We are all the judges and the judged, victims of the casual malice and fantasy of others, and ready sources of fantasy and malice in our turn. And if we are sometimes accused of sins of which we are innocent, are there not also other sins of which we are guilty and of which the world knows nothing? ― Iris Murdoch, Nuns and Soldiers
Schadenfreude is a complex psychological phenomenon that has been studied extensively by psychologists over the past few decades. The term “schadenfreude” is derived from the German words “schaden” meaning harm or damage and “freude” meaning joy or pleasure. In other words, this refers to the pleasure or satisfaction one feels at the misfortune, suffering or failure of others. While this emotion is not necessarily something people are proud of, it is a common experience that can have various psychological implications.
Causes of Schadenfreude
According to research, schadenfreude is driven by three key factors: aggression, rivalry, and justice.
- Aggression-based schadenfreude typically involves group identity, with observers deriving pleasure from the failure or suffering of out-group members because it validates or elevates their in-group status. This form of schadenfreude is rooted in group-based status comparisons.
- Rivalry-based schadenfreude, on the other hand, is individualistic and linked to interpersonal competition. It stems from a desire to outperform one’s peers and feel superior to them. In this case, the misfortune of others elicits pleasure because it boosts the observer’s personal identity and sense of self-worth rather than group identity.
- Justice-based schadenfreude arises from the perception that immoral or “bad” behavior is being punished. The pleasure associated with this form of schadenfreude comes from the restoration of fairness and retribution for a previously unpunished wrong. It is considered a moral emotion. (Wang et al., 2019).
The experience of schadenfreude can be influenced by a variety of individual factors, including personality traits, cognitive processes, and social and cultural norms. Specifically. research has indicated that individuals who score high on measures of trait aggression and narcissism are more likely to experience schadenfreude in response to the misfortunes of others (Van Dijk & Ouwerkerk, 2014).
Cognitive processes can also play a role in the experience of schadenfreude. Related research has shown that people are more likely to experience schadenfreude when they perceive that the person who is experiencing the misfortune deserves it, either because of their own actions or because of some other factor (Smith, 2008). This perception of deservingness can be influenced by a variety of factors, including the person’s past behavior, their reputation, and the social norms and values of their culture. However, it is generally based on the underlying desire for justice or fairness. People may feel that those who have acted immorally or unfairly should be punished, and their misfortune or failure can be seen as a form of justice. This can lead to a sense of satisfaction or pleasure in seeing the person suffer the consequences of their actions.
The degree of perceived similarity between the individual experiencing schadenfreude and the person who is experiencing misfortune can influence the emotional response to the situation in various ways. One important factor is the degree of perceived threat to the self-concept. Research indicates that people tend to experience schadenfreude when they perceive the other person’s good fortune as threatening their own success, sense of self-worth or social identity (Smith, 2008). For example, if someone sees a successful colleague experience a setback, they may experience schadenfreude if they perceive the colleague’s success as a threat to their own sense of competence or social status. In this case, the degree of perceived similarity between the two individuals may influence the observer’s emotional response, with greater similarity leading to a stronger emotional reaction.
One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that people may use the misfortune of similar others as a way of reducing their own self-threat. By seeing someone similar to themselves fail or experience misfortune, people may feel that their own position is more secure or that their own failures are less significant. In this way, the misfortune of similar others can function as a form of self-affirmation.
Perceived similarity can also influence the experience of empathy towards the person experiencing misfortune. Research has shown that people tend to experience greater empathy towards those who are perceived as similar to themselves (Galinsky et al., 2005). As a result, people may be more likely to experience schadenfreude towards those who are dissimilar, as they may have a harder time empathizing with their situation.
However, it is important to note that the relationship between perceived similarity and schadenfreude is not always straightforward and can be mitigated by other aspects of the situation. For example, research has indicated that people may experience schadenfreude towards those who are similar to themselves but who they perceive as having achieved success through unfair means (Van Dijk & Ouwerkerk, 2014). In this case, the similarity may actually increase the perception of injustice, leading to a stronger emotional response.
Another factor that may influence the feeling of schadenfreude is the degree of control that the person who is experiencing the misfortune has over the situation. People may be more likely to experience schadenfreude when they perceive the person who is experiencing the misfortune as having some degree of control over the situation, but having made a mistake or error in judgment that led to the misfortune (Van Dijk & Ouwerkerk, 2014).
Schadenfreude is also related to other complex emotional and behavioral factors, including envy, jealousy, and competition. When someone perceives that others have more success, happiness, or possessions than they do, they may experience feelings of inferiority or resentment. This can lead to a desire to see those who are more successful or fortunate experience misfortune or failure, which can bring a sense of satisfaction or pleasure.
Social and cultural norms can also influence the experience of schadenfreude. Some cultures may view schadenfreude as an acceptable and even desirable response to the misfortunes of others, while other cultures may view it as inappropriate or even harmful. In some cases, social and cultural norms may also influence the types of situations in which people are more likely to experience schadenfreude. For example, people may be more likely to experience schadenfreude in response to the misfortunes of celebrities or public figures, who are often viewed as being more deserving of criticism and ridicule.
Consequences of Schadenfreude
While schadenfreude can provide a sense of satisfaction or pleasure in the short term, it can have negative consequences in the long term. One such consequence is the potential damage to relationships. If someone is known for experiencing schadenfreude, it can damage their reputation and make others reluctant to trust or associate with them. Additionally, experiencing schadenfreude can also lead to feelings of guilt or shame. People may feel guilty for deriving pleasure from the misfortune or failure of others, which can lead to a cycle of negative emotions and behaviors.
Schadenfreude can also contribute to a negative worldview. If someone regularly experiences pleasure at the expense of others, they may become more cynical or distrustful of others, which can lead to a more negative outlook on life. It is important to be aware of the potential negative consequences and to strive to develop more positive and compassionate attitudes towards others. One way to do this is to focus on cultivating empathy and compassion towards others, which can help to counteract the negative effects of schadenfreude and promote greater social and emotional well-being.
Schadenfreude is a complex and often misunderstood emotion. While it can provide a sense of satisfaction or pleasure in certain situations, it can also have negative consequences for relationships and emotional well-being. As such, it is important to be aware of the causes and consequences of schadenfreude and to strive to develop more positive and compassionate attitudes towards others.
Galinsky, A. D., Ku, G., & Wang, C. S. (2005). Perspective-Taking and Self-Other Overlap: Fostering Social Bonds and Facilitating Social Coordination. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 8(2), 109–124. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430205051060
Smith, R. H., Turner, T. J., Garonzik, R., Leach, C. W., Urch-Druskat, V., & Weston, C. M. (1996). Envy and schadenfreude. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(2), 158–168.
Van Dijk, W. W., & Ouwerkerk, J. W. (2014). Schadenfreude: Understanding pleasure at the misfortunes of others. Cambridge University Press. http://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/subjects/psychology/social-psychology/schadenfreude-understanding-pleasure-misfortune-others
Wang, S., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Rochat, P. (2019). Schadenfreude deconstructed and reconstructed: A tripartite motivational model”. New Ideas in Psychology, 52: 1- 11. doi:10.1016/j.newideapsych.2018.09.002.
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