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Why We Sometimes Find Joy in Other People’s Misfortune

Schadenfreude, sympathy, and "happy-for-ness."

Key points

  • It may seem normal, but not nice, to experience at least some pleasure when misfortune befalls a rival.
  • New research contrasts a new emotion, "happy-for-ness" with schadenfreude, envy, and sympathy in response to success or failure in others.
  • By understanding your own tendency to engage in social comparison, you can move past your negative and into more empathetic reactions to others.

The idea that you should feel badly when someone else encounters a loss or other form of misfortune is hammered into most people’s sense of moral responsibility. Little children may shout with joy when they win a family board game, but this ignoble reaction ordinarily becomes less and less acceptable in anyone over the age of 8 or 9. As adults, you may still experience this sense of delight when you’ve vanquished your opponents, but you know that you have to hold back on expressing it openly.

Feeling happy at the expense of someone else’s losses is an emotion that psychologists refer to as schadenfreude, a German word combining the words harm (schaden) and joy (freude). Although this is a common enough emotion, is it inevitable that people take pleasure in the harm that befalls others? Perhaps you hear that a small electrical fire destroyed your neighbor’s kitchen. Isn’t it likely that you would feel sympathetic toward them rather than triumphant?

According to new research by University of Luneburg’s Lea Boecker and colleagues (2022), the emotions that fall into the category of “fortunes of others” (FOE’s) can range from the “assimilative” or empathetic to the “contrastive” or unempathetic. Building a model of FOE’s, the German authors explore the factors determining whether people experience the assimilative or contrastive emotions to the fortunes and misfortunes of others, shortened as “(mis)fortunes.”

A Four-Part Model of Emotional Reactions to (Mis)fortunes

Borrowing from a 2000 book chapter by University of Kentucky’s Richard Smith (2000), the German authors note that social comparisons are at the heart of people’s emotional responses to other people’s (mis)fortunes. Swings in emotions, Smith argues, are determined in situations involving other people by the vagaries of social comparisons. In an upward comparison, you wish you had what someone else has, and in a downward comparison, you feel that you’re the one on top.

In Boecker et al.’s four-part model, the four FOE’s depend on the combination of upward and downward comparisons people make in response to desirable and undesirable outcomes. If the person you're comparing yourself to unfavorably has a desirable outcome, you'll experience envy. Perhaps you weren’t invited to a friend’s outdoor gathering and wished you had. If the weather is nice, you'll feel envious of everyone who was there. However, if the people you're comparing yourself unfavorably to have something bad happen, you'll experience the emotion of schadenfreude. This is why you might rejoice if the outdoor gathering is marred by a sudden rainstorm.

When the product of the two dimensions produces congruence, your assimilative emotions will instead arise. Thinking back on that kitchen fire, you’ll feel sympathy because you can "look down" at the other person without feeling threatened by their superiority over you. At the other end of the spectrum, you will feel what the German authors call “happy-for-ness” when you don't see the other person as having qualities more desirable than your own should something good happen to them. Without the taint of wanting something someone else has, you’ll be able to revel in their good, not bad, fortune.

The Role of Fairness

As Boecker and her colleagues point out, part of what drives the FOE model involves the process of fairness. This is because, in their words “A plethora of studies have shown that individuals do not like inequality, also known as inequity aversion.” Because of this belief in fairness, “fortunes and misfortunes that increase inequality elicit unpleasant emotions, whereas those that reduce inequality produce pleasant emotions” (p. 58). In other words, the farther away someone’s relative rank moves from your own, the worse you will feel.

To test their theoretical model, the U. Luneburg team devised a series of nine online experiments that simulated a lottery in which participants could compare their wins and losses with ostensible opponents. The experimenters varied the exact conditions of the lottery, but the basic premise was that participants either lost, gained, or came out equal in terms of the lottery’s outcome. In each case, the participants rated their emotional reactions along the scales of none to much (e.g. “no schadenfreude at all” to “much schadenfreude”).

After supporting their initial prediction that envy and schadenfreude would be highest in upward comparisons and happy-for-ness and empathy highest in downward comparisons, in subsequent experiments the authors varied additional factors to examine more specifically why these emotions occurred and whether the emotions would be translated into behavioral reactions to the “opponent.”

Emotional reactions to other people’s success or failures, then, exist on what you might think of as a sliding scale. As a result, you don’t look at someone else’s outcomes, favorable or unfavorable, in a vacuum but always in terms of what they mean for yourself. You’ll feel envious of a winner, then, who ranks higher than you in some way, as this individual threatens “not only comparative concerns but also self-esteem” (p. 76).

On the positive side of the equation, the participants in general were more likely to feel sympathetic to other people’s misfortunes than they were to experience schadenfreude, especially when the misfortune was particularly severe. Suggesting that this finding supports the idea of a “sympathy bias,” the authors also note that social comparison still can alter this general dynamic.

When it came to happy-for-ness, this prosocial emotion emerged most predictably when people felt equal on the social comparison scale with the winner. Interestingly, as shown in two of the experiments, if they didn’t even compete with the other person who had the positive outcome, they actually felt this emotion most strongly. Perhaps this is why viewers of game shows take so much pleasure in watching a proficient champion reach their goal.

How You Become More Empathetic Toward Others

From this comprehensive look at the social comparison process, you can now understand that the emotions you feel toward others, both in their successes and failures, all occur in a relative sense. Furthermore, given that it doesn’t feel good to compare yourself negatively to others, the German findings also suggest that there are ways to move to the “congruence” end of the self-other comparison scale.

When you see someone get what you would like to have, such as the opportunity to join that outdoor gathering, ask yourself why this matters so much. Do you feel that by being invited, these other guests are better than you? Are they more popular? If you feel that your upward social comparison process is being set into motion, you can then start to bring it back down to erase your inequity aversion. Maybe they are being invited for a reason you don’t understand. Perhaps you’ll be invited to the next party. Indeed, the more “happy-for-ness” you allow yourself to feel, the more likely it is that you would be included on the next guest list.

To sum up, feeling joy in other people’s misery doesn’t have to be an inevitable outcome of the social comparison process. By understanding the full dimensions of the FOE model, you can move yourself toward the fulfilling end of the emotional continuum.

Facebook image: Jovica Varga/Shutterstock

References

Boecker, L., Loschelder, D. D., & Topolinski, S. (2022). How individuals react emotionally to others’ (mis)fortunes: A social comparison framework. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 123(1), 55–83. doi: 10.1037/pspa0000299

Smith, R. H. (2000). Assimilative and contrastive emotional reactions to upward and downward social comparisons. In J. Suls, & J. Wheeler (Eds.), Handbook of social comparison: Theory and research (pp. 173–200). Plenum. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4615-4237-7_10

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