Why Do We Feel Happy When Others Fail?

May 5, 2017

When Angelina Jolie announced her divorce from Brad Pitt last year, I put work aside immediately and started to lap up news and videos that promised any scoop on the unfolding event. It’s not as if I cared about the two actors; it just seemed like fun.

I continued to consume filthy gossip about the ex-couple—and possible reasons for their split—throughout the week. I hated myself for wasting time, but reading about celebs’ dirty linen is like munching on a bag of potato chips. It’s comfort food. There’s a mischievous pleasure to be derived from watching the enviable and rich fall from grace. There is even a name for it: schadenfreude. It’s a German word that means secretly enjoying seeing other people go through rough times. Schadenfreude even had its TV moment in the third season of The Simpsons. Homer Simpson’s daughter, Lisa, loathes him for expressing joy when his neighbor’s store failed.

Is schadenfreude even a thing?

Schadenfreude is the exact opposite of empathy. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer denounced it as the worst possible emotion a human can demonstrate.

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The emotion has been the subject of much research in the past few years. Scientists are now slowly unraveling its neurological underpinnings. They use three broad theories to explain schadenfreude. First off, it is borne out of envy. That’s simple: If you are envious of someone’s achievements, you’re very likely to be uplifted by their losses. Some people experience it when they feel others are deserving of misfortune. Case in point: flashy and arrogant celebs or politicians. One can even go through this complex emotion when they have something to gain from another person’s loss. Think green-eyed colleagues doing mental fist-pumps when you screw up a big project.

A 2013 study published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences corroborated some of these theories. Researchers conducted several experiments. For the first one, they showed participants pictures of individuals such as an elderly woman, a student, a drug addict and a well-dressed businessman. These pictures represented stereotypes and were meant to evoke feelings of pity, pride, disgust and envy, respectively. The pictures were paired with everyday scenarios such as “won $5.00,” “got soaked by a taxi” and “sent to the bathroom.” The participants were asked how they felt about the various pictures and the scenarios they were paired with. The researchers also tracked the movement of the participants’ cheek muscles through electromyography—they were interested to see how often the participants smiled.

Here’s what the team found: The participants smiled more often when their targets of envy, such as businessmen, were paired with negative outcomes, such as getting soaked by a taxi. In another experiment for the same study, the participants were shown the same combinations of targets and scenarios, and asked to report how they felt. Their brains were scanned using functional MRI. Not surprisingly, they felt happier when they saw their targets of envy facing a negative outcome. In an online survey, they were even willing to give their target of envy an electric shock! “A lack of empathy is not always pathological,” said Mina Cikara, lead author and a Harvard University psychologist, in a press release. “It’s a human response, and not everyone experiences this, but a significant portion does.”

People who just can’t seem to stop feeling good about other people’s failures may have self-esteem issues. In a 2011 study published in Emotion, researchers found that people with a low self-esteem felt more schadenfreude toward high achievers, but individuals with a high esteem didn’t.

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In fact, in a 2009 study published in Science, neuroscientists even spotted the part of the brain where schadenfruede originates. It’s called the ventral striatum and is involved in the brain’s reward circuitry: the same loop that is responsible for beer cravings and sexual desires.

Could you feel this way about your friends?

I have to admit that I feel schadenfreude for real people around me as well—sometimes even friends. Even though I try to curb the malicious pleasure and go to great lengths to help friends in trouble, it’s hard not to feel a little relieved that I’m not the one in the soup. At least, that’s what some of the research seems to suggest. Maybe I’m not such a terrible person, after all.

But wait, there’s another twist here: gender. A 2012 study published in the journal Personal Relationships showed that women experienced pangs of schadenfreude for other female friends when it came to misfortunes related to physical attractiveness, such as gaining weight. To some degree, men felt the same way for their male comrades when it came to losses associated with social status, say, failing a job interview. The researchers speculate this happens because people view their same-sex friends as competition in the cut-throat world of mating.

But here’s some news to bring you relief: A study has found that schadenfreude starts young in humans. It also means we might have evolved to experience it every now and then. A 2014 study published in PLOS ONE found that schadenfreude is demonstrated by even 2- to 3-year-old kids. In this experiment, there were two conditions: equal and unequal. In the equal condition, a mother sat next to a table reading out loud to herself, while two kids (one her own child and another a friend of her child) played with toys. After two minutes, she would pretend to accidentally spill water on the book and stop reading. In the unequal condition, the mother would place the other kid on her lap and start to read the book out loud to him. Just as she did in the equal condition, the mother would spill water on the book and stop reading. When the reading stopped prematurely, the mother’s own children expressed joy by jumping, clapping or rolling on the floor. Clearly, the little ones were enjoying their little moment of schadenfreude.

In a press statement, the study’s lead author, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory, a professor of psychology at the University of Haifa in Israel, said: “The study strengthened the perception that schadenfreude is an evolutionary mechanism that develops within us as we cope with situations of inequality.”

Recently, one of my breathtakingly gorgeous friends had a terrible case of acne breakout. I quickly banished the evil glee I felt momentarily when I saw a white ointment smeared across her face. And then, I began to empathize with her.

Related: Want to Win (Anything)? That's Going to Take True Empathy

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