Delighting in the Downfall of Others

Neural evidence for schadenfreude.

Posted Dec 30, 2019

Pep Guardiola had a very impressive playing career, playing 263 times for one of the top club soccer teams in Spain (Barcelona) and 43 times for the Spanish National Team. For the former, he won the Spanish league six times and also won the European Cup (currently known as the Champions League, a competition of all the top teams across all European leagues).

But his coaching career is quite extraordinary. He has was won multiple titles in each of Spain (3 out of 4 years coaching in the league), England (2 out of 3 years) and Germany (3 out of 3 years). He has won the Champions League twice. Along the way he has innovated how the sport is played and coached. There is no objective way to think that his career is anything but an absolute success.

Yet, the label "Fraudiola" has followed him. He even mentioned it himself in a recent interview and it isn't that uncommon for it to be trending on Twitter. On a soccer site (well football—it's a European site), I frequently read the mailbox and comments sections and see that they are full of people sharpening their knives whenever his team slips up. 

This hatred has always perplexed me. He doesn't seem particularly harsh towards his players. He seems fairly jovial to the press and he hasn't had any scandals of any kind. He seems like a decent human being who just happens to be a, frankly, revolutionary soccer coach. (Then again, I am leading with a European soccer anecdote on a primarily American read website, where sports articles tend to not be well read, so what do I know!)

Moving away from Pep Guardiola for a moment, I am sure lots of us have heard someone say something along the lines of "be happy, you could have it a lot worse." While I doubt how helpful that is to people who are depressed (and it could make things worse I suspect), it does suggest that many people have this idea that we can delight in the downfall of others. And this can take the form of delighting in the failure of a highly successful person or comparing yourself to people who are worse off.

A recent series of studies tested how much joy people feel while playing a financial game of chance with another person. Basically, people made choices that could randomly lead to them getting money, but these had no bearing on how much money the other player actually got. You just played while the other person played (like you would when bowling). They were interested in whether the failures or successes of the other player would make a person feel more joy, regardless of whether or not they themselves were gaining or losing money.

What they found was that when people are losing money, they feel joy when the other person also loses money. And, even when they won money, they experienced envy when the other person won more. In other words, people's emotions were not just impacted by how well/bad they were doing, but how well/bad the other person was doing. People were, basically, feeling worse when another person did very well even if they were doing well but not quite as well. And when they were doing bad, they felt better when the other player was doing worse. Recall that this game had nothing to do with skill.

This would suggest that a person's happiness with their own house, finances, relationships, etc. do not just depend on the objective, absolute value of how good those things are. They depend also on how well you think everyone around you is doing. So you might be perfectly happy in your relationship, but then when you see another couple being really happy, it all of a sudden makes you less happy. But then, if you hang out with a couple who is always fighting you might feel better about your own relationship.

The researchers also found neural evidence for such "delighting at others' misfortunes" in the economic game. The ventral striatum, which is activated by all types of reward, was also measured along with people's self-reported feelings of joy and envy. The patterns of neural reward activation mirrored those on the self-report measures (the brain matched the written responses).

Guardiola receives such criticism, partially, because it feels good to some people when a successful person fails. Their brain is signaling a reward.