You know you know it. That undeniable sense of delight in the failing or misfortune of another... Mark Broatch investigates the universal phenomenon of schadenfreude.
The French speak of jolie maligne, the Dutch leedvermaak, in Hebrew it’s simcha la-ed, in Mandarin xìng -z i-lè-huò. The Romans talked about malevolentia, the ancient Greeks epichairekakia. In English, we make do with a German word: schadenfreude.
Does there exist, in some remote corner of the world, a people who don’t occasionally take pleasure in someone else’s misfortune? It seems unlikely. It’s been around forever, too. From Thomas Aquinas (“The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, so that their bliss will be that much greater”) to Shylock to Jane Austen’s Mr Bennet, from an ancient Egyptian tombstone with an engraving of a builder dropping a mallet on his foot to an island tribe in Papua New Guinea indulging in banbanam – which can range from quiet gloating at someone’s failure to exhuming a rival’s body and scattering it around the village.
“Make no mistake,” says English cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith, “over time, and in many different places, when it comes to making ourselves happy, we humans have long relied on the humiliations and failures of other people.”
It was not always the done thing to admit to such pleasures. Kierkegaard, Baudelaire and Schopenhauer condemned them, the last suggesting anyone enjoying schadenfreude – literally damage-joy – should be ejected from human society. Nietzsche, you may not be surprised to discover, was in favour, claiming it as a very human quality: “To see others suffer does one good. To make others suffer even more so.”
Surely, though, that raises the question of where we draw the line between schadenfreude and sadistic pleasure? Watching people getting nailed and nutted on America’s Funniest Home Videos, for instance, strikes me as the latter.
When the word began to be used in English in the 19th century, says Watt Smith, who has written a book on schadenfreude, there wasn’t a clear distinction between the two, so enjoying seeing cats being tortured in the street could be described as schadenfreude. By the end of the century, a psychological line had been drawn. “Sadism was pleasure in pain that you yourself have caused, and schadenfreude is a sort of spectator sport: an opportunistic pleasure that you stumble over.”
But Watt Smith, who lectures at Queen Mary University of London, now wonders if the internet is beginning to challenge that distinction. Part of the pain that people suffer online is about humiliation and shame. People like Justine Sacco, who made an ill-judged joke on Twitter about Aids and was endlessly shamed en masse around the world. Every time you stumble across a public roasting and like or share it you’re compounding the object’s misery. “So maybe it doesn’t quite hold any more.”
Schadenfreude comes in a few varieties and adheres to certain rules, says Watt Smith. She admits to enjoying fail videos, such as the man who jumps into the pool only to find too late that it has frozen over. Two things are important in these videos, she says. That there be no wink-wink setup involved, and that (for most viewers) no one is seriously hurt. If that happens, “it is excruciating and unpleasant and you feel very guilty”. That can make us ask questions about what our pleasure is and where it lies, she says.
“Envy seeks out schadenfreude as a form of psychic relief, making our own failures or inadequacies more tolerable.”
We can recognise schadenfreude through five themes, says Watt Smith. It’s opportunistic, so something we haven’t caused. It tends to be furtive, because of what it might say about us. We often feel entitled to laugh if it involves comeuppance for someone being, say, criminal, smug or hypocritical. (She notes the US pastor who said floods were sent by God to punish abortion and gay marriage, only to have to escape from his own flooded house by canoe.) Schadenfreude is a form of respite, from our own inadequacies and others’ superiority. And it’s glee at only minor discomforts rather than serious tragedies. For example, Homer Simpson wishes ill on Ned Flanders’ Leftorium, joyfully imagining him being made bankrupt. When he envisages Flanders’ children weeping over his grave he says “Too far!” and rewinds to mere destitution.
Psychologists call schadenfreude a cognitive emotion, Watt Smith says, one that involves thinking through, unlike response emotions such as fear or disgust. “We are constantly appraising other people’s suffering to see if they deserved them, and if we feel – it’s very subjective, of course – that a person has been unbearably smug or outrageously perfect or whatever, then we might judge their misery as deserved in some way or as useful, teaching them a lesson.”
When friends suffer, she says, you feel bad for them, but a tiny current of pleasure can also arrive. You’re a monster, a hypocrite, you tell yourself. But if it’s part of friendly, mocking banter, it’s almost camaraderie, helping them get through pain by laughing.
