We’ve all experienced that guilty—but somewhat delightful—feeling when watching other people suffer bad luck, from harmless public humiliations to outright disasters. Should this sound a warning of humanity’s decline? Not quite, science says.
In a study published at the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, neuroscience experts Dr. Mina Cikara of Harvard University and Dr. Susan Fiske of Princeton University said our minds are wired to feel schadenfreude, a German loanword that means “pleasure felt when another person experiences misfortune.”
However we don’t feel the same level of joy in each instance of failure. According to the results of an experiment by the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan, how we react depends on how we feel about the victim. The way we view ourselves also determines our feelings of schadenfreude.
Here’s a closer look at what studies tell us about this feeling:
A case of self-esteem
The American Psychological Association published a study which revealed that people with low self-esteem are more inclined to feel schadenfreude when someone successful undergoes hardship. The study explained that these people feel threatened by high achievers and often look for chances to affirm themselves.
Rivals at each others’ throats
When Dr. Cikara, Dr. Fiske, and cognitive science expert Dr. Matthew Botvinick of Princeton University conducted a study on the behavior of Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees fans, they found out that the opposing team’s defeat resulted in increased activity in the ventral striatum, a part of the brain associated with self-pleasure. The same result occurred when fans talked about their desire to harm supporters of the rival team.
Green with envy
Researchers from the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan conducted an experiment where subjects had to imagine themselves as protagonists in a social drama. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans showed that the pain nodes in the subjects’ brains flared when they imagined encountering characters they envy. The imagined downfall of these characters also resulted in the activation of their brains’ reward centers.
Empathy meets cruelty
An experiment that aimed to measure empathy shows that empathy centers in men and women’s brains lit up when someone they considered “honest” received an electric shock. When somebody considered “dishonest” went through pain, participants had fewer emphatic responses, showed decreased activation in their brains’ pleasure centers, and expressed desire for revenge.
Why we love failure caught on tape
Past personal experiences may confirm what studies tell us about schadenfreude, but they also shed light on why we laugh so hard at mishaps caught on tape.
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