Schadenfreude: Why Does Satisfaction Appear In The Face Of Other People’s Problems?


Schadenfreude is the experience of joy caused by the misfortune of others. It is a psychological phenomenon that is often related to a lack of empathy and compassion, which is why it is usually associated with antisocial personalities. But is this a phenomenon exclusive to them? Why does it manifest?

Below we will see some explanations that social psychology has offered to explain it.

Schadenfreude: satisfaction with the misfortune of others

The German term “schadenfreude” is used to refer to the feeling of satisfaction, complacency, joy or pleasure caused by the difficulties or humiliations experienced by other people. That is, it is about gloating about the mishaps that happen to others.

Although it seems to occur only in isolated cases, schadenfreude It has been described since Ancient Greece in different ways. For example, the term “epicaricacia” was used to refer to the same feeling of enjoyment in the face of the misfortune of others. In ancient Rome “malevolence” was used to describe the same feeling.

And in the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas thought that schadenfreude was, along with resentment and defamation, one of the perverse emotions derived from envy. In fact, centuries later, this would still be one of the main explanations for schadenfreude, as we will see below.

Why does it appear? Explanations of social psychology

Isn’t someone else’s misfortune supposed to provoke compassion? What generates this feeling of exhilaration we call schadenfreude? Does it have any adaptive function? Aaron Ben Zeev, a psychologist at the University of Haifa, says that schadenfreude It is mainly triggered by the following circumstances:

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The above, however, does not eliminate the social expectation of feeling compassion for the misfortune of others. This contradiction between the obligation to feel this emotion, but not being able to avoid feeling joy, generates significant discomfort. To reduce it, the person begins by responding morally from compassion, and later justifying the misfortune by principles of justice.

1. Individual satisfaction of justice

This phenomenon is usually explained by the hierarchies in which we relate, since, according to the position we occupy, we tend to evaluate the positions of others as well as the kind of justice they deserve.

Thus, as soon as we suspect that someone is enjoying something they shouldn’t, we feel envy and jealousy. On the contrary, when that same person suddenly finds himself involved in a complicated situation, the feeling it gives us is that of a rebalance of power.

2. Caused by envy?

Traditionally, schadenfreude has been explained by the envy caused by a more privileged position than others. In other words, this phenomenon would occur especially from a less privileged person to another more privileged person, when the latter has had some mishap.

What good would the misfortune of the other, who is more privileged, have for us? Beyond envy, other explanations suggest that the misfortune of the more privileged other returns an ephemeral image on a balance of power tilted in our favor.

The vulnerability of the other, whom we hardly recognize as vulnerable precisely because of their privileged position, would give us back an image of power over ourselves. It is a reversal of statutes that gives us recognition for principles of justice.

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Aaron Ben Zeev himself explains schadenfreude as an emotional phenomenon that, as such, is activated when we perceive significant changes in our personal situation. These changes They will be positive or negative depending on whether they interrupt or improve the situation in accordance with our interests.

In this sense, schadenfreude would have an adaptive nature, since it causes a significant positive change (it allows one to momentarily reduce one’s vulnerability); which in turn helps us adapt to a constantly changing environment.

3. Theory of superiority and intergroup relationship

Another explanation of schadenfreude is based on the theory of superiority, which has also been used to explain some of the functions of humor.

Studies that start from this explanation have linked schadenfreude with a tendency towards conformism (specifically in the change of opinions towards the tendency of the majority). In addition has been associated with low self-esteem: People with scores that reveal low self-esteem are more inclined to experimental schadenfreude, probably as a means of reasserting a position of power that they see as constantly at risk.

That is, the latter is explained by the phenomenon of self-perceived threat, which is related to perceptions about the power position that others have, compared to ours. Thus, if circumstances reduce self-perceived threat, schadenfreude also tends to decrease.

The above has also led to relating this psychological phenomenon to depression. According to studies on schadenfreude, it frequently occurs in cases of moderate depression, probably because self-esteem is devalued.

Thus, beyond being a purely psychological phenomenon, schadenfreude It has also been explained as an effect of the threat of inferiority mediated in turn by hierarchical dimensions present in particular intergroup relations.

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