Oh-so-sweet schadenfreude | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 09.12.2019
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Behavioral psychology

Oh-so-sweet schadenfreude

Sometimes it makes us happy when others have a little mishap — and that's okay! Schadenfreude, or the malicious joy we feel at another person's pain, is not as bad as you might think.

Schadenfreude is often described as one of those "weird," "awesome" or "perfect" German words whose meaning is familiar to many.

And what can you say? The precision of the word itself is remarkable.

Schadenfreude is that feeling of sweet, malevolent joy you get when another person is struck by misfortune, bad luck or harm.

Since not every language has a term quite like "schadenfreude," the lengthy German construction became a proper English noun in its own right.

You certainly know the feeling. And you probably already have an incident in mind where you've felt that flash of schadenfreude.

Read here: Death metal creates feelings of joy and empowerment, study says

Malicious joy

Here's one from my own repertoire... but where I provided the pain for others’ enjoyment.

It was summer, 2018. While my friend Linda was sunbathing, I decided take a poolside shower before swimming a few laps.

On the way there, I slipped, fell and slid toward the shower. Both cushioned and slowed by the soft, muddy lawn, I even came to a stop next to a sign that read, "Caution: Slippery." I mean... seriously?!

A caution sign on the edge of a swimming pool

But is it Schadenfreude or slapstick?

I didn't even have to look at my friend to know she couldn't stop laughing. My "performance" also contributed to the amusement of all the other visitors at that pool — especially the children.

Still, how can I blame them? Not even I can help but laugh at it now. It was, after all, textbook slapstick.

More than just humor

But when I tell the story to Lea Boecker, a psychologist at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany, she explains that this example is not, strictly speaking, true schadenfreude.

"What we often call malicious joy in our everyday lives is not what we understand by malicious joy in research," she says.

Lea Boecker, Leuphana University Lüneburg

Lea Boecker's field of expertise: Schadenfreude

And Boecker would know: Her works centers on just such feelings, with her last study, for example, dealing with the purpose behind schadenfreude. 

"We call these short, funny, everyday moments — like the example you mentioned — slapstick. Or we locate them in humor research," she says.

Schadenfreude, she adds, is defined as a positive emotion. But it’s also a highly complex feeling involving many factors. Malicious joy is, first and foremost, a passive and indirect emotion — and not one you create directly.

"If, for example, I trip somebody up, and he or she slips, or if I convert a penalty shot, it's not malicious joy, because I actively caused it," Boecker explains.

You decide

In other words, this kind of malicious joy occurs when we’re not involved in someone else's misfortunes.

"Then, we can either feel compassion — or gloat," Boecker says. "If something good happens to someone, we can be jealous or happy." 

The direct alternative to schadenfreude, then, is compassion. And what we ultimately feel depends very much on the relationship between us and the person involved in the action. And, crucially: "In order to feel schadenfreude, we must have acquired the ability to take on perspectives," Boecker says. 

In psychology and the cognitive sciences, this is called "Theory of Mind" (ToM). The term refers to the ability to put oneself in other people's shoes and guess at their own perspectives — including their feelings, needs, ideas, intentions, expectations and opinions. 

"At first, I have to understand what a certain misfortune means for someone," Boecker says. "After that, I can decide whether or not I'm happy about it, and whether or not I feel sorry for him or her."

Two rodents cuddling

The alternative to Schadenfreude: compassion

Read here: Rodents can't show compassion, can they?

Pure happiness!

So schadenfreude, it seems, is not a simple joy at all.

Nevertheless, my pool experience left traces, or rather questions, in its wake.

Is schadenfreude good or bad? Do all people feel Schadenfreude? And what’s going on inside our brains when we feel it?

"There are various ways to measure this," Boecker says.

Malicious joy can be detected with certain questioning techniques, for example, and also with the help of brain scans. "And that has actually delivered some interesting results," the psychologist says.

Although schadenfreude is an extremely complicated emotion, its neuronal structure is simple: "If we are happy about another person's misfortune, the reward center in our brain is activated."

Schadenfreude not only looks like pure joy, but also feels like it.

Which is also what makes it seem so wonderful.

Laughing audience

Schadenfreude looks and feels like pure joy!

Universal phenomenon, different triggers 

"Even though the German term often prevails, we now know that even in countries that don't have a word for it, schadenfreude is a universal psychological phenomenon," Boeckers says. Though researchers have been looking into malicious joy for about 90 years, the psychologist adds that "the phenomenon has actually not yet been so well researched."

It has, however, been determined what triggers schadenfreude. One main factor is sympathy.

"If I don't particularly like someone, for example, if they belong to a foreign group — another football team — then there's a kind of rivalry," Boecker says. If a mishap happens to the opponent, the result is malicious joy. Competition is therefore also a trigger.

