Schadenfreude is the pleasure that some individuals experience when some other person or collective experience a misfortune (Heider, 1958). Schadenfreude might evolve into other destructive behaviors, such as failing to assist someone in need. Accordingly, researchers have attempted to understand the principal antecedents to schadenfreude.
Leach and Spears (2008), for example, showed that individuals who feel envious towards some group are not especially inclined to experience schadenfreude if this collective fails in the future. Instead, individuals who feel ashamed of their own group are inclined to experience schadenfreude if another person or collective-even a person or collective they have not competed against-experiences some misfortune or failure.
Some of the seminal studies in this domain assumed that schadenfreude primarily represents adverse attitudes towards another person or group. That is, individuals who attach unfavorable attitudes towards another party-such as envy or anger-are more inclined to experience schadenfreude when this person or group experiences some misfortune.
Several unfavorable feelings or attitudes to other individuals or groups have been differentiated. First, envy towards some party was initially assumed to exacerbate the schadenfreude that individuals experience when this person or group experience some failure or calamity. That is, schadenfreude might reverse the source of this envy (Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Goslinga, Nieweg, & Gallucci, 2006), such as relative inferiority.
Several studies have indeed shown that envy does tend to precede schadenfreude (e.g., Brigham, Kelso, Jackson, & Smith, 1997& Smith, Turner, Garonzik, Leach, Urch, & Weston, 1996). Schadenfreude was more pronounced when an advantaged rather than disadvantaged person or collective were subjected to some misfortune. This relationship between the relative standing of some person or group and the consequential schadenfreude was indeed mediated by reports of envy.
Nevertheless, some studies have challenged the role or importance of envy in the experience of schadenfreude. Neither Hareli and Weiner (2002) nor Feather and Sherman (2002), for example, uncovered any significant relationship between envy and schadenfreude.
Similarly, Leach and Spears (2008) did not unearth a significant relationship between envy and schadenfreude. In their study, participants were students at a university. A scenario was presented, in which two sets of universities, pool A and pool B competed with each other on some achievement test. Some participants were told their university competed against other institutions in pool A, but generally lost these competitions. In addition, they were told that VU University competed against other institutions in pool B, and generally triumphed. However, VU University lost the final. Envy towards VU University, as measured before they received information about the final, did not predict subsequent schadenfreude towards VU University.
Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Goslinga, Nieweg, and Gallucci (2006) attempted to reconcile this conflicting set of findings. These researchers showed that studies that have not uncovered a relationship between envy and schadenfreude exhibited some unique characteristics. First, unlike the other studies, these projects did not measure the hostile facets of envy, such as resentment, but confined the measure to benign facets, such as "I would like to be like the other team". Hostility and resentment were conceptualized as distinct from envy.
Second, these studies explored schadenfreude towards a person of a different or unknown gender. Conceivably, envy might predict schadenfreude towards a person who is similar in demographics or other characteristics. Only similar individuals represent a viable source of comparison. Consistent with this proposition, Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Goslinga, Nieweg, and Gallucci (2006) showed the relationship between envy translates to schadenfreude towards individuals of the same sex but to individuals of the other sex.
Finally, Leach and Spears (2008) argued that envy is often confounded with a sense of inferiority. When disentangled from one another, inferiority but not envy was shown to be a key determinant of subsequent schadenfreude.
Many studies have confirmed that anger or related feelings towards a party amplifies the schadenfreude that individuals experience if this person or collective experiences some misfortune (e.g., Leach, Spears, Branscombe, & Doosje, 2003). Studies have examined such emotions or evaluations as anger, perceived illegitimacy, dislike and resentment. Hareli and Weiner (2002), for instance, showed that anger and hate are associated with schadenfreude. Feather and Sherman (2002) found that resentment was related to schadenfreude.
Furthermore, Feather (2008) showed that schadenfreude was most pronounced when the party that experienced a misfortune did not deserve their high status. That is, if the other party had not devoted elevated levels of effort to their endeavor, schadenfreude was more likely to emerge in response to their misfortune.
