As I think back about my childhood there are a few dark memories that elicit some shame. The specifics of these rare events are vague in my mind, but I do recall my reaction and the subsequent feelings aroused deep within. Part of my shame stemmed from the certainty that I alone was so inclined to find humor in the misfortune of others. Come to find out, later in life, the Germans have a very specific word for my inappropriate reactions. The word, Schadenfreude, has no English equivalent, but imagine my relief to learn that my strong compulsion to laugh when a playmate injured himself was not some deep seated character flaw. I like to consider myself a sensitive and caring guy; generally, pretty empathetic. That was true, I am told, even when I was a child. But, on occasion, I really struggled with a deep and overpowering reflexive drive to heartily laugh when one particular friend of mine managed to hurt himself. When anybody else got hurt I tended to writhe with a sick feeling in my knees. Not so with this guy. He was older than I and although I loved spending time with him, I also experienced a fair amount of envy in his presence. I admired him for his confidence, competence, and he seemed to possess all the wondrous possessions of my dreams. As I’ve come to learn more about schadenfreude, I now realize that this envy probably played out in the expression of this emotion.
So what is this schadenfreude response and where does it come from? First, what is it? The word itself is derived from schaden, which in German means adversity or harm and freude, which means joy. Literally the term means deriving pleasure from another’s misfortune. Although people rarely acknowledge this feeling, it is very common and probably as old as humankind. It drives the infatuation people have with celebrities and politicians particularly when it comes to their foibles and faux pas. It also drives the success of slap stick comedy and the humor derived from the ubiquitous home videos of men being unexpectedly struck in the private parts. Who has not seen and laughed at least one of these videos? This response transcends all of human kind and it certainly keeps the tabloids and paparazzi in business.
Schadenfreude has of late become an area of scientific inquiry. Little by little we are acquiring more and more information about this phenomena. Studies of empathy using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) mapped out, in real time, active centers of the brain as individuals were exposed to another person’s pain. The fMRI detected activity in the frontoinsular and anterior cingulate cortices. These areas of the brain are associated with pain responses and the subsequent emotions. Empathy is likely a brain-based response whereby the witness re-lives the negative emotions of pain without actually enduring the physical stimuli. A surprising result of this research was that when some subjects (men in particular), witnessed unfortunate things happening to bad people, the left nucleus accumbens (NAcc) tended to light up. The NAcc is a collection of neurons within the striatum, which is thought to be a major reward center in the brain. The striatum play important roles in our experiences of pleasure, laughter, reward, and even addiction and aggression.
We have learned even more from the work of neuroscientist Hidehiko Takahashi and his colleagues at Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences. They asked 19 adult volunteers to read scenarios describing the successes and misfortunes of fictional characters and to report their feelings about these people as they were undergoing an fMRI. They discovered that reports of envy were associated with activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (the same pain center noted above). Envy, it seems, like empathy, is an unpleasant experience, processed in the same way as is physical pain. On the other hand, the feelings of pleasure associated with another’s misfortune were associated with increased activity in the striatum (pleasure center). In contrast to empathy and envy, schadenfreude actually feels good. Another person’s misfortune can trigger the same positive feelings as those associated with eating a great meal, hearing a really funny joke, or watching your team win the big game.
So, it seems, we are hard wired to feel schadenfreude. There must have been some evolutionary advantage conferred to those who experienced this emotion. Or perhaps, it may simply be secondary to some other traits that did offer selective advantages. Emily Anthes (2010) in an article in Scientific American: MIND noted “from an evolutionary standpoint, schadenfreude makes a lot of sense. The world is a competitive place, and an individual benefits, for instance, when a sexual competitor breaks a leg or a hunting rival falls ill.” There is a certain degree of social relativism at work here. Another’s misfortune stands you in better relative position for limited resources and thus survival. That’s the evolutionary psychology angle. Although the survival piece is certainly less relevant today, sexual selection and economic competition still are.
As it turns out, one is more likely to experience schadenfreude when one envies or harbors disdain for the victim of misfortune. And lack of personal familiarity with the victim also seems to be at play. Familiarity is most likely to elicit the empathy response. So, I guess there is no need for me to feel shame for this particular dirty little secret.
Speaking of dirty little secrets, I only felt a modicum of shame about the pleasure I experienced upon learning of the downfalls of Senator Larry Craig and Pastor Ted Haggerd. These self-righteous men publicly and vociferously professed the immorality of homosexuality while privately partaking in same gender sexual activity. I’m guessing that hypocrisy like true evil holds a special schadenfreude spot in our NAcc.
For a humorous spin on this concept listen to the song on this subject from the racy Broadway play called Avenue Q.
Anthes, E. (2010). Their Pain, Our Gain: Why Schadenfreude Is Best Enjoyed in Groups. Scientific American: MIND.
Gorman, J. (2006). This is Your Brain on Schadenfreude. New York Times
O’Connor, A. (2004). Brain Senses The Pain Of Someone Else’s ‘Ouch!’. New York Times.