Smiling with Envy: Delighting in the Downfall of Others

Jealousy drives schadenfreude.

Posted Mar 29, 2012

The German word schadenfreude refers to delighting in the misfortunes of others, when their misfortune is of no real direct benefit to you. Although I feel uneasy even writing it, this happens quite regularly in society.  We may (secretly) have a quick smile when someone who has harmed us has something bad happen to them; heck, we might even laugh hysterically when a friend of ours trips on the sidewalk.  Of course I have never done any of those things. But from what I have heard, it happens.

(And should you investigate the truth of that statement about my own schadenfreude, do not ask my friend Kevin about a time in college when he tripped on the sidewalk. What sidewalk you ask? Exactly, good job!)

As my attempted schadenfreude cover up indicates (it wasn't convincing you say?), one issue with studying schadenfreude is that it is not something people readily want to admit; there is a strong motivation to cover it up, if people are even aware of it a lot of the time (not all influences on our mind are conscious). "Man, it feels so good to see that guy hurt" is not something we will exactly go to the town center and yell into a microphone, unless it is Osama bin Laden or someone.

Probably well aware of this, researchers decided to test when people delight in the misfortunes of others using fMRI teachnology. Basically, fMRIs work by assessing blood flow to certain areas of the brain. When an area shows increased blood flow in response to an image or a behavior, we can be sure that that area of the brain serves a related purpose to that image or behavior. For instance, there are certain areas of the brain that are active when experiencing pain.

Recent research using fMRI technology measured people's neurological responses to various people either having something good happen to them, such as enjoying a sandwich; something bad happen to them, such as getting soaked by a puddle when a car goes by; or something neutral happen to them, such as yawning. The people in the images were either people that research has found to elicit disgust (i.e., the homeless), pity (i.e., the elderly) or envy (i.e., successful business people).

Participants experienced the least pain, based on fMRI recordings, when viewing someone they envied being harmed, relative to someone who disgusted them or that they pitied. They also experienced the most pain when the people they envied had something good happen to them.

These fMRI readings correlated with how willing people were to harm others in hypothetical scenarios. That is, these areas of the brain that showed pleasure in the misfortunes of envied people were related to a greater likelihood of intending to harm said envied people.

These researchers also found in currently unpublished research that people's rate of smiling is increased when envied people have bad things happen to them.

So when do we feel good when other people have crappy things happen to them? This research suggests that this is likely to occur when we are jealous of the other person.

So next time you catch yourself smiling when someone twists an ankle, or loses a job, or I do not know, asks for rye bread for their sandwich and gets white bread, this could reveal that you are jealous of that other person.

We delight in the misfortunes of others when we are jealous of them—just don't tell my friend Kevin this could be why I laughed when he tripped on the sidewalk. Deal?