Two Sides of the Same Coin: Empathy and Schadenfreude 

Why you feel good when bad things happen to others, and why it’s OK.

Posted Oct 19, 2020

Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels
Source: Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

How do you feel when your co-worker doesn’t get that promotion they’ve been harping about at work? When your frenemy tearfully announces that their relationship is over? Or when someone becomes infected by the very deadly disease that they’ve been downplaying for the better part of a year? 

If you’ve got conflicting feelings here, you’re not alone. The majority of us are probably wavering between the proverbial angel and devil on the shoulder. Do we show empathy for their misfortune? Or do we experience the perverse pleasure of schadenfreude? The German word literally means “harm joy” and refers to the act of taking pleasure in another’s misfortune.

Maybe the question we should be asking is, what is the underlying factor that makes us feel one emotion over the other? 

According to a 2020 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, the answer might simply boil down to whether you like someone or not.

In the study, researchers observed reactions to test subjects engaged in various gambling tasks where they won, lost, or watched strangers play. The results showed that when the gambler was a stranger or someone who was well-liked, then all subjects showed empathy. However, when the player was disliked, subjects with pro-self tendencies (who tend to prioritize their own self-interest) were more likely to experience schadenfreude compared with those who were more pro-social (or more likely to pursue collective benefits for themselves and others) who showed more empathy for the player. 

That your emotions are shaped by whether you like someone isn’t a phenomenon that only applies to adults. In 2015, researchers analyzed whether a similar likability bias existed in children by asking them questions about a variety of picture-based stories, where the main character experienced some kind of misfortune. The results indicated that kids as young as 4 years old were able to experience both schadenfreude and sympathy depending on the situation. Like the adults from the previous study, children were more sympathetic (a pro-social behavior) when protagonists were likable, as well as when they were more morally positive and when it was clear that the bad things that happened to them were not their fault. On the other hand, children felt schadenfreude when the protagonist was disliked, if they were immoral and if they were at fault for their misfortune.

But is it harmful to feel some 'harm joy' toward someone who deserves it?

It depends. Empathy may be the more pro-socially acceptable feeling, but Tiffany Watt Smith, author of Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another's Misfortune, says that there’s a bright side to this darker emotion. Inherent in schadenfreude is joy or pleasure, which while somewhat complicated, does, in fact, make you feel good. Further, it can help us deal with our own shortcomings and inferiority complex, while also strengthening our bonds with others. She explains,

“Sometimes we invite people to feel schadenfreude at our own expense, for instance, when we start a new job and tell an anecdote about some disaster which befell us on the way to work, we want people to laugh at our suffering so they see us as less of a threat.”

Despite these positive outcomes, it’s impossible to ignore the sadistic aspect of schadenfreude. Notably, Emory University researchers believe dehumanization lies at the core of schadenfreude, overlapping "with several other ‘dark’ personality traits, such as sadism, narcissism, and psychopathy.” In other words, schadenfreude may inure us from feeling compassionate and seeing others as truly human. 

But controlling our emotions is always going to be a balancing act. Everyone feels schadenfreude or a lack of empathy from time to time, we shouldn’t feel guilty for doing so. It’s simply human nature. Next time you get excited when someone gets what’s coming to them, remember there’s no harm in feeling a little joy.