By Jean Balchin 11/01/2018

Imagine, if you will, a cold, blustery day in the city. With the wind howling and the rain coming down in horizontal sheets, the interior of the bus seems positively luxurious. From your vantage point on the plush red seats, you watch as a bedraggled young man runs towards the bus stop, arms flailing and suitcase flying. Just as he reaches it however, the bus takes off, and he is left on the sidewalk; a profoundly disappointed and sopping figure. What’s that you feel; compassion? Empathy? No; instead, schadenfreude, that deliciously guilty, almost inhuman sense of glee at someone else’s misfortune.

Schadenfreude is a loanword from