The emotion of schadenfreude — joy in the pain of others — is widespread but has some dangerous associations.
Imagine that your favourite team is about to play a crucial match, and you hear the news that the other team’s star player has suffered a serious injury during training. You might feel sorry for the player but you also might initially feel a surge of pleasure about the improved prospects for your team.
Another scenario: you have been striving hard at work to be chosen for an important assignment, but are frustrated by a talented rival. Your rival suffers a setback due to a family crisis. You are outwardly concerned but may feel some satisfaction in the turn of events.
Your next-door neighbour is outwardly successful, with a prestigious high-paying job, a large house, fancy car and immaculately presented family. By comparison, you are not nearly so well off. Imagine your feeling when a news report reveals that your neighbour has been the victim of a swindle and will have to downsize.
These are examples of the emotion called schadenfreude, a German word meaning pleasure resulting from someone else’s pain. To learn more about it, I recommend Richard H. Smith’s book The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2013). Smith describes, in an accessible manner, research on schadenfreude, providing everyday examples drawn from popular culture, for example The Simpsons.
Although schadenfreude is often experienced, it is seldom acknowledged publicly or even privately. It is not seen as proper to gloat over someone else’s pain, so in many cases this is a secret emotion. However, there are some circumstances in which schadenfreude is more acceptable and freely expressed: when the other person seems to deserve their suffering.
Smith describes the US television programme To Catch a Predator in which men were enticed, through online conversations, to visit a house where they expected to meet an underage person, possibly for sex. The house was rigged with numerous cameras and the men were filmed as they were informed that their activities and responses were being recorded for broadcast on television. For the men, this was close to the ultimate in humiliation: they were being exposed on national television as likely paedophiles.
Smith notes that paedophilia is so universally reviled that it seems acceptable to revel in the acute agony of these men. They are suffering and many audience members feel it is only fair. Yet the background to each man’s visit was omitted from the program. Some of them may have been victims of child sexual abuse, and there was no explanation of what led up to their visit, nor any proof that they were guilty of paedophilia. The program was set up to enable viewers to enjoy the men’s humiliation, a spectacle called humilitainment.
The example of To Catch a Predator is just one example of what Smith calls the dark side of human nature. Humans are constantly comparing themselves to others, and improve their self-esteem when they come out on top. Studies show that when assessments of personal qualities are subjective, most people think they are better than average. For example, nearly everyone thinks their sense of humour is above average.
Social comparison is almost universal, and when people peg their self-image by comparisons, it is a short step to envy, a toxic emotion. Envy is the resentment and ill will felt when observing that someone has something — money, possessions, talent, good looks, fame — that you don’t. Few people like to feel inferior. Envy often includes a wish for the envied person to suffer or be brought down. This sets the stage for schadenfreude.
It is one thing to be secretly pleased when someone else suffers, because you feel better about yourself, and another to take action to bring about another person’s suffering. Smith, to probe the darkest aspect of these emotions, considers the actions and emotions of Germans during the Nazi occupation of Europe, in particular their attitudes towards the Jews. At the time, many Jews were highly successful, disproportionately filling the ranks of doctors, lawyers and media proprietors, so it is plausible that their high social standing evoked envy. However, few people like to admit to envy, so Hitler and other Nazis instead devalued the Jews — including with furious condemnations — thereby providing a pretext for harming them. Smith provides some telling bits of evidence suggesting that schadenfreude was one of the emotions involved in the genocide of the Jews.
He is also careful to note that in ordinary circumstances, envy is held in check and does not lead to actions to hurt others. To provide a more positive note, Smith gives some examples of individuals who have learned how to rise above any suggestion of schadenfreude. He tells of a man he knew, widely esteemed by others, who never said an ill word about anyone.
In psychology, the “fundamental error of attribution” refers to a widespread mental process of assuming that the behaviour of others reflects their inner purpose. If someone makes some nasty comments, we may assume they have a hostile personality. Yet there are often explanations for behaviour based on circumstance. The other person may be physically ill or suffering extreme stress, which could help to explain their comments.
When our own poor behaviour is involved, we readily blame it on external factors. The fundamental error of attribution involves interpreting actions by others differently than our own.
This is pertinent to schadenfreude. Our own misfortunes, we may feel, are unfair or due to circumstances beyond our control, but the misfortunes of others are attributed to their own flaws. To overcome the tendency to think this way, it is useful to try to think of possible external causes for others’ behaviour. The man who Smith knew learned to do this, and hence did not join in the usual gossiping about the foibles and misfortunes of others.
Smith offers as an exemplar Abraham Lincoln, who early in his career learned the wisdom of not condemning others and subsequently showed amazing restraint in his comments to them. After General George Meade won the battle of Gettysburg but failed to follow up by pursuing the Robert E. Lee’s army and thereby winning the civil war then and there, Lincoln was immensely frustrated, especially because he had futilely appealed to Meade to pursue Lee’s army. Lincoln wrote a letter to Meade expressing his distress at his shortcoming — but he never sent it, and it was found in Lincoln’s papers subsequently. To have sent the letter would have pained Meade but to no purpose.
The Joy of Pain is valuable because it tackles a topic seldom probed outside the scholarly literature. Without being pointed, it can encourage the reader to reflect on emotions and behaviour in a new light, taking into account social comparisons and the toxic consequences of envy.
Thanks to Sharon Crozier-De Rosa and Roger Patulny for useful comments.