As much as the recent disgrace of Tiger Woods, one of the most successful athletes in the world, shocked us, many people relished watching his downfall. Would his personal anguish have been savored as much if he were an unknown caddy?
Recent neuroscience research suggests not; we most enjoy observing the misfortune of someone we envy.
As social creatures, humans spend a considerable amount of time and energy evaluating our place in society's pecking order. We judge ourselves and others on personal qualities, achievements or possessions. Although social evaluation can serve as a strong motivational tool to improve our own stock, it is often accompanied by innate and deeply-entrenched resentment of others: envy. Bertrand Russell called it 'an unfortunate facet' of human nature. As a painful and unpleasant emotion embodied by feelings of inferiority, experiencing the green-eyed monster can decrease our overall life satisfaction.
When we envy someone, we may wish that we also had whatever advantage they possess, or that they lose it. Consequently, although we may feel pity when hard luck falls on someone we envy, we also may experience schadenfreude, or pleasure at another's suffering. Because social comparison is inherently relative rather than based on intrinsic value, someone's loss can be as gratifying as our own personal success: either way, we're moving up the hierarchy.
So what does neuroscience have to tell us about envy and schadenfreude?
Using MRI, neuroscientists in Japan observed brain activity in study participants while describing scenarios designed to evoke envy. Participants were college students who were preparing to enter the job market. The scenario featured three characters: one that was applying for the same job as the participant and was of the same gender but with better qualifications, a second that was applying for a different job with a different gender and better qualifications, and a third that was applying for a different job with a different gender and mediocre qualifications.
Participants were more likely to report that they envied the person who was similar to them but was described as having superior abilities. The more they reported feelings of envy, the more brain activity they had in a region called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, an area involved in processing pain. This gives foundation to the painful experience that can be associated with envy.
In a follow-up experiment, the researchers had participants imagine a reunion with the three characters after a year had passed. This time, each of the characters in the scenario experienced an unpleasant circumstance, such as food poisoning at a restaurant or finding out that their girlfriend had an affair with another man. Participants then had to rate, on a scale of 1-6, how much pleasure they experienced when they learned of the character's misfortune.
Like the first study, subjects reported greater schadenfreude for the character who was similar to them but with superior qualities. Their pleasure at the character's suffering corresponded to activity in a region of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, the same region that lights up when we eat something sweet or experience pleasure.
Finally, the researchers compared the amount of subjects' brain activity during the envy scenario with the amount of activity for schadenfreude, and found that the two were highly related. The more envy a person experienced, the more pleasure was evoked when the target of their envy stumbled.
A related study by a research group in Israel examined envy and schadenfreude using the hormone oxytocin. Recent studies have shown that oxytocin induces bonding, feelings of trust and increases generosity.
In this study, researchers gave participants either oxytocin or a placebo while they participated in a money-earning game with another person. Participants were able to see how much they earned relative to the other person and then asked to rate how envious they felt of the other person's winnings and how glad they were when they won more.
Rather than placate feelings of resentment or gloating in the face of disparate earnings, the subjects were more envious when they received oxytocin rather than placebo. They also reported higher levels of schadenfreude. This is surprising, because most studies highlight oxytocin's role in pro-social behaviors. Oxytocin may, however, be involved in a wider range of emotions, including negative ones like envy as long as they have a social component.
We compare ourselves to people who are relevant to us. We don't envy a billionaire we've never met as much as the guy across the hall getting more praise from superiors. Similarly, we stand to gain the most at someone's misfortune if the person is the same age, gender or belongs to the same group.
The people who delighted most in Tiger Woods personal struggles were most likely the people who envied him the most and those who stood to gain the most. Didn't Phil Mickelson have a devilish grin when he beat Tiger at the Master's?
Takahashi, Kato, Matsuura, Mobbs, Suhara, Okubo. (2009) When your gain is my pain and your pain is my gain: neural correlates of envy and schadenfreude. Science. Feb 13;323(5916):937-9.
Shamay-Tsoory, Fischer, Dvash, Harari, Perach-Bloom and Levkovitz. (2009) Intranasal administration of oxytocin increases envy and Schadenfreude (gloating), Biol Psychiatry 66, pp. 864–870
The conclusions of this study have been discussed and analyzed in subsequent issues of Biological Psychiatry. It has been suggested that oxytocin may not have modulated envy as much as it modulated social approach behavior. For further detail, consult the journal.
Many thanks to Audrey Nath for insights and suggestions.