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Schadenfreude: why does the satisfaction of other people's problems appear?

Schadenfreude: why does the satisfaction of other people's problems appear?

January 25, 2022

The schadenfreude is the experience of rejoicing caused by the misery of others . It is a psychological phenomenon that is often related to the lack of empathy and compassion, which is often associated with antisocial personalities. But is it an exclusive phenomenon of these? Why does it manifest?

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

  • Related article: "Differences between emotions and feelings"

Schadenfreude: satisfaction for 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 over the mishaps that happen to others.

Although it seems to occur only in isolated cases, the schadenfreude 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 someone else's misfortune. 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 continue to be one of the main explanations for the schadenfreude, as we shall see below.

  • Maybe you're interested: "Psychology of envy: 5 keys to understand it"

Why does it appear? Explanations of social psychology

Is not it supposed that the misfortune of others should cause compassion? What generates this feeling of rejoicing that we call schadenfreude? Do you have any adaptive function? Aaron Ben Zeev, a psychologist at the University of Haifa, says that the schadenfreude is triggered mainly in the following circumstances :

  • If, according to our judgment, the other seems to deserve his misfortune.
  • If the damage suffered by the other is relatively light.
  • If the damage it has not been caused by our fault .

The foregoing, 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 an important discomfort. To reduce it, the person starts responding morally from compassion, and later justifying the misfortune by principles of justice.

1. The 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 justice they deserve.

So, as soon as we suspect that someone is enjoying something they should not, we are jealous and jealous. On the contrary, when that same person is suddenly involved in a complicated situation, the sensation that provokes us is that of a rebalancing of power.

2. Provoked by envy?

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

What good would the misfortune of the other, which is more privileged, have for us? Beyond envy, other explanations suggest that the misfortune of the most privileged other returns an ephemeral image about a balance of power inclined to our favor .

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

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 according to whether they interrupt or improve the situation according to our interests .

In this sense, the schadenfreude would have an adaptive character, since it provokes a significant positive change (it allows momentarily reducing one's own vulnerability); which in turn helps us to adapt to an environment in constant change.

3. Theory of superiority and intergroup relationship

Another of the explanations 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 the schadenfreude with a tendency to conformism (specifically in the change of opinions towards the tendency of the majority). Likewise It 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 reaffirming a position of power they see at constant 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 the self-perceived threat, the schadenfreude also tends to decrease.

This has also led to relate this psychological phenomenon with depression. According to studies on schadenfreude, this occurs frequently in cases of moderate depression, probably because self-esteem is devalued.

Thus, beyond being a purely psychological phenomenon, the 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.

Bibliographic references:

  • Degen, F. (2014). The joy in other's misfortune. Retrieved October 12, 2018. Available at //
  • Feather, N.L. and Sherman, R. (2002). Envy, Resentment, Schadenfreude and Sympathy: Reactions to Deserved and Undeserved Achievement and Subsequent Failure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28 (7): 953-961.
  • Leach, C.W., Spears, R., Branscombe, NR. and Doosje, B. (2003). Malicious pleasure: schadenfreude at the suffering of another group. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
  • Michalik-Jezowska, M. (2016). About the benefits of pleasure-in-other's-misfortune. Aaron Ben-Ze'ev's depiction of emotions as adaptive mechanisms. Studia Humana, 5 (3): 53-69.

People Who Drew The Short Straw That Day (January 2022).

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