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.
In a second experiment, Cikara and Fiske manipulated stories about a common target of envy, investment bankers, to decrease their status and competitiveness, thereby making them less enviable and easier to empathize with. As expected, when these individuals were brought down a peg (when they were described as using their bonuses to fund a drug habit, or unemployed but still dressing up and pretending to go to work), envy went down and schadenfreude declined along with it.
Finally, Cikara and Fiske turned to the well-known baseball rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox. They collected fMRI data on super-fans of each team as they watched a New York–Boston matchup, or a game between their team and a more neutral, less competitive opponent, the Orioles. The fMRI data showed the highest activity in the fans’ ventral striatum, a part of the brain associated with reward, when their team scored and their rival failed, consistent with self-reports. In fact, the fans felt great seeing their rivals lose to the Orioles, even though their team didn’t benefit at all from it—pure, unadulterated schadenfreude. Participants also said they were more likely to heckle, threaten, or even hit a rival fan than an Oriole fan.
“I’m trying to build a case that it’s a very human response, but it is something to which we need to pay attention,” Cikara says. “It could be a learning mechanism by which people come to endorse and tolerate harm of other people, even if they don’t perpetrate that harm themselves.”
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