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Empathy and Schadenfreude in Sports

A fan's perspective.

Source: Jeshoots/Pexels

When it comes to sport on TV, what’s the next best thing to sharing in the experience of your own team’s victory? Whatever your sport, you probably prefer to watch your own team rather than any other. You may sit there on the edge of your sofa, with every cell in your body cheering them on to win. But do you ever tune in to watch a team you dislike hoping you’ll get to see them lose? Maybe your team’s biggest rival?

Schadenfreude, the pleasure derived in another's misfortune, has been described as both the ultimate failure of empathy and empathy’s shadow, yet it actually relies on empathy.

Empathy does not insist on pity or a compassionate response. When we witness misfortune, we wince with pain before we laugh; because we became the other in the moment. Whilst being the other, we feel the pain, then rationalise to understand that, all considered, we are glad the other is experiencing it for real.

Although neuroscientists often refer to schadenfreude as an extremely complicated emotion, the process essentially involves the activation of the reward centre of our brain. Schadenfreude looks like pure joy as well as feeling like it. Context can exacerbate this. If the failure of another team increases the chances of success for your own team, your joy is enhanced.

The competitive nature of sport offers a fantastic opportunity to analyse this enjoyment of another’s suffering. In 2010, two psychologists, Jaap W. Ouwerkerk of VU Amsterdam and Wilco W. van Dijk of Leiden University, both avid football fans, were watching the football World Cup at home on a Dutch TV channel. Their team was still in the tournament and they often switched over to a foreign broadcaster when they were doing particularly well, in order to enjoy the foreign commentator’s praise. After the Dutch exited the competition, the psychologists turned their attention to their biggest rivals, Germany.

In the semi-final against Spain, to the psychologist’s delight, the Spanish team scored the winning goal just minutes before the end. The psychologists found themselves turning over to ADR, a German channel, in order to enjoy the sound of German commentators wallowing in the catastrophe of their imminent defeat and exit from the competition.

Reflecting on their behaviour was interesting enough, but they soon discovered they were not alone. They found that the number of Dutch viewers of ADR had peaked at 352,000 just before the end of the game when the Germans were staring at defeat.

The Dutch fans wanted to share and "feel into" the experience, in order to gain a better understanding of the pain being felt by their rivals and their fans. The more they could understand the pain, the more they enjoyed it. Research on empathy shows that empathising is easier if we know someone well. The better you know someone the more easily you will understand their pain.

When it comes to supporting sports teams, many of us enjoy the banter at work on a Monday morning after the weekend’s fixtures. Consider that guy who sits next to you for five days a week, who you know really well—maybe you consider him your friend. You like most things about him, but not the team he supports. You know when they lose, he suffers, yet you yearn for that and it’s the first thing you’ll mention when you see him. This works both ways. He loves the sport as much as you. He knows how hurt you are when your team loses and he’ll be there waiting for you, particularly if your team has been superior for a long time.

Superiority often annoys us. The status of a team or a professional athlete can be achieved by being recognized and respected by others for good performance or through unethically achieved dominance or aggressive behaviour. Hubris in society tends to lead to a rebalancing. If "superior" teams or individuals are seen to fail, the joy expressed, sometimes referred to as "malicious joy," can bring them back down to earth. Malicious joy also increases one's own self-esteem.

Sharing in the joy of your own team’s success may be the most obvious example of fan empathy, but empathy offers different paths to enjoyment. It may not be something you are proud to admit, but be honest: What’s the next best thing to watching your own team win?


Van Dijk, W. W., & Ouwerkerk, J. W. (2014). Intergroup Rivalry and Schadenfreude. In book: Schadenfreude: Understanding Pleasure at the Misfortune of Others (pp.186-199) Chapter: 12. Cambridge University Press