If you’ve ever read about a celebrity’s downfall and felt secret satisfaction, then you know what schadenfreude feels like. A German word—from schaden, for damage, and freude, joy—schadenfreude (pronounced SHA-den-froy-duh) describes getting enjoyment from the plight of others. Does that make you a bad person? No, it makes you human. And even if you don’t want to admit it, your face will betray the truth.
In a September 2013 study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Carnegie Mellon cognitive neuroscientist Mina Cikara, Ph.D., investigated what makes people more likely to be the target of schadenfreude. But knowing that their subjects might be reticent to confess deriving pleasure from another person’s pain, they sought to measure malice biologically. They peppered participants’ faces with strategically placed electrodes to detect muscle activity, a method called facial eletromyography. Specifically, the electrodes picked up electrical impulses in a cheek muscle associated with smiling.
Cikara and her co-author, Princeton professor Susan Fiske, Ph.D., presented volunteers with pictures of individuals who fit into one of four categories, each meant to elicit a different emotion. In the pride category were people that the participants could identify with, such as other students and Americans. The elderly and the disabled were meant to elicit pity. The disgust group consisted of, for example, drug addicts. People who come off as rich and successful—that is, people who are seen as high-status and competitive, such as a man in a business suit—comprised the final group, envy.
Each photo was accompanied by a caption describing a positive, negative or neutral event that happened to the person pictured, such as “Won a $5 bet,” “Got soaked by a taxi,” and “Went to the bathroom.” The pictures and stories were mixed and matched so that participants saw a range of combinations. The facial electromyography showed that, whatever they reported feeling after seeing the pictures and reading the captions, they smiled more when bad things happened to people in the envy group than to people in the other three categories. Envious feelings led to schadenfreude. People like seeing the rich and powerful suffer.
Indeed, that’s why Cikara got interested in schadenfreude in the first place. As a graduate student, in 2007, she saw an explosion of media coverage surrounding Paris Hilton’s imprisonment. “I found this totally fascinating, because these people don’t know her,” Cikara says. “Why were they experiencing pleasure?” You didn’t need facial electromyography to see America smiling at Paris’s misfortune.
Define your curves and discover the best ways to eat, exercise and dress for your figure.
Highlight your eye color. Flaunt your body shape. Harness your confidence. Take our quizzes to better know yourself and get science-based, individualized advice to embrace your true beauty.
Define your curves and discover the best ways to eat, exercise and dress for your figure.Take Quiz
If shopping for eye makeup is one big guessing game, find your best colors here.Take Quiz
Get to the root of your anxiety, and look better for it!Take Quiz
Find out how much fitness you fit into your day and how to add exercise to your everyday activities.Take Quiz