Have you ever seen someone get fired, get dumped or fall over and find that you kind of enjoyed it? You might be alarmed to think that you somehow take pleasure in other people’s misfortune – it doesn’t sound very kind after all – but in fact it’s a completely normal part of being human and nothing to feel bad about. It’s called ‘Schadenfreude’ and it’s really rather interesting…
Where Does it Come From?
Schadenfreude means delighting in the misfortune of others and is a phenomenon that has had quite a lot of attention both in psychology and in literature. But where does it come from and why do we feel that way?
Well the answer isn’t completely clear just yet, but the leading theories suggest that it might have its roots in ‘social comparison theory’. This theory states that we feel bad when other people fair better than ourselves, an emotion that might have originally developed as a way to encourage progress as well as competition when we were still evolving. Many studies have shown that people can become instantly less satisfied with their lot in life when they see other people who have more (which may be one of the dangers of social networking…).
It follows then that the reverse might also be true – that you might feel better when someone around you suffers. Just as your lot in life seems less when someone gets more, it could also seem more when they get less – and at the same time you might feel as though your relative social status has risen.
And in some cases we might actually stand to benefit directly from the misfortune of someone else. One study for instance looked at how the supporters of football teams would feel elation when their rivals did badly, but obviously in such scenarios they may also stand to gain as it clears the way in terms of competition.
There are more emotions surrounding Schadenfreude however which might serve to complicate matters. For instance it’s important that we recognise the role of humour and relief that comes from seeing people fail (humour can also be a coping mechanism for dire circumstances – hence ‘gallows humour’). Slapstick comedy is in many ways almost built on Schadenfreude – pratfalls are funny essentially because they’re unfortunate. Here it may be that a sense of ‘relief’ occurs – we laugh because it’s ‘not us’ and because we are relieved to see that other people might go through similarly embarrassing situations as those we may have experienced ourselves in the past.
People also tend to have something of a morbid fascination when it comes to things going wrong. This is why people will so famously clamour around to see car accidents and other disasters – but where does that particular impulse come from? In this case it might be simply due to curiosity, simply put it’s something we don’t often see and wouldn’t get another opportunity to see. From an evolutionary perspective this has value too because it’s something that we can learn from, even if it is a little gruesome and off putting.
Who Feels Schadenfreude?
Interestingly though, not everyone experiences Schadenfreude to the same extent so perhaps it can say something about you after all.
It may for one suggest a low self-esteem for instance – which has been shown to correlate with regular feelings of Schadenfreude. In studies, it has been found that those with low self-esteem will almost always get some enjoyment from other people’s suffering, whereas others only tend to feel it if they are jealous of that person. If someone has a car you want and they get fired, then you’ll probably enjoy it even if your confidence is sky-high.
Men meanwhile are more likely than women to gain pleasure from seeing someone suffer if they deem them to ‘deserve it’, though this again is a slightly different emotion to Schadenfreude, being more to do with ‘revenge’ and ‘justice’ than simple morbid fascination with the macabre.
This all might sound a little depressing and it doesn’t seem to reflect well on mankind, but you can turn it on its head. Just think: the next time life seems to be going wrong for you, at least someone else might get a kick out of it!