Philippe Rochat, Scott Lilienfeld, and Shensheng Wang on


A cartoon character points and says Ha Ha

Schadenfreude[emdash]the sense of pleasure people derive from the misfortune of others[emdash]is a familiar feeling to many, yet it's poorly understood.

The complex emotion may provide a valuable window into the darker side of humanity, according to a recent review article in New Ideas in Psychology by Emory psychologists including Philippe Rochat, who studies infant and child development, and Scott Lilienfeld, whose research focuses on personality and personality disorders.

One problem with studying the phenomenon is the lack of an agreed definition of schadenfreude, which literally means "harm joy" in German. Since ancient times, some scholars have condemned schadenfreude as malicious, while others have perceived it as morally neutral or even virtuous.

Schadenfreude is an uncanny emotion that is difficult to assimilate, Rochat says. It's kind of a warm-cold experience that is associated with a sense of guilt. It can make you feel odd to experience pleasure when hearing about bad things happening to someone else.

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Only Human

The Emory authors suggest that schadenfreude has three different but interrelated subforms—aggression, rivalry, and justice—which have distinct developmental origins and personality correlates. They also single out a commonality: “Dehumanization appears to be at the core of schadenfreude,” says Shensheng Wang, a PhD candidate in psychology at Emory and first author of the paper. “The scenarios that elicit schadenfreude, such as intergroup conflicts, tend to also promote dehumanization.”

Red Flags

“The propensity to experience schadenfreude isn’t entirely unique, but it overlaps substantially with other ‘dark’ personality traits, such as sadism, narcissism, and psychopathy,” Lilienfeld says. “Moreover, different subforms of schadenfreude may relate somewhat differently to these often malevolent traits.” Ordinary people may temporarily lose empathy, but those with darker traits are either less able or less motivated to put themselves in the shoes of others.

The Other Side

Research suggests that infants as young as eight months demonstrate a sophisticated sense of social justice. In experiments, they showed a preference for puppets who assisted a helpful puppet, and who punished puppets that had exhibited antisocial behavior. By nine months, they prefer puppets who punish others who are unlike themselves. “When you think of normal child development, you think of children becoming good-natured and sociable,” Rochat says. “But there’s a dark side to becoming socialized. You create friends and other in-groups to the exclusion of others.”

Out of Spite

Spiteful rivalry appears by at least age five or six, when research has shown that children will sometimes opt to maximize their gain over another child, even if they have to sacrifice a resource to do so. By the time they reach adulthood, many people have learned to hide any tendencies toward making a sacrifice just for spite, but they may be more open about making sacrifices that are considered pro-social.

Elusive Empathy

Concerns of self-evaluation, social identity, and justice are the three motivators that drive people toward schadenfreude. What pulls people away is the ability to feel empathy for others and to perceive them as fully human. “We all experience schadenfreude, but we don’t like to think about it too much because it shows how ambivalent we can be to our fellow humans,” Rochat says. “Schadenfreude points to our ingrained concerns, and it’s important to study it in a systematic way if we want to understand human nature.”

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