What about no-talent celebrities or Instagram influencers, who have brought us a whole other level of showing off – surely the joy of shaming such people is understandable? “Yes, because there’s just so much more showing off and perhaps oversharing as well. So the opportunities for embarrassing gaffes are greater.” If it’s true that we seek the compensations of schadenfreude to help us manage such excesses, “it’s quite fun and useful. Most people agree that the level of perfection and curated lives that are available online are pretty damaging and we need some way of coping with it.” It’s not dignified, but maybe it meets the ignoble desire to show off, she says. “On one hand, it is insecure, cruel and self-defeating to want to bring down those who are cleverer and more accomplished. Envy seeks out schadenfreude as a form of psychic relief, making our own failures or inadequacies more tolerable. On the other, some people seem to enjoy an unearned cultural authority and power, and it can feel like a good idea to puncture their souffle.
“There is an argument that the ‘tall poppies’ instinct may have evolutionary roots in the need to preserve equality. Someone who preens and poses and appears to think they’re better than everyone else must be cut down to size, not just to protect the group but to protect them from being ostracised – ‘it’s for your own good’.”
There’s often a joyous piling on when the egotistical or dodgy fall. “I think this has become an important component of the #MeToo movement, for example, when with
each new revelation there are a lot of emotions flying around – rage, indignation, disgust, disappointment – but justice-based schadenfreude is one of these. Pleasure that someone who is a transgressor, who has previously been Teflon-coated, is now having to suffer the consequences of their behaviour; pleasure that this is being taken seriously; pleasure that it might deter others and create cultural change.
“I think that our culture often glosses over these more spiky, awkward, uncomfortable emotions, such as schadenfreude, but we do need to get more comfortable with them if we want to understand how they operate today. People do cheer and celebrate when, say, Bernie Madoff is sentenced to 150 years in prison. It doesn’t always appear seemly or elegant to do so; the justice system is supposed to be unemotional and rational.
“But schadenfreude is part of how we are engaging with justice now online – it creates camaraderie, and political momentum – and so we do need to understand how this pleasure works and why we feel it – not least, so we can stop it tipping over into the more dangerous mob justice. Neuroscientists have spoken about the pleasure of seeing justice carried out stimulating the same dorsal striatum reward region of the brain as sex or narcotics. It’s a buzz and we could potentially get addicted to it.”
With social media mainlining others’ gaffes 24/7, a gauche preener in the White House, and studies suggesting narcissistic personality traits of US college students have risen as fast as obesity since the 1980s, do we live in an age of schadenfreude? There is definitely anxiety about it, says Watt Smith. Potentially it’s becoming more of an accepted emotional style, she says. And because nothing ever disappears from the internet, those sniggers or private exchanges are now preserved and shared repeatedly, so it becomes much more of a cycle.
It’s embedded in our entertainment, our politics, even our workplaces. Lab studies suggest we actually enjoy it more when others fail, such as when a rival football team misses a goal, than when our team scores. In our private lives, schadenfreude can give us some power or revenge, letting us enjoy “tiny moments of glorious mutiny”, writes Watt Smith. For the powerless, every joke is a tiny revolution, said Orwell. In the political world, though, it can score divisions even more deeply. Like sport, it’s almost not enough to see your side win, you have to see the other side suffer – even if it involves pain on your side, too.
We certainly saw that in the UK in relation to Brexit, she says, when, for a period, some on the Remain side exulted in how bad things would get. Research has been done around American elections that showed a measure of vindication among those who did not support the war when troop deaths began to rise in Afghanistan. “Something you’d think of as universally sorrow-making also had this other element.”
The big question for moral philosophers, she says, is whether by enjoying schadenfreude you are endangering empathy, trust and a good society. Academic studies often define schadenfreude as the opposite of empathy, she says, its dark shadow. Some even liken it to psychopathic behaviour. “Which I think is really bizarre. It’s a sort of new moralism that comes on the back of a real interest in empathy in psychological research, in politics, in education. For the most part, schadenfreude is fairly harmless, and it can be useful. It’s pretty much inevitable. It’s part of how we engage with one another. But also it’s perfectly possible to feel schadenfreude and empathy simultaneously. And if you feel a glint of schadenfreude it doesn’t completely invalidate the empathy or the compassion that you’re experiencing. It just shows that you’re a human and capable of complex emotional responses and you have a level of emotional flexibility that your average moral philosopher is not necessarily terribly comfortable with.”
Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune, by Tiffany Watt Smith (Profile) $27.99.