Schadenfreude sheds light on darker side of humanity

October 23, 2018 by Carol Clark, Emory University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Schadenfreude, the sense of pleasure people derive from the misfortune of others, is a familiar feeling to many—perhaps especially during these times of pervasive social media.

This common, yet poorly understood, emotion may provide a valuable window into the darker side of humanity, finds a review article by psychologists at Emory University.

New Ideas in Psychology published the review, which drew upon evidence from three decades of social, developmental, personality and clinical research to devise a novel framework to systematically explain schadenfreude. The authors propose that schadenfreude comprises three separable but interrelated subforms—aggression, rivalry and justice—which have distinct developmental origins and personality correlates.

They also singled out a commonality underlying these subforms.

"Dehumanization appears to be at the core of schadenfreude," says Shensheng Wang, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Emory and first author of the paper. "The scenarios that elicit schadenfreude, such as intergroup conflicts, tend to also promote dehumanization."

Co-authors of the study are Emory psychology professors Philippe Rochat, who studies infant and child development, and Scott Lilienfeld, whose research focuses on personality and personality disorders.

Dehumanization is the process of perceiving a person or social group as lacking the attributes that define what it means to be human. It can range from subtle forms, such as assuming that someone from another ethnic group does not feel the full range of emotions as one's in-group members do, all the way to blatant forms—such as equating sex offenders to animals. Individuals who regularly dehumanize others may have a disposition towards it. Dehumanization can also be situational, such as soldiers dehumanizing the enemy during a battle.

"Our literature review strongly suggests that the propensity to experience schadenfreude isn't entirely unique, but that it overlaps substantially with several other 'dark' personality traits, such as sadism, narcissism and psychopathy," Lilienfeld says. "Moreover, different subforms of schadenfreude may relate somewhat differently to these often malevolent traits."

One problem with studying the phenomenon is the lack of an agreed definition of schadenfreude, which literally means "harm joy" in German. Since ancient times, some scholars have condemned schadenfreude as malicious, while others have perceived it as morally neutral or even virtuous.

"Schadenfreude is an uncanny emotion that is difficult to assimilate," Rochat says. "It's kind of a warm-cold experience that is associated with a sense of guilt. It can make you feel odd to experience pleasure when hearing about bad things happening to someone else."

Psychologists view schadenfreude through the lens of three theories. Envy theory focuses on a concern for self-evaluation, and a lessening of painful feelings when someone perceived as enviable gets knocked down a peg. Deservingness theory links schadenfreude to a concern for social justice and the feeling that someone dealt a misfortune received what was coming to them. Intergroup-conflict theory concerns and the schadenfreude experienced after the defeat of members of a rival group, such as during sporting or political competitions.

The authors of the current article wanted to explore how all these different facets of schadenfreude are interrelated, how they differ, and how they can arise in response to these concerns.

Their review delved into the primordial role of these concerns demonstrated in developmental studies. Research suggests that infants as young as eight months demonstrate a sophisticated sense of . In experiments, they showed a preference for puppets who assisted a helpful puppet, and who punished puppets that had exhibited antisocial behavior. Research on infants also points to the early roots of intergroup aggression, showing that, by nine months, infants preferred puppets who punish others who are unlike themselves.

"When you think of normal , you think of children becoming good natured and sociable," Rochat says. "But there's a dark side to becoming socialized. You create friends and other in-groups to the exclusion of others."

Spiteful rivalry appears by at least age five or six, when research has shown that children will sometimes opt to maximize their gain over another child, even if they have to sacrifice a resource to do so.

By the time they reach adulthood, many people have learned to hide any tendencies for making a sacrifice just for spite, but they may be more open about making sacrifices that are considered pro-social.

The review article posits a unifying, motivational theory: Concerns of self-evaluation, social identity and justice are the three motivators that drive people toward schadenfreude. What pulls people away from schadenfreude is the ability to feel empathy for others and to perceive them as fully human and to show empathy for them.

Ordinary people may temporarily lose empathy for others. But those with certain and associated traits—such as psychopathy, narcissism or sadism—are either less able or less motivated to put themselves in the shoes of others.

"By broadening the perspective of schadenfreude, and connecting all of the related phenomena underlying it, we hope we've provided a framework to gain deeper insights into this complex, multi-faceted emotion," Wang says.

"We all experience schadenfreude but we don't like to think about it too much because it shows how ambivalent we can be to our fellow humans," Rochat says. "But schadenfreude points to our ingrained concerns and it's important to study it in a systematic way if we want to understand human nature."

Explore further: Psychologists define the 'dark core of personality'

More information: Shensheng Wang et al. Schadenfreude deconstructed and reconstructed: A tripartite motivational model, New Ideas in Psychology (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.newideapsych.2018.09.002

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TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) Oct 23, 2018
"Schadenfreude... This common, yet poorly understood, emotion"

-Only because most researchers refuse to face the reality of tribalism.

"As regards humans, Darwin stated that "the confinement of sympathy to the same tribe"
must have been the rule. This was for him one of the chief causes of the low morality of
the savages. "Primeval man", he argued, "regarded actions as good or bad solely as they
obviously affected the welfare of the tribe, not of the species". Among the living tribal
peoples, he added, "the virtues are practised almost exclusively in relation to the men of
the same tribe" and the corresponding vices "are not regarded as crimes" if practised on
other tribes (Darwin, 1871)

-The tribal dynamic - internal altruism in conjunction with external animosity - determines morality. Anything that weakens other tribes strengthens yours and vice versa.

This group selection/pseudospeciation is what made us human. Its biological.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Oct 23, 2018
"shows how ambivalent we can be to our fellow humans,"

-The other tribe is always a little less human than yours.

"Intergroup-conflict theory concerns social identity and the schadenfreude experienced after the defeat of members of a rival group..."

-See? They cant even call it what it is.

TRIBALISM.
Jay1212
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 23, 2018
Foxnews became the most watched cable news stations exploiting this.
FredJose
1 / 5 (2) Oct 24, 2018
Genesis 6:5
Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Jeremiah 17:9
9The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure— who can understand it?

Genesis 8:5:
I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, since the imagination of a person's heart is evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy all living things, as I have done. So long as the earth exists, sowing time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night will not cease.


Quite clearly human beings are sinful by nature, being born into a sinful world and sinning right from the start.
The bible clearly warns that we should not rejoice at the enemy's downfall and that we should be kind to those who are considered as enemies because God is kind to the just as well as the unjust. We are to imitate God in our own way of living.
pntaylor
not rated yet Oct 24, 2018
Laughing and cheering at terrible stories and video of dead, burned, bodies is just a natural reaction, to news presented as entertainment. This has been the case for quite some time. Listen to "Dirty Laundry", by The Eagles. Watch any news broadcast, in the morning.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 24, 2018
Quite clearly human beings are sinful by nature, being born into a sinful world and sinning right from the start
One of the most despicable aspects of your religion fred. Guilty until proven innocent. Thank god this country wasnt founded on xian values. For instance the founding fathers made all religions equal, equivalent, which leads to the eventual dissolution of all of them.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Oct 24, 2018
The bible clearly warns that we should not rejoice at the enemy's downfall and that we should be kind to those who are considered as enemies because God is kind to the just as well as the unjust
Yes and he will feel sad as he is watching them every second of every minute of every day as they are being tortured in hell for eternity. Retribution is one of gods greatest gifts yes? Schadenfreude or not they are getting what they deserved. And you're getting the certitude that they will indeed suffer for their transgressions against you.

What a relief eh?

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