EXCLUSIVE: Schadenfreude- Misfortune or Social Evolution?

Posted on January 19, 2010

Anahita Thukral:

SCHADENFREUDE, taken from the German words schaden and freude meaning damage and joy, is to take spiteful, malicious delight in another person’s misfortune. Sounds appalling, doesn’t it? What is more surprising is that this emotion or phenomenon is a biological, physiological fact of the human brain not just an ugly unexplainable facet of how the human mind works. One of the earliest quotations on the topic is from 1852: R. C. Trench Study of Words

“What a fearful thing is it that any language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the existence of the thing.”

In fact all of us are guilty of this feeling at some point in our lives. Today it is driving the TRP’s of most of our reality shows from Roadies or Big boss to Sach ka Saamna, selling our newspapers, and making us derive greater pleasure in the defeat of the opponent’s team as compared to our own victory. When our political leaders are caught for embezzlement we tune in immediately to keep ourselves updated on the latest developments of their mistakes and we believe every word the media puts forth. Haven’t you ever been glad to not be in the position of the person who accidently ate something inedible or was humiliated in front of a crowd? Well, even that is schadenfreude.

I do not mean to be judgemental or generalize this trend as a feature of every human’s  personality; I only intend to make you question the true motives of your actions. A very thin line separates envy and schadenfreude, a line we very often tend to cross. The surprising finding in the current study was that feeling envy at someone else’s success activated the same pain systems as if you had physically injured yourself. Similarly the feeling of schadenfreude at a rival’s failure activated the same neural mechanism that governs our feelings of pleasure from a lovely meal, to giving charity. Envy is predictably painful. Why must one have what the other may not? However schadenfreude brings selfish glee. It is amusing how the human brain interprets the social world.

I believe there is even a schadenfreude pie made when one is revelling in the misfortune of others. On the face of it, both envy and schadenfreude seem so illogical that it’s hard to know why they exist at all. Where is the evolutionary advantage in feeling painful emotions because a fellow Stone Age tribe member has a bigger club than you? Similarly, why should seeing them lose their possessions make you feel good? Neither of these alone increases your ability to survive or in a broader sense — the survival of the tribe. Among many theories to justify the existence of schadenfreude, one of the prominent works states it’s all about maintaining connections to the social group, and hence better co-ordination amongst large number of people. If people are fair and charitable then the group as a whole is more likely to survive and hence the activation of the pleasure network. Conversely when one member of the tribe receives more than the other, it is bound to create tensions.

Einstein, in his article ‘On Education’ believed that our inherent need for acknowledgement and praise is the basis of development of our society as a whole. Unfortunately with this comes the baggage of automatically measuring our self against those around us. When others around us do better than us, we can either cease to care or improve our own performance in accordance with Einstein’s theory. It is rare however that we take either route, instead we focus our energies as malice towards others and removing the advantages of those doing well to bring them down to our level. When your competition falters and their advantages are reduced, the societal discomfort is reduced and a feeling of pleasure can take hold. Just like eating a great meal on an empty stomach it’s an evolutionary indicator that you’re doing something right that’s increased your ability to survive. Isn’t it ironic that someone’s misfortune contributes to societal evolution?

As the lyrics of the song Schadenfreude goes-

Sorry, Nicky, human nature-

Nothing i can do



Making me feel glad that I’m not you…

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