Schadenfreude: how to explain that we rejoice in the face of other people’s misfortune
Confess, so be it in silence: have you honestly never experienced a slight tingle of pleasure when one of those beings that life seems to have rewarded have a little setback?
An involuntary, confused explosion of joy, swirling with shame, when that tremendously successful person whom you love deeply and wish for nothing but good, suffers a stumble?
Did it rain incessantly on the most recent of your many wonderful vacations? Did you have to work harder for the first time to get something you wanted?
If you are free from these guilt, perhaps you have sinned in not being able to control your laughter when someone falls on their face or when the child drops the ice cream that he took from his sister.
Do you really not feel a diabolical delight when you see that driver who crossed everyone to overtake, stopped at a traffic light just a couple of meters from you?
That’s what the French call malignant joy and the dutch, glee; In Hebrew, to enjoy the catastrophes of others is simcha la-ed, in Mandarin xìng-zāi-lè-huò and in russian malice.
More than 2,000 years ago, the Romans spoke of malevolence. Even earlier, in the 5th century BC, in his “Nicomachean Ethics” -one of the earliest preserved treatises on ethics and morals in Western philosophy-, Aristotle called it epikhairekakia, rejoice in the misfortune of another.
In our language, the word that the Royal Spanish Academy accepts is regodearse, which in its third meaning defines as: “3. Maliciously indulging in a mishap, rush, etc., that happens to someone else”.
But without the intention of disavowing such a respectable institution, sometimes many resort to a word adopted by various languages, to specify that they refer to that and not to: “1. Delight or indulge in what you like or enjoy, dwelling on it”.
This is a term that first appeared in German in the 1740s: Schadenfreude.
And it is that, as it happens with the word “saudade” – that special nostalgia that the Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo defined in 1660 as “good that you suffer and bad that you enjoy”-, the emotion that denotes schadenfreude is very specific.
In German damage means damage or injury and joy, joy. So, in a word, it is pleasure in the face of other people’s misfortune.
And that definitely sounds bad.
Nevertheless, it’s something that everyone around the world feelssays Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith, a cultural historian of emotions.
Not only that: when it comes to enjoying the bad luck of others, we do it in a myriad of different situations.
“One is simply buffoon: absurd accidents amuse us. There are also moments of almost triumphant pleasure when an opponent is defeated in some way, “the expert told the BBC.
“On the other hand, there is the space of justice, when someone who has done something wrong – has lied, or has been hypocritical, or has obtained some unfair advantage – is discovered or suffers in some way, and that pleases us.”
And of course there is a schadenfreude much more difficult to admit: the one we feel when we envy someone. “It can seem very embarrassing at times, but I don’t think it is,” says Watt Smith.
“For me, It is a very natural response that makes us feel better about the injustice in life”.
But why do we even enjoy the misfortunes of our friends?
Emeritus professor of psychology research at the University of Georgia Abraham Tesser conducted an experiment with pairs of people who were asked to play a game in which one had to give the other clues.
Some pairs were from friends, other pairs were from strangers.
He found that when they were at risk of losing, friends gave more difficult clues than when the other participant was just an acquaintance.
“Why? If you look closely at the nature of friendship, there is a certain degree of rivalry involved, and the loss of one implies some kind of gain for the other, ”Tesser explained to the BBC.
“With friends, you are more likely to feel that sharp comparison because proximity makes competition more relevant and powerful”.
Para Watt Smith, “schadenfreudeAlthough it may seem antithetical to friendship, you may allow them to persist.
“It is entirely possible that we feel conflicting emotions, and we all succumb from time to time to negative ones.
“Schadenfreude it allows us a little moment in which we can calm them down and reestablish our relationship. “
“If you are gaining something in a concrete or indirect way in terms of self-esteem when someone suffers, it would be asking too much of us as human beings not to react like that,” Richard Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, told the BBC.
He added that when we feel schadenfreude, it is usually because we benefit in some way, even if it is not immediately obvious what it is.
“Many benefits revolve around self-assessments. If you compare yourself to someone who is not doing as well as you are, your self-esteem gets a boost. “
If we can feel schadenfreude When we are gaining an advantage over another person or an injection of self-esteem, it is perhaps not so surprising that politics is such a charged sphere.
And for Watt Smith, in that sphere, such emotion can be a really powerful tool … in our hands, not in the hands of politicians.
“George Orwell said every joke is a little revolution and I think when we use it particularly against politicians, part of what we are doing is restoring the balance of power a bit. “
Although this is not new, there is something that is: how quickly and widely that news of gaffes, scandals and misfortunes not only from politicians, but from other public figures and ordinary citizens can now spread.
“If someone makes a mistake or just does something that you don’t like, they are punished and you are happy. You’ve never heard of this person before, you wouldn’t recognize them on the street, and yet somehow you rejoice at their misfortune, ”says Mike Wentling, editor of BBC Trending.
“There are entire channels, particularly on platforms like Instagram and YouTube, dedicated to compilations of people who fail. Some are very political, some are very unpleasant, some are more cheerful, but there are thousands of videos that get millions of views. It’s an overwhelming part of internet culture. “
And that’s not the only new thing.
“There is something curious because schadenfreude it is an opportunistic pleasure, it is not the pleasure of suffering that one has caused oneself. But on the internet that slightly changes its character, because part of the misfortune of others is what happens online ”, reflects Watts Smith.
Schadenfreude it is amplified by social media because it gives embarrassments and failures a global audience with often unpredictable consequences in real life.
If on the street you see someone doing something wrong or annoying and a police officer intervenes, you will probably just smile and continue on your way.
“But when you watch a video online it is very easy to express our schadenfreude with a ‘like’ or an emoji or whatever, and the more it is shared, the more intense the punishment.
“A) Yes we become accomplices of the suffering we are enjoying”.
Does that mean that, as has been repeatedly said …
… we are in the era of schadenfreude?
“When I hear phrases like that we live in an era of one emotion or another, what they really tell me is not so much that people are feeling that emotion more, but that that emotion has become worrisome,” replies Watts Smith, who she is also the author of “Schadenfreude: the joy of the misfortunes of others ”.
“And in the last 10 or 15 years there has been a lot of concern about schadenfreude”.
“Certainly there is a lot of academic research now being published on the subject, and I think it’s because we became very interested in empathy, and we often find that schadenfreude it is defined as the opposite of it.
“In fact, a well-known psychologist – Simon Baron-Cohen – said that psychopaths are not only not empathetic to the suffering of others, they can enjoy it: ‘The Germans have a word for this,’ he wrote, ‘Schadenfreude’.
“That would mean it would be part of being a psychopath.
“For me, it’s a troublesome way of thinking about that emotion Well, the label of always being something very negative and antisocial.
“I think it is really important that we see schadenfreude as what it is: an emotion much more complex and interesting than simply the counterpart of empathy.
“It is true that sometimes it can be dangerous when we get into polarized groups, when we use it as a way to cement an identity and expel other peoples. That is why it is worth trying to understand it well, to be able to know when and why it has gotten out of hand.
“But in most cases, it’s a completely harmless emotion, it’s fun, and it’s just part of being human.
“We have the right to enjoy our schadenfreude it can make us feel, for a fleeting moment at least, that the rules of the game are not entirely unequal “.