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 often associated with a lack of empathy and compassion, to which it is often associated with antisocial personalities. But is it an exclusive phenomenon of these? Why is this happening?

Below, we’ll take a look at some explanations that social psychology has offered to explain this.

    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. In other words, it is about rejoicing in the setbacks that befall others.

    Although this seems to occur only in isolated cases, the schadenfreude it has been described in different ways since ancient Greece. For example, the term “epicaricacy” was used to refer to the same sense of enjoyment in the face of someone else’s bad luck. In ancient Rome, “malice” was used to describe the same feeling.

    And in the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas believed that schadenfreude was, with resentment and slander, one of the perverse emotions derived from envy. In fact, centuries later, this will remain one of the main explanations of schadenfreude, as we will see below.

      Why does this appear? Explanations of social psychology

      Isn’t it assumed that the misfortune of others should cause compassion? What is it that generates this feeling of joy that we call schadenfreude? Does it have an adaptive function? Aaron Ben Zeev, psychologist at the University of Haifa, says the Schadenfreude it is mainly triggered by the circumstances:

      • If, in our opinion, the other seems to deserve his misfortune.
      • If the damage to the other is relatively light.
      • If the damage this was not caused by our fault.

      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 out of compassion, and then justifying the misfortune with principles of justice.

      1. Individual satisfaction with justice

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

      So when it comes to suspecting that someone is appreciating something that they shouldn’t, it makes us jealous and jealous. On the contrary, when that same person is suddenly involved in a complicated situation, the feeling that it causes us is that of a rebalancing of power.

      2. Caused by urge?

      Traditionally, the schadenfreude was explained by the desire it arouses a more privileged position than the others. In other words, this phenomenon would occur mostly from a less privileged person to a more privileged person, when the latter has experienced some setbacks.

      What good could 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 reflects 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 his privileged position, would give us an image of power over ourselves. It is an investment of laws which gives us the recognition of the principles of justice.

      Aaron Ben Zeev himself explains schadenfreude as an emotional phenomenon which, as such, is activated when we perceive significant changes in our personal circumstances. 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 character, because it brings about a significant positive change (it makes it possible to temporarily reduce its own vulnerability); which helps us adapt to a constantly changing environment.

      3. Theory of superiority and intergroup relations

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

      Studies based on this explanation have linked schadenfreude to a tendency to conformism (especially in the change of opinion towards the tendency of the majority). the same has been associated with low self-esteem: People whose scores reveal low self-esteem are more prone to experimental schadenfreude, possibly as a means of reasserting a position of power that they see at constant risk.

      In other words, the latter is explained by the phenomenon of self-perceived threat, which is linked to perceptions about the power position of others, Compared to ours. Thus, if the circumstances reduce the self-perceived threat, the schadenfreude also tends to decrease.

      The above has also led to link this psychological phenomenon to depression. According to studies on schadenfreude, it frequently occurs in moderate depression, possibly because self-esteem is low.

      Thus, beyond being a purely psychological phenomenon, the schadenfreude it was also explained as an effect of the threat of inferiority, Intervening in turn through hierarchical dimensions present in particular intergroup relations.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Degen, F. (2014). Joy in the misfortune of others. Accessed October 12, 2018.Available at
      • Feather, NL and Sherman, R. (2002). Envy, Resentment, Failure, and Sympathy: Reactions to deserved and undeserved accomplishments and the resulting failure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28 (7): 953-961.
      • Leach, CW, Spears, R., Branscombe, NR. and Doosje, B. (2003). Malicious Pleasure: Fail in the face of the suffering of another group. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
      • Michalik-Jezowska, M. (2016). On the benefits of pleasure in the misfortune of others. Aaron Ben-Ze’ev’s representation of emotions as adaptive mechanisms. Human Studies, 5 (3): 53-69.

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