Your Pain, My Pleasure: The Science of Schadenfreude

Seeing bad things happen to someone you envy makes you feel good. Don’t deny it—it’s written all over (the electrical impulses of) your face.

| November 25th, 2013

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.

MORE: 4 Scientific Reasons to Smile

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.

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