Leach and Spears (2008), however, showed that such as anger or resentment might mediate the association between a personal sense of inferiority and subsequent schadenfreude. That is, they showed that individuals who experienced a sense of shame and inferiority about their university were more likely to experience anger towards a distinct, but superior, university, which in turn predicted subsequent schadenfreude. According to Leach and Spears (2008), feelings of inferiority, and thus frustration towards the self, are often projected to another party, manifested as anger.
Leach and Spears (2008) argued that a personal sense of inferiority, in lieu of feelings or attitudes towards the other person or group, is the principal origin of schadenfreude. In their study, participants were students at a university. A scenario was presented, in which two sets of universities, pool A and pool B competed with each other on some achievement test. Some participants were told their university competed against other institutions in pool A, but generally lost these competitions. Other participants were told their university was usually triumphant. In addition, participants were told that VU University competed against other institutions in pool B, and were generally victorious. However, VU University lost the final.
Individuals who perceive their own university as inferior, feeling threatened, ashamed, and frustrated about their performance, were more inclined to experience schadenfreude (see also Leach, Spears, Branscombe, & Doosje, 2003). This finding is striking, because their university did not even compete with the university towards which they experienced this schadenfreude. Nevertheless, Leach, Spears, Branscombe, and Doosje (2003) showed that individuals experience schadenfreude only when the person or group fail on a task that is relevant to their own self concept.
Leach and Spears (2008) attributed this relationship to the inclination of individuals experiencing shame and pain to seek simple opportunities to enjoy pleasure. That is, when individuals feel inferior, they project this frustration towards themselves-a frustration they might attempt to suppress-to another party. Hence, they are more prone to anger. The misfortune of another person or collective might resolve some of the goals that such anger could evoke (see Denzler, Forster, & Liberman, 2009), which manifests as pleasure, satisfaction, and thus schadenfreude.
The neuro-anatomical underpinnings of schadenfreude have not been examined extensively. However, the neuro-anatomical regions that underpin the recognition of this emotion in another person have been examined.
Shamay-Tsoory, Tibi-Elhanany, and Aharon-Peretz (2007) argue the ventromedial prefrontal cortex might underpin understanding schadenfreude as well as envy in other individuals. In their study, participants with lesions of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, especially in the left hemisphere, were relatively unable to recognize schadenfreude in another person. participants with lesions of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, but confined to the right hemisphere, were relatively unable to recognize envy in another person. Schadenfreude and envy are similar-both reflecting the capacity to assess the perceived fortune of another party-but correspond to positive and negative emotions respectively. Lesions in the left hemisphere tend to correspond to deficits in positive emotions, whereas lesions in the right hemisphere tend to correspond to deficits in negative emotions.
Researchers have yet to develop a definitive measure of schadenfreude. Nevertheless, several questions or techniques have been developed that gauge the level of schadenfreude that individuals experience.
Van Dijk, Ouwerkerk, Goslinga, Nieweg, and Gallucci (2006), for example, developed five questions to gauge schadenfreude. In their study, Dutch participants read information about a student. Later, they were informed the student was caught stealing a laptop or had received strident criticism over a recent speech they presented.
To assess schadenfreude, participants rated the extent to which they agree or disagree with five statements, such as "What happened gives me satisfaction," "I like what happened to this person", "I could not resist to smile a little," "Actually I had to laugh a little", and "I feel Schadenfreude." The last question, however, is not applicable in languages, such as English, in which a translation of the term schadenfreude is infrequent or unavailable. Nevertheless, in English, the word "gloating" might represent a reasonable substitute. Cronbach's alpha for this scale was .82. Furthermore, additional items were interwoven amongst these questions.
Leach, Spears, Branscombe, and Doosje (2003) as well asLeach and Spears (2008) used single words, not sentences, to measure schadenfreud. Individuals rated the extent to which they felt various synonyms of satisfied, happy, and schadenfreud after they discovered the superior university had lost. Cronbach's alpha exceeded .90.
Although a German word, and borrowed by English speakers, a similar term exists in many languages. Examples include shamateh in Arabic, danno piacere in Italian, and leedvermaak in Dutch.
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Last Update: 6/21/2016