We've all felt it. (Photo: PixelsEffect via Getty Images)
Feel a happy tinge when someone else is doing worse off than you? Can’t help but laugh at a kid falling over and dropping their ice cream? Unable to hide your delight at seeing the failures of the powerful but incompetent? Or the gratification that comes with watching a smarmy celeb get humbled?
There’s a delicious satisfaction in watching people you don’t like, or even sometimes those you do, squirm, struggle, and underperform in life. The pleasure derived from other people’s misfortune is called schadenfreude and though we hate to admit it, most of us have experienced it at some point.
Sure, we want the best for the people around us, but occasionally, witnessing them fumble feels good too. We don’t mean on a monumental level – most of us still want our friends and acquaintances to thrive – but seeing those little losses allows us to feel superior or can spark that sense that “it serves them right”.
It can also reinforce that we’re all fallible, prone to mistakes and failures, which can even inspire a sense of camaraderie. So, what exactly is going through our brains when we experience schadenfreude?
Firstly, let’s understand where this word comes from. Schadenfreude is a combination of the German nouns schaden, meaning damage or harm, and freude, meaning joy – so the experience of joy at someone’s misfortune.
And it goes quite far back – its first known use dating to 1868. But in the last decade, scientists have really got stuck into exploring the phenomena.
In 2015, lab experts in Germany identified a series case of schadenfreude when they tested a group of local football fans. Psychologists found that the German supporters experienced greater joy at watching their rivals, the Dutch, miss a goal than they did at watching their own team score.
In 2020, University College London published a paper in the journal Nature, marking the same sensation (though it wasn’t what they’d started off studying).
In the UCL experiment, participants were shown two groups of people – those who cheated on a game (bad) and those who didn’t (good) – each suffer a painful stimulus. When they watched the good group endure pain, the so-called “empathy circus” in their brains lit up in both male and female participants.
Watching the bad cohort, however, male participants didn’t feel any empathy, though women showed at little. And in the men, the reward centre in the left nucleus accumbens (a major component of the brain’s reward circuit) lit up at the sight of the pain – making the case for them feeling schadenfreude.
So, why do we experience schadenfreude?
Dr. Joseph Shrand, a medical officer and lecturer of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, tells HuffPost UK that it’s normal for us all to laugh at someone’s misfortune from time to time.
He explains: “There is an interaction between an ancient, primitive, impulsive, irrational part of our brain, in general called the limbic system, and the more evolved and modern part of our brain right behind our forehead, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) at play in schadenfreude.
“The delight we experience is sparked by our limbic brain, which then activates our PFC. For most of us, the same part of the PFC feels some empathy and sadness for the unsuspecting person on whom the misfortune befell. But not everyone.”
When does schadenfreude become a problem?
For some people who do not have as much empathy, the joy they experience in someone else’s misfortune persists,” says Dr Shand.
However, those who continually find joy in others’ pain could be masking their own, Dr Shrand suggests.
“Some of these people may have experienced even worse tragedies and trauma, which led them to feel less valuable, and take greater and long lasting pleasure in another’s misfortune,” he says.
“This is not about morality, it is about mortality – simply the way a traumatised brain reacts to a world in which mistrust, devaluation, and disrespect have dominated their lives.”
Show that person they have value and respect and the schadenfreude may fade. “When that person begins to feel valued again, they can begin to trust again and rekindle empathy,” says Dr Shrand.
“They may still laugh at the silliness of the event, but can then feel the compassion the vast majority of human beings feel when we see another’s misfortune.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.