune on Sympathy and Schadenfreude, Dejection at In-Group Defeat, Envy and Schadenfreude, Playing Prosocial Games Increases Empathy]