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.



  1. I really appreciate your details and honesty. I remember feeling this when I saw some people get physically ill. Once my sister threw up from the living room to the kitchen and my mom caught it in a bowl. At least that’s how I remember it. I was laughing so hard but knew I shouldn’t be. I know it’s normal to feel a rivalry with one’s sibling. I know she felt it with me, at times, too. Ugh. It does feel like a shameful little secret, though. I suppose it depends on how you are raised, how you are taught to cope with this phenomanon and what your internal personality is wired to handle (nurture and nature both take a part, in my view!).

    I also had the same reaction if someone in my immediate family fell down. Oy. For me it has to do with power. If I feel powerless, I take quick pleasure when someone close to me gets hurt – someone that seems to have power where I don’t or power over me (especially perceived abusive power). It is difficult to admit though. What I take from it is a chance to understand myself and what it is I am envious of. Once I figure that out then I can determine if I can change things for myself (both behaviorally and internally with my thinking processes) or if I need to try to let it go…tricky.

    How would you chategorize Hitler? A sociopathic (?) case of Schadenfreude?

    Thank you, as usual, for your researched, thought provoking posts.

  2. Hi Abby! Thanks for the kind words and thoughtful, even deeply intimate comment. Interesting that you asked about Hitler. Here is a quote from one of my sources:

    The intergroup emotions Leach and Spears uncovered in their studies were so strong that they speculated in a 2008 book chapter that schadenfreude could play a role in serious group conflicts, including those that led to the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust. Could schadenfreude explain why many Germans did not come forward to help the Jews during the Holocaust? Even those who would never have perpetrated violence may have felt some satisfaction in seeing the Jews suffer. “There was a lot of resentment built up toward the Jews at that time,” Spears says, “so that could have motivated schadenfreude and the absence of intervention” among some Germans.

    Schadenfreude could then set the stage for further prejudice. “The more you express this nasty feeling toward a group,” Leach says, “the further you’re pushing them out of your circle of moral concern and sympathy.” By devaluing the lives of members of rival groups, schadenfreude could lead to tacit acceptance of discrimination or even hatred.” (E. Anthes, 2010)

    I’m not sure that specifically answers your question – but it may help explain, to a certain degree, how a civilized people stood by and at worst participated in the holocaust. Hitler rose to power in the midst of the great depression. It was a time of limited resources, profound suffering, deep division, and the eugenics movement. Antisemitism was quite ripe in the Catholic Church at the time as well. The Jews were cast as Jesus killers. It was a perfect storm on which Hitler rode the crest. His ideas were in tune with the overwhelming zeitgeist of the day in a Germany where the Jews were the social and economic scapegoats. I believe Hitler effectively used schadenfreude to advance his agenda and power.

    What a great thought provoking question!!!!

  3. Wow! You’re welcome. Thank you for your speedy and detailed reply. The quote and the information you provided after were exactly what I was thinking about. I’m so glad that I was able to provide a thought provoking question to your thought provoking blog 🙂 I think what you covered took it a few steps beyond what I was thinking, thank you. And it is so true. Not only did Hitler have it and use it toxically…he used it as the “…perfect storm to ride the crest…” I see it in large and small ways everyday…at work…in the news. It is overwhelming.

    I think Shadenfreude is abused globally. It is very painful to think about. The best thing I can do? Is live by example…the more I work through it on my own…accept that it is a part of life and a gut reaction to things/people…but it is what I choose to do with it that counts. Using it to better yourself (myself) is a really challenging but worthwhile exercise. It is NOT easy, sometimes, but it can be extremely eye opening.

    And I’ve been on both sides of it. Experiencing and expressing it and I’ve been the scapegoat that others enjoy watching fail. Just gotta keep learning.

    Learn learn learn.


    Talk with you soon 🙂

    Oh and spelling…love that, Abs: phenomenon and categorize (I was thinking Characterize and added that “H”). Cool.

  4. Learn learn learn indeed! Insight can lead to surprising and powerful paradigm shifts! If only others were so inclined. Thanks again Abby.

  5. Pingback:2011- A Year in Review: How Do You Think? – How Do You Think?

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