Why do we sometimes enjoy the misfortune of others?

By Wilco van Dijk, associate professor of social psychology at Leiden University in The Netherlands. Wilco is an expert on the psychology of emotions and has written about the interesting complexities of several emotions such as schadenfreude, disappointment, regret, predicting your own future emotions, and collective pride and guilt.

Have you ever been in a situation where you couldn’t resist a little smile when someone else had a setback? Have you ever experienced joy when another person suffered a mishap? We’ve all probably been in that situation and we’ve all felt that joy. The German language coined the word Schadenfreude—a compound word of the German words Schaden meaning harm and Freude meaning joy—for the pleasure at the misfortunes of others and nowadays it is used as a loanword in the English language.  

Throughout history, schadenfreude has been regarded as a moral wrong and an emotion to be avoided (Van Dijk & Ouwerkerk, in press). It has, for example, been described as a disguised expression of aggression (Aristotle, 350 BCE/1941); as fiendish, diabolical, and an “infallible sign of a thoroughly bad heart and profound moral worthlessness” (Schoperhauer, 1841/1965); as an “even more hideous cousin” of envy (Kierkegaard, 1847/1995); as a malicious and immoral feeling (Baudelaire, 1855/1955); and as harmful to social relations (Heider, 1958). Although schadenfreude carries a negative connotation—based on the numerous displays of this emotion in television shows, magazines, web logs, and interpersonal communication (e.g., in gossip), people seem to experience schadenfreude quite often. The question then remains, why can we enjoy the misfortunes of others?

Schadenfreude seems an atypical kind of joy. Whereas joy usually concerns being pleased about a desirable event, schadenfreude concerns being pleased about an event that is undesirable for someone else. But schadenfreude is less atypical than first meets the eye. Most appraisal theories (see for an overview, Roseman & Smith, 2001) posit that emotions arise in response to events that are important to an individual’s goals, motives, and concerns. Negative emotions are elicited by events that harm or threaten an individual’s concerns, whereas positive emotions are evoked by events that satisfy these concerns (Frijda, 1988). Thus, for an event to evoke schadenfreude, another’s misfortune should be beneficial in some way for the person experiencing schadenfreude. The misfortunes of an arrogant colleague, an envied friend or an untalented wannabe pop star all evoke schadenfreude if these misfortunes provide the schadenfroh person with some psychological benefits. So what can we gain by the misfortunes of others in order to enjoy them? What are the concerns that underlie schadenfreude? Over the years, three concerns have received ample support: deservingness, envy, and self-enhancement.

As most people care deeply about just and deserved outcomes, witnessing a situation that represents such an outcome typically evokes a positive emotion, even if it entails the misfortunes of others. Thus, if another’s misfortune is appraised as just and deserved it will evoke schadenfreude, as it satisfies our concern for just and deserved outcomes (Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Goslinga, & Nieweg, 2005). This is perhaps best captured by the words of the contemporary philosopher John Portmann: “It is not the suffering of others that brings us joy, but rather the evidence of justice triumphing before our eyes’ (2000, p. xiii). An appraisal of deservingness, for example, can explain why people can enjoy the misfortunes of those we dislike, resent or consider hypocrites. Their suffering will often be regarded as just and deserved and, therefore, appeal to our sense of justice.

A second concern that underlies schadenfreude is envy. People experience envy when they lack another person’s superior quality, achievement, or possession and they either desire these or wish that the other lacked them. Envy is usually a very unpleasant emotion, which can include feelings of hostility, inferiority, and injustice (Smith & Kim, 2007). The misfortune of an envied other evokes schadenfreude because it cuts away the very basis of envy; it renders the other less enviable and transforms a painful upward social comparison into a more favourable comparison (Smith et al., 1996; Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Goslinga, Nieweg, & Gallucci, 2006).

A third concern that underlies schadenfreude is self-enhancement. People have a strong concern for a positive self-evaluation and when this concern is threatened or harmed, they have a strong motivation to protect, restore, or enhance their self-evaluation (e.g., Taylor & Brown, 1988; Tesser, 1988). One possible route to a more positive self-view involves comparing one’s own lot to that of less fortunate others (e.g., Collins, 1996; Wills, 1981; Wood, 1989). In other words, people can enjoy the misfortunes of others because it provides them with social comparison benefits and these satisfy their concern for a positive self-evaluation. A concern for a positive self-evaluation can explain why people who are momentarily threatened in their self-evaluation, or those who have low self-esteem, tend to experience more schadenfreude toward the misfortunes of others (Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Van Koningsbruggen, & Wesseling, 2012; Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Wesseling, & Van Koningsbruggen, 2011; Van Dijk, Van Koningsbruggen, Ouwerkerk, & Wesseling, 2011).

Scholars of schadenfreude have quarrelled about which of the above three concerns is the most (or only) important concern underlying schadenfreude. But these underlying concerns are not mutually exclusive and most often they will be intertwined in actual experiences of schadenfreude. Which concern carries the most weight will depend upon the specific situation and specific person experiencing schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is a multi-determined emotion and these determinants share one important feature. They all reflect important goals, motives, and concerns of the schadenfroh. People can enjoy the misfortunes of others because these misfortunes satisfy these goals, motives, and concerns. That is why we (sometimes) can enjoy the misfortunes of others.


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