Another factor is the "degree of merit," or the sense of justice.

"Let's say someone is very self-assured, or arrogant, or has acted morally reprehensible. Then you might be happy when this person is punished. At that moment it feels fair."

Here, notes Boecker, the malicious joy thus becomes a moral emotion.

Watch video 03:11

Schadenfreude for Sale

And then there's the "superiority-as-a-trigger" factor.

Schadenfreude is — as described above — often associated with envy. "That can have completely different dimensions, Boecker says. "For example, I can envy someone for their athletic performance, their attractiveness, their income, their fame. When an accident happens to someone like that, the reward system starts. We clearly feel joy."

The psychologist has proven as much with lottery games: The most malicious joy was when someone superior lost money. When "inferior" individuals lost, however, pity prevailed.

Of course, many different factors can also come together at once. For example, when we find a person unappealing, superior to us and somehow deserves it.

"Then the malicious joy is particularly great," Boecker says. "This is often the case with people who are in the public eye, and who also polarize."

In this case, you can probably think of a few prime examples yourself.

When do we gloat?

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences have further explored the origin of vengeance in other ways: At what age do we experience malicious joy? At what age do we want to observe a punishment that we consider deserved? 

And how can we find out if children are the experimentees?

The implementation was actually quite trivial: The researchers played around with the young participants in a puppet theater. Among the puppets, there were sympathetic characters and, of course, a villain.

Punch puppets sit on a metal fence

Sorry, somebody's got to be the bad guy here

The result: Four- and five-year-olds did not show any differentiated behavior towards the opposing figures.

The six-year-olds, meanwhile, experienced a kind of joy when they saw villains suffering. That's what the scientists read from the children's facial expressions, which often speaks volumes.

Here, again, the Theory of Mind comes into play, or the ability to adopt different perspectives.

It's in our blood 

Similar observations have been made by researchers at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Evolutionary Anthropology, this time in chimpanzees.

Here, there was no theater performance. But animal attendants did slip into the roles of "good keepers" and "bad keepers."

When one of the "bad keepers" was punished, many chimpanzees went to great lengths to see how the punishment was meted out. To do so, they had to open a heavy door to an adjoining room to get a view of the unfolding drama.

In the case of the friendly keeper, however, the chimpanzees did without it. Many even went a step further, protesting loudly against the pain being inflicted on the keeper. 

Laughing chimpanzee

Chimpanzees can also feel a kind of malicious joy

"Our results demonstrate that six-year-old children, and even chimpanzees, want to avenge antisocial behavior, and that they feel an urge to watch it," says Natacha Mendes, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences and one of the two lead authors of the study.

For Mendes, this is where the evolutionary roots of such behavior originate: It is a crucial characteristic to manage living within a community.

According to Nikolaus Steinbeis, the first author of the study and a scientist at the MPI, "We cannot definitely say that the children and chimpanzees felt spite. However, their behavior is a clear sign that six-year-old children, as well as chimpanzees, are eager to observe how uncooperative members of their community are punished."

The social factors of schadenfreude

Boecker sees areas for further research. "So far, emotion researchers have often dealt with what malicious joy does to you personally, why it is triggered," she says. "But it is also exciting to observe such complex emotions in the social field: What does this do to the other person to whom I express malicious joy?"

Boecker and psychologist Jens Lange from the University of Cologne have investigated this question.

Brown bear lying with hind legs stretched upwards

Dominance in particular can trigger malicious joy and regulate hierarchies

Here, again, the superiority factor comes into play. "A high status can actually only be achieved by two things," says Lea Boecker: "By prestige, and by dominance."

Take the status of a leader or a professional athlete as an example: Both positions can be achieved by being recognized and respected by others for good performance.

But this high status can also be achieved through dominance, intimidation and aggressive behavior.

"Our research shows that people who have reached their high status through dominance are the ones who cause a lot of gloating," Boecker explains.

This may not necessarily come as a surprise, as it is not particularly sympathetic.

But this is where the social advantages of schadenfreude come into play.

If such dominant people are denounced and exposed to genuine malicious joy against them, it can get them off their high horse. "If people dare to express malicious joy, it reduces the dominance of the person affected," Boecker says. 

And that has further behavioral consequences, since we might wager to counter that person again. 

"Malicious joy is often not particularly desirable, socially, because the empathic reaction would usually be pity," Boecker says. Still, Schadenfreude also has a lot of social potential.

"Malicious joy is fun, malicious joy can increase one's self-esteem, regulate hierarchies and can also balance the dominance of other people … But there are still many unanswered questions that have not yet been clarified," the psychologist adds.

"For example, what it feels like for the schadenfreude victim, what consequences it has for that person, how schadenfreude behaves in the group and all that. We don't know much about that yet."

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