Mental Health

Schadenfreude: Why We Enjoy Other People's Misery

When someone is experiencing some form of trouble or failure, our natural response is usually that of sympathy or at the very least, indifference. Right?

Well, maybe not. Let's be completely honest for a minute: Have you ever felt a little bit of satisfaction or even pleasure in such cases? 

If your answer is yes, the good news is that you are not alone. This phenomenon, known as schadenfreude, might seem peculiar but is actually a very common feeling experienced by people. The term is borrowed from German, Schaden meaning harm and Freude meaning joy.

"If somebody enjoys the misfortune of others, then there's something in that misfortune that is good for the person," said Wilco W. van Dijk, a professor of psychology at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Schadenfreude has only been studied over the past 20 years or so, making it relatively new territory for psychologists. Nevertheless, there have been a good number of studies exploring the purpose of this emotion.

Jealousy is a common trigger as one may feel threatened by an overachieving co-worker or an ex-lover thriving in a new relationship.

"When you're depressed, and you're feeling inadequate, other people's successes become unbearable to witness because it sets up a comparison that makes you feel worse," noted Catherine Chambliss, chair of psychology and neuroscience at Ursinus College, Pennsylvania. 

But it does not always have to be so personal either — as we know, people do enjoy reading about unpleasant celebrity drama, proven by the popularity of tabloids magazines and websites. The resentment toward high-status groups in society has been referred to as the tall poppy syndrome.

In these cases, it appears schadenfreude is a by-product of competitiveness and insecurity. While some studies suggest it is felt rather strongly by those who have low self-esteem, this has been up for debate.

But the question remains as to whether this emotion is natural or something we are conditioned to feel i.e. influenced by the people and situations we are exposed to in our lives. Luckily, one study from 2014 decided to look for answers by examining young children.

Turns out, we may be experiencing schadenfreude as early as 24 months into our lives. This is strengthened by past research which shows the emotion of jealousy develops around 13 to 25 months of age.

Recently, researchers from Emory University published a paper explaining how schadenfreude is a temporary dip into the pool of psychopathic tendencies. They wrote how "the perceiver tends to dehumanize the victim, temporarily losing the motivation to detect the victim’s mind, much like a psychopath,” the study writes.

For most of us, the feeling is harmless, appearing like a blip and fading away. But in rare cases, when the tendency persists and grows stronger, it may evolve into something dangerous where a person actively tries to cause the downfall of others. Look no further than the terrorists, dictators, and extremists, researchers say.