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The Science of Schadenfreude

It is part of being human to laugh at someone's misfortune.

We All Have a Dark Side

There is part of our brain that gets turned on when we are rewarded at someone else’s expense. Schadenfreude is when we laugh at someone else’s misfortune. Schadenfreude comes from the two German words, Schaden and Freude, harm and joy. We’ve all done it, even if we are not proud of it. Your friend trips and spills coffee on their shirt. You may feel compassion, but part of you also chuckles. If your boss trips and spills coffee you may laugh a lot, but perhaps not out loud! Even if you think you are joking, laughing at someone else’s expense, that other person may not take it as a joke. But for some people, and perhaps for all of us, someone else’s misfortune feels strangely satisfying.

Schadenfreude gives us pleasure.

The brain will choose pleasure over fear every time. Have you ever put someone down at work or at home? Just as it is beneficial to include someone in the group, make them a member and access their resources, it is also rewarding to exclude someone from the group, deny them access to resources, and thereby save more for yourself at that other person's expense.

We are conditioned to avoid what we fear and seek what gives us pleasure.

If alienating someone is pleasurable, perhaps it is also addictive. On some level, we know that to put someone down, to lie, or to cheat is not a good thing to do. Yet in little ways, we may do it with some frequency. A research team out of the University of Basel in Switzerland, gave study subjects extra dopamine, the chemical of pleasure that all drugs and alcohol force the brain to release. People who got more dopamine were more likely to cheat if they knew they were not going to get caught or suffer any consequences.[1]

Schadenfreude is the topic and title of a song in the hit Broadway show Avenue Q, a song about the pleasure we take at another’s misfortune. Seeing a puppet and an actor sing this song allowed the audience to laugh unabashedly at our constant human folly. In the song the characters acknowledge their enjoyment at seeing waitresses dropping a tray of glasses, figure skaters falling on their asses, feeling happy that someone else is feeling crappy, and other insights into this unusual side of all of us.

As one of the characters says, Schadenfreude is part of “human nature,” going on to say how glad we can be at times that “I’m not you.” In fact, a phrase like this has instilled its way into our culture rife with its negative connotation: “It must suck to be you.” Putting this into a song not only highlights the brilliance of the writers, Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty, but shines the light of insight into all of us. It is a song that most of the audience relates to, myself included, demonstrated by the tear-producing laughter it elicits. The feeling of schadenfreude is felt so universally. We cannot help but bask in delight when certain people, especially certain popular celebrities, politicians and other public figures make embarrassing mistakes.

Understanding why you feel what you feel creates an advantage and opportunity to respond more thoughtfully than impulsively. How you feel about yourself and others, even schadenfreude, is being influenced at every moment from interactions at home or in the rest of the world. Whenever you feel happy or sad, courageous or scared, peaceful or angry the first step in using these feelings to your advantage is to recognize that you have them.

Recognition is a PFC function, the part of your brain you want to be in control. ToM involves assessment and anticipation: assessing a situation from another person’s perspective, then anticipating how they will respond to that perspective. Assessment and prediction are both PFC responsibilities. Assessment and prediction can be heavily influenced by the limbic system, flavoring the current experience with emotional overlays. These overlays are in turn heavily influenced by memories of past experiences.

Humans have evolved a way to bring people together in times of conflict. Scientists have dubbed it “transformational leadership”[2] This approach helps with motivation, morale, and job performance. It is a style of leadership where a group of people identify a vision for change, and a leader then inspires group members to execute that change. Doesn’t this describe the best of our brains? Using the PFC to drive and modulate our limbic system, rather than the reverse that so often happens.

I see no reason why transformational leadership has to be confined to one powerful person. Each of us has the ability to inspire, to motivate, to encourage the other person by reminding them of their value. By treating them with respect. Each of us can be a role model, for it is true that we control no one but influence everyone.

It’s an I-M thing.


[1] Pedroni A, Eisenegger C, Hartmann MN, Fischbacher U, Knoch D. Dopaminergic stimulation increases selfish behavior in the absence of punishment threat. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2014 Jan;231(1):135-41.

[2] James MacGregor Burns Leadership (Harper Collins, 1978).

Shrand, J. with Devine, L. "Do You Really Get Me?" 2015, Hazelden Press.

Shrand, J. with Devine, L. "The Fear Reflex." 2014, Hazelden Press.

Shrand, J. with Devine, L. "Outsmarting Anger" 2013, Josey Bass Press.

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