Schadenfreude: Your Pain, My Pleasure
November 4, 2013

Schadenfreude: Your Pain, My Pleasure

Think about every joke you have ever truly laughed at. More than likely, it was some form of pain that made you laugh. Not your pain, of course, but someone else’s. This is known as Schadenfreude.

Then a Princeton PhD student, Mina Cikara found a deep, personal understanding of this concept when she made the colossal mistake of wearing a Boston Red Sox hat to a New York Yankees game. (I have to ask, what was she thinking?) Cikara was bombarded with nicknames, vulgarities and heckling from the Yankees fans. Her mentor, professor Susan Fiske, helped Cikara work this experience into a thesis, exploring why people fail to empathize with others based on stereotypes. The results of the study were published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

They found that it isn’t just a mental aberration that makes us laugh at other people’s pain, but a biological imperative. They measured the electrical activity of cheek muscles, finding that people smile more when someone they envy experiences misfortune or discomfort. Did we really need scientists to tell us this?  Well, maybe so. The research team says that their results have implications beyond interpersonal relationships, citing associated policy implications, such as how other countries view and stereotype the United States especially given that many countries envy the US.

“Jealousy and envy are highly correlated,” said Fiske, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School. “When we ask people on surveys who is envied in American society, they report the same groups: objects of jealousy. This is all very much based on stereotypes. And so, in this study, we sought to better understand who is among these envied groups and whether that envy and jealousy elicits a harmful response.”

“We were interested in the conditions under which people fail to empathize with one another and how, for some of those people, they experience happiness at another’s expense,” said Cikara, now an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “We wanted to start in a place where people would be willing to express their opinions and willingness to harm more freely, like we see in sports. We asked ourselves: what is it about rivalries that elicit a harmful response? And can we predict who will have this response?”

They conducted four experiments to collect their data.

First, they examined the physical responses of the participants by monitoring their cheek movements with an electromyogram (EMG), which captures the electrical activity of facial movements when an individual smiles. Study subjects were shown photographs of individuals associated with different stereotypes – the elderly (pity), students or Americans (pride), drug addicts (disgust) and rich professionals (envy). The research team paired these images with everyday events like “Won five dollars” (positive) or “Got soaked by a taxi” (negative) or “Went to the bathroom” (neutral). Participants were asked how this would make them feel, and their facial movements were recorded.

“Because people don’t like to report envy of Schadenfreude, this was the best method for gathering such responses. And, in this experiment, we were able to viscerally capture malicious glee,” Fiske said. “We found that people did smile more in response to negative than positive events, but only for groups they envied.”

Using the same photos and events, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – which measures blood flow changes associated with brain activity – to determine whether participants were willing to harm certain groups. The participants were asked to rate how they felt on a scale of one to nine. The team found that participants felt the worst about positive events and the best about negative events in regards to the rich professionals. The research team followed up with an online scenario-based game two weeks later involving the option to hurt another person, such as through electric shocks in order to spare several others.

“People were willing to hurt an envy target, saying, ‘Yes, let’s shock her,'” Cikara said. “We found that surprising because we weren’t certain participants would self report that. While it’s true that people are generally averse to harming others, the bottom line is that people don’t feel this way all the time.”

So, to recap, we hate rich people, we aren’t that averse to hurting other folks… this isn’t looking that good for the human race.

The third experiment had a goal of manipulating stereotypes using various scenarios regarding an investment banker as an example, the researchers threw counter-stereotypic information at participants. The articles ranged from the banker being employed with status quo, to advising clients pro-bono (pride), using his work bonuses to buy drugs (disgust), and finally, unemployed but still pretending to go to work (pity). The findings were no surprise. The articles associated with disgust and envy were rated with less warmth than the pride or pity scenarios.

“This experiment shows that the dimensions predicting envy are high status and competition, and, when you move those around, the envy goes away. This is consistent with the story about who gets envied and why. A lot of it is tied into money because that’s an easy thing to look at,” said Fiske.

Finally, the team repeated Cikara’s experience at the ball game. Two groups of fans – one for the Boston Red Sox, one for the New York Yankees – were prescreened for “intense fandom.”  Using fMRI and self reporting after watching a series of plays in which opponents struck out, scored runs or made fantastic plays, the team monitored participant reactions. They found the subjects reported more pleasure during positive outcomes for their teams.

I have to say it one more time. DUH!

To really understand, the researchers threw in a neutral team – the Baltimore Orioles. The fans showed little to no reaction to positive or negative events and did not wish to harm Oriole’s fans. They were happy when their rival team lost to the Orioles, however. Two weeks later, the subjects answered an online survey, which revealed that both groups of fans were more likely to heckle, insult, threaten or hit a rival fan while watching the plays.

“We used a sporting event because it’s something you can bottle,” said Fiske. “Rabid fans are passionate about it, and we were looking for an intergroup phenomenon that reaches people where they live. This is certainly it. But it’s important to remember that this study isn’t just about sports teams. It’s about intergroup rivals of more consequence.”

This study is an example of group envy or harm, according to Fiske. “In our larger model of stereotypes, we find that when things go smoothly, people go along to get along with these envied groups. It’s when the chips are down that these groups become real targets of Schadenfreude.”

It’s pretty easy to see how this could apply to international relations, especially from those countries that envy the resources or culture of another. I’m still not sure, however, why we needed to have a full on study to understand this. Just watch a group of elementary school kids.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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