10 Unsettling Facts About Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude is a sign of our times.

Posted Aug 08, 2019

The word schadenfreude is a compound the German schaden meaning “damage” or “harm” and freude meaning “joy.” It is the opposite of sympathy. Schadenfreude is an emerging area of scientific interest, with implications for politics, sports fandom, and more.

Let's look at 10 evidence-based facts about schadenfreude.

1. In a study published in Science, Hidehiko Takahashi et al. used functional MRI to record mechanisms of painful emotion, envy, and schadenfreude, which was the rewarding reaction.

First, when participants were presented with scenarios promoting envy, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was activated. Second, when the participants were presented with related scenarios promoting schadenfreude, the ventral striatum was activated.

The anterior cingulate cortex connects to the limbic system, the seat of emotions, and the prefrontal cortex, the seat of cognition. Consequently, experts hypothesize that the ACC plays a role in the integration of neuronal circuitry directing affect regulation. The ventral striatum is also associated with the limbic system and is involved in reward processing and motivation.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Humor is just Schadenfreude with a clear conscience.” Nietzsche suggested that the emotional pain people feel about their in-group's inferiority results in the pleasure of schadenfreude when a successful out-group fails. Subsequent research has supported the notion that schadenfreude has more to do with the inferiority of the self rather than the success of others. Nietzsche also thought that schadenfreude served only as a temporary panacea for the pain of domain inferiority.

3. Oxytocin is often associated with prosocial behaviors. However, in one study, Simone G.Shamay-Tsoory et al. showed that oxytocin administered intranasally boosted feelings of envy and schadenfreude. The investigators concluded that oxytocin likely plays a central role in a gamut of behaviors—positive and negative—connected to social emotion.

leksei Ivanov/123RF
Source: leksei Ivanov/123RF

4. Envy does not always predict schadenfreude. Based on experimental results, van Dijk et al. concluded that both hostility and envy mediated schadenfreude. Furthermore, schadenfreude occurred when the participant and imagined target shared characteristics such as gender. For instance, in the study, male participants felt schadenfreude for male targets but not female targets.

5. Research has demonstrated that the misfortune of another triggers schadenfreude when this misfortune is seen as deserved or befalls an envied or hated person.

6. Experts hypothesize that misfortune afflicting an envied person can bring pleasure because it makes the advantaged target less enviable, as well as removing the underlying envy.

7. Schadenfreude likely exists on a spectrum from episodic to trait. In other words, in some people, schadenfreude is so prevalent that they could be considered a trait.

8. In a study published in PLoS One, Laura C. Crysel and Gregory D. Webster found that schadenfreude may play a role in politics and why people disseminate damaging news about political failures. In other words, happiness derived from a politician’s misfortune may predict whether people share this misfortune with others using social media

“As U.S. politics become more divisive, and social media are used to shame and denigrate targeted politicians, schadenfreude can increasingly explain our social behavior. If schadenfreude explains why people share these embarrassing failures, then it may even help explain political outcomes, including election victories,” concluded the authors.

9. Consumer research has shown that schadenfreude is rampant in sports, where it is not only directed at rival teams but also team sponsors. Experts suggest that companies should approach sponsorship gingerly to avoid inciting customers who are fans of rival teams.

10. Schadenfreude is thought to be closely linked to Dark Triad traits (ie, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy), as well as sensational interests, including those in guns, knives, true crime, the occult, and Nazism.

Let's close with a tip on enunciation. The word schadenfreude rhymes with kabaragoya, a species of large water monitor indigenous to Southeast Asia.

References

Crysel LC, Webster GD. Schadenfreude and the Spread of Political Misfortune. PLoS One. 2018; 13(9): e0201754.

Hickman T, Ward J. The Dark Side of Brand Community: Inter-Group Stereotyping, Trash Talk, and Schadenfreude. Advances in Consumer Research. 2007;34:314-319.

Shamay-Tsoory SG, Fischer M, Dvash J, Harari H, Perach-Bloom N, Levkovitz Y. Intranasal Administration of Oxytocin Increases Envy and Schadenfreude (Gloating). Biological Psychiatry. 2009;66(9):864-870.

Takahashi H, Kato M, Matsuura M, Mobbs D, Suhara T, Okubo Y. When Your Gain Is My Pain and Your Pain Is My Gain: Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude. Science. 2009; 323(5916):937-939.

van Dijk, W. W., Ouwerkerk, J. W., Goslinga, S., Nieweg, M., & Gallucci, M. When people fall from grace: Reconsidering the role of envy in schadenfreude. Emotion. 2006; 6(1):156-160.