The Science of Schadenfreude
When someone else falls on their buttocks in a spectacular display of flailing limbs, or another spills some soup on a pristine white shirt at a fancy office party, aren’t these the moments that make life worth it? Commonly enough, most of us will have to suppress a naughty chuckle at the misfortune of others. Is this bad? Not per se. A little article found on MSN.com details research in the field of schadenfreude by the University of Nijmegen. It tells us that the act of feeling good at another’s misfortune is a simple mechanism of self-affirmation. Depending on a person’s levels of self-esteem, he or she may need a little ego-boost saying “I’m not so bad after all, look at that dolt! I can eat soup better than him/her any day!”.
In a study conducted on students who were asked to appraise their level of schadenfreude after reading about a high performing student failing to get a great job, it became clear that the level of mirth at the misfortune of others is heavily dependent on our own levels of confidence. The more threatened or envious one is of another person, because we often assess our own positions to be inferior, the more enjoyment the failure of this person brings. Sounds like stating the obvious, but this information can be used in our daily lives to recognize that often these feelings of glee at the tribulations of others stem from our own hidden feelings of inadequacy. Living with this understanding enables us to feel more empathy for others and to face or address our own failings, which will enable us to grow into more confident people. Nothing wrong with a little chuckle though!
Why We Secretly Smile When Others Fail
When the office slacker makes a mistake that could cost them a pay raise — do you truly feel bad, or do you have to work to hide your smile?
If you smiled, you’ve just experienced schadenfreude, a bit of enjoyment at the misfortunes of others. And now researchers know more about why we experience this seemingly odd emotion. Turns out, it can be a sure way to make you feel better about yourself. It’s a self-affirming boost.
“If somebody enjoys the misfortune of others, then there’s something in that misfortune that is good for the person,” said study researcher Wilco W. van Dijk, adding that it could be due to thinking the other person deserves the misfortune, and so becoming less envious of them or feeling better about one’s self.
In the study, van Dijk, of Leiden University in the Netherlands,and his colleagues had 70 undergraduate students (40 women and 30 men) read two interviews about a high-achieving student who was likely to land a great job. Then they read an interview with the student’s supervisor revealing that the student had suffered a big setback in his/her studies. Next, they rated their level of agreement with five statements meant to gauge their schadenfreude, such as: “I enjoy[ed] what happened to Marleen/Mark”; “I couldn’t resist a little smile.”
Those with low self-esteem (assessed at the study’s start) were both more likely to be threatened by the overachieving student, and to experience schadenfreude. However, the researchers found that regardless of self-esteem, those who felt more threatened by this student also felt more schadenfreude.
The researchers thought that perhaps the reason for this was that schadenfreude was self-affirming for these “threatened” individuals.
As a follow-up experiment, the researchers gave about half of the students a self-affirmation boost by shoring up their beliefs about what the students had indicated was a very important value to them, and then asked them to repeat the same interview-reading stint.
Participants with low self-esteem were again more likely to experience schadenfreude, and also more likely to feel threatened by the high-achieving student. However, those who had been self-affirmed were less likely than those who hadn’t to reap pleasure when reading about the other student’s academic slip.
“I think when you have low self-esteem, you will do almost anything to feel better, and when you’re confronted with the misfortune of others,” you’ll feel schadenfreude, van Dijk told LiveScience. “In this study, if we give people something to affirm their self, then what we found is they have less schadenfreude — they don’t need the misfortune of others to feel better anymore.”
If you feel an evil sort of glee at the slip-ups of another, are you a bad person? Well, van Dijk says that just about all of us experience schadenfreude at some point in our lives.
“We know that it’s very good to feel empathy and sympathy for people, so if you feel schadenfreude without any sympathy or compassion for that other person,” that would not be good, van Dijk said. “Our society thrives on compassion and empathy.”
While some of us get a kick out of the small blunders of a colleague, say, others experience schadenfreude due to another’s grave misfortunes, as van Dijk has found in research yet to be published.