Schadenfreude: the exquisite joy and smug satisfaction from contemplating and revelling in the misfortune of others.  To see the mighty fallen. To see your competitors stumble and fall. To see your enemies get their “just come-uppance”.

It seems odd that we had to import this very German, and for some, difficult to pronounce word.  Why do we not have our own term for this concept?

Is Schadenfreude a healthy attitude or response?  It is said that the press, really enjoys making but then breaking heroes.  There seems to be at least as much effort and joy in building someone up – be they guru, film-star, sporting hero – as knocking them down to size.  What goes up, apparently, must come down.

This jealousy of the successful has spread to the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand). Did we export it to our colonial cousins or did they happily import it from us?  Whatever, they do have their slang for it, Tall-Poppy-Pruning.

Actually the concept of the tall poppy can be found in the Roman historian Livy who noted how a fellow Roman decapitated the heads of the tallest poppies while walking in his garden.  The message was conveyed to his son who understood immediately the metaphor and got rid of all the chief men of state.

Schadenfreude or the tall poppy syndrome is all about attitudes to high achievers.  There are inevitably two extremes:  those who admire and respect the successful and those who wish to bring them down a peg.  So those in favour would agree:

Successful individuals deserve all the rewards and recognition that they get.
All societies need many very high achievers.
It is important to encourage and support highly successful individuals.
Most successful people are helpful and useful to others.

But those opposed to high flyers argue:

Very successful people soon get too big for their boots.
Most successful people only succeed at the expense of others.
Those successful high achievers who fall from grace almost always deserve to.
It’s really good to see very successful people fail occasionally.

Societies that exhibit Schadenfreude are often deeply ambiguous about any sort of achievement and the status and prominence that comes with it.  Thus high flyers are valued and praised for their efforts and ability and the benefits they bring to wider society.  But they must not exhibit hubris or complacency or they will be punished.

At an individual level, more conventional, right-wing, authoritarian personalities favour rewarding the successful because the conventional generally submit to authority, accept socially sanctioned rules and believe in showing respect.

How do people react when they see a successful figure fall?  The answer, of course, lies in the extent to which you admire or agree with the person knocked off the pedestal.  Most politicians know the experience: Clinton and Bush, Major and Thatcher, Mitterand and Kohl, Hawke and Keating all rose and fell.

Those who see their political enemies get their come-uppance experience sheer joy and glee while their supporters can be quite disturbed by the experience.  The former believe that the ‘bad’ tall poppy fully deserved it; there is a God; a just world. They savour the sweet taste of classic Schadenfreude.

This is not the same as believing in a just world however. Individuals have a need to believe that they live in a world where people generally get what they deserve. The belief that the world is just enables the individual to confront his physical and social environment as though they were stable and orderly. Without such a belief it would be difficult for the individual to commit himself to the pursuit of long range goals or even to the socially regulated behaviour of day-to-day life. Since the ­belief that the world is just serves such an important adaptive function for the individual, people are very reluctant to give up this belief, and they can be greatly troubled if they encounter evidence that suggests that the world is not really just or orderly after all.

The idea is that essentially many people from all cultures and creeds have a fundamental need to believe that the (social) world is a just place and that this belief is functionally necessary for them to develop principles of deservingness. Many are confronted with difficult issues like why some people get cancer, are sexually abused, descend into poverty etc while others do not. They also have to make sense of their own misfortunes. The idea of the Belief in a Just World is that it helps answer some of these very difficult questions.

Those who supported the culled, decapitated and dismissed high flyer feel the shaky ground of what appears to be an unjust, unfair world populated by capricious, vicious and retributive forces.

We have all experienced or witnessed Schadenfreude, but some actively seek it out.  They could be seen as envious, vengeful, hostile individuals who waste their energy in attacking others rather than trying to achieve anything themselves.  Envy is a social cancer that can eat-into the soul.  To be addicted to the emotion of Schadenfreude can de deeply destructive

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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