Skip to main content

Why do we feel schadenfreude?

By Richard H. Smith, Special to CNN
updated 12:55 PM EDT, Thu August 15, 2013
When the other side stumbles -- be it a political party or a sports team -- it's natural to feel good, says Richard Smith.
When the other side stumbles -- be it a political party or a sports team -- it's natural to feel good, says Richard Smith.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Richard Smith: When people suffer misfortunes, we feel sorry for them, or do we?
  • Smith: More than we probably want to admit, we sometimes are secretly pleased
  • He says in sports, politics, schadenfreude tend to be brought out into the open
  • Smith: Schadenfreude is a natural emotion, we shouldn't berate ourselves for feeling it

Editor's note: Richard H. Smith is professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky and author of "The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature (Oxford University Press).

(CNN) -- When other people suffer misfortunes, we feel sorry for them.

Or do we?

More than we probably want to admit, we sometimes are secretly pleased.

Does a Red Sox fan feel happy to see a Yankee fan miserable over a humiliating loss? Would a Democrat ever tire of watching replays of Mitt Romney's Etch A Sketch moments? Do you find yourself consuming the tabloid news, riveted by coverage of disasters in the gossip columns?

The German language has a word for this feeling, schadenfreude, or, pleasure caused by the misfortunes of others.

Most people feel uneasy taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Our parents gave us stern, shaming looks if we laughed when others got into trouble. Maybe this is one reason why there is no word for schadenfreude in some languages, such as English.

Just because we don't have a label for it in English doesn't mean the feeling doesn't exist. It's very real, and you must have experienced it at some point in your life, or know someone who has.

So, why do we feel schadenfreude?

Romney reacts to Etch A Sketch comment

One reason comes down to the simple fact that we often gain from other people's misfortunes. Much of life involves competition. Napoleon advised, "Never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake." Misfortunes happening to rivals can level the competition. Any sympathy we might feel is mixed with the pleasing effects of the benefit that may come our way. Self-interest is a powerful motive, and it is only natural to feel good if we are gaining from an event, even if it is from another person's misfortune.

A team of University of Kentucky researchers led by David Combs recently provided good evidence for this in the blood sport of politics. In a series of studies published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, they screened participants for their party allegiance and then asked them to privately give their emotional reactions to news events, some of which were embarrassing to either the Democrat or Republican presidential candidates from the 2006 and 2008 elections. Overall, Democrats were much more pleased than Republicans when a Republican candidate suffered and Republicans were much more pleased than Democrats when a Democratic candidate suffered. These two groups seemed to live in separate parallel universes.

Such findings come as no surprise to anyone who follows politics and who feels the effects of the election outcomes in the gut. Comedian Stephen Colbert captured the point during the summer of the most recent presidential campaign, when the economic indicators were looking bad for the incumbent, Obama, "I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is there's plenty of bad news, which is great news for Mitt Romney."

The studies led by Combs used private reports, but were the participants being completely frank? Did they even know their true feelings?

Social neuroscientists Mina Cikara, Matthew Botvinick, and Susan Fiske in a study published in Psychological Science provided more corroborating evidence for schadenfreude using sports fans rather than political junkies.

They took advantage of the natural, storied rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, and recruited diehard fans from each group. These fans watched simulated baseball plays while placed in a brain scanner. The plays involved their own team playing against their rival or playing against a neutral team. Pleasure-related brain activation was linked with the rival losing; pain-related activation was linked with their own team losing.

Notice that these examples come from intergroup competition. Often, our identity with a group affects our emotions. If our group comes out on top, that gives us a boost.

In a classic demonstration, research led by Edward Hirt at Indiana University showed that Big Ten fans felt more optimistic about their own personal abilities (from throwing darts to success in asking attractive people out for a date) after their team won than after it lost. As a long-suffering Red Sox fan, I can attest to the elixir provided by "our" defeating the Yankees' in the American League playoff in 2004 and then going on to win the World Series.

There is something about intergroup dynamics that brings emotions like schadenfreude out into the open. The tribal, "us" vs. "them" mindset seems easily evoked, and it is thrilling to win at a rival group's expense. Maybe, we feel less guilty and selfish in our pleasure when it's "for the team."

Schadenfreude is a natural feeling, and there is little use in berating ourselves over its easy arousal. But let's not encourage it, either. Apparently, those who experience schadenfreude may also express willingness to harm a rival fan or group. So let's keep schadenfreude in check.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard H. Smith.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:34 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT