Did you experience a twinge of joy when any of the following was publicly humiliated: Paris Hilton; Bernie Madoff; Britney Spears; Kenneth Lay; Alan Stanford; Tiger Woods; Dennis Kozlowski; Hugh Grant; Martha Stewart?
Most people do not want to admit that they feel pleasure in another's downfall. Yet the pleasure is real. This guilty pleasure is called shadenfreude from the German words for misfortune and joy, respectively.
Most of us are guilty about the pleasure we feel in the fall of a tall poppy, a person who is arrogant and whose flaws bring them down a peg. We may not want to talk about it but the feeling is real. That conclusion comes from recent research on the brain.
In one recent brain imaging study male and female students were observed as they played a game for money pitted against opponents who behaved either fairly or unfairly. Then they watched the opponents suffering a painful electric shock. Both men and women registered empathy-related brain responses to the pain of the opponents. However, the empathy was reduced for unfair opponents. What is more, reward-related areas of the men's brain lit up. The pain experienced by an unfair player was actually enjoyable and the enjoyment increased along with strength of the desire for revenge. Shadenfreude was thus demonstrated in brain activity whether as reduced empathy or as pleasure.
Another study demonstrated that when we read about someone we envy, it produces a painful emotional response in the brain. On the other hand, when someone we envy experiences misfortune, there is a strong pleasure-related response in the brain, or shadenfreude.
We take pleasure when those we envy are brought down a peg for a very good reason: our brains just work that way. Of course, envy is not the only reason for shadenfreude. One reason that people rejoiced in Martha Stewart's imprisonment for insider trading is that they resented her arrogant lifestyle advice implying that if other people made a real effort they could live almost as well as she does.
Injured vanity is another motivation for shadenfreude. You advised a friend not to buy Citi stock. They ignored your counsel, bought it anyway and got burned. Every time the painful experience is revisited, you can mentally relish some of the most delicious words in English: "I told you so!"
Envy, resentment, wounded pride and shadenfreude are not pleasant to think about but they are found in every society and, perhaps, in every person's brain. Envy is what drives us to compete against others. If one individual makes $900,000 a year, a colleague wants to make a million just to put the $900,000 guy in the shade. This is not very rational because they are both making far more than they really need.
Envy propels the engine of greed that drives the confidence tricksters and the stars alike. When we envy someone, their pain is our gain. Ditto for people who slight us or otherwise inspire our resentment. With their wealth, arrogance, and beauty, celebrities can inspire these negative emotions, even without publicly disgracing themselves.
Americans may love to put their celebrities up on a pedestal. Yet the joy of knocking them down is just as intense.