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Schadenfreude in Kids: Others' Spills Can Spell Joy

Moral emotions and jealousy help explain when kids feel schadenfreude.

To what degree Is schadenfreude, pleasure in another's misfortune, part of human nature?

Ulysses S. Grant describes an incident when he was about eight years old that speaks to this question.

He wanted a horse owned by a Mr. Ralston. Grant’s father had let him offer twenty dollars for it, but Ralston countered with twenty-five.

Grant pleaded with his father to let him buy it at twenty-five. His father relented, as long as the boy first offered twenty again (all that his father thought the horse was worth). If Ralston refused, Grant was to offer twenty-two and a half -- and twenty-five if Ralston didn’t bite.

As Grant told it:

When I got to Mr. Ralston's house, I said to him: 'Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won't take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won't take that, to give you twenty-five.'"

Well, twenty-five was what he paid.

Word got around, and Grant was the butt of many jokes among his peers, causing him to reflect on human nature many years later as he penned his memoirs (now so much admired):

Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did, and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity.”

Contemporary research in psychology using adult participants supports Grant’s observations. Under certain conditions (such as when a misfortunes is deserved, when we gain from the misfortune, when we envy the suffering person), schadenfreude arises quite naturally.

Some recent, nicely-conceived studies confirm the feeling in kids as well.

In one study, led by Katrin Schulz at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany, showed boys and girls (ages four to eight) picture stories of another child performing a good or a bad deed (e.g., climbing a tree to either collect plums for a sibling or to throw them at a sibling). In both cases, the child suffered a misfortune (e.g., falling from the tree and getting hurt).

There was a small amount of schadenfreude reported (on average) by these kids even in the good deed condition, but considerably more in the bad deed condition. The kids were clearly responding to the deservingness of the suffering.

Another study, led by Simone Shamay-Tsoory at the University of Haifa in Israel, found evidence of schadenfreude in children as young as 24 months. A clever, naturalisitic procedure involved some children seeing their mothers reading a book with another similar-aged child (thus appearing to favor this other child) and then seeing water spilled on the book (the misfortune). A contrasting group saw their mothers reading the book by themselves and then the spilling of the water.

Coding of these videotaped interactions showed greater jealousy and schadenfreude (on average), when the peer was involved than when the mother was reading alone. Clearly, jealousy is also a breeding ground for schadenfreude. 

Grant, by the time he wrote his memoirs, appreciated the full range of human emotions. In the light of these studies with kids (in which two types of spills produced pleasure), his observations, presented modestly, ring true.

Guess in which age group the researchers in the first study found their strongest effects, and, where reported schadenfreude predicted a reduced inclination to help the suffering child?




Additional reading:

Cikara, M., Bruneau, E. G., Van Bavel, J. J., & Saxe, R. (in press). Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Hamlin, J.K., Mahajan, N., Liberman, Z. & Wynn, K. (2013). Not like me = bad: Infants prefer those who harm dissimilar others. Psychological Science, 24(4), 589 - 594.

Schulz, K., Rudolph, A.,Tscharaktschiew, N., & Rudolph, U. (2013). Daniel has fallen into a muddy puddle: Shadenfreude or sympathy? The British journal of developmental psychology, 31, 363-378. DOI: 10.1111/bjdp.12013

Shamay-Tsoory, S.G., Ahronberg-Kirschenbaum, D., & Bauminger-Zviely, N (2014). There Is no joy like malicious Joy: Schadenfreude in young children. PLoS ONE 9(7): e100233. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100233

Smith, R.H. (2013). The joy of pain: Schadenfreude and the dark side of human nature. New York: Oxford University Press.

Steinbeis, N., & Singer, T. (2013). The effects of social comparison on social emotions and -behaviour during childhood: The ontogeny of envy and Schadenfreude predicts developmental changes in equity-related decisions. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 115, 198-209.

van Dijk, W. & Ouwerkerk, J. (2014). Schadenfreude: Understanding pleasure at the misfortune of others. Cambridge University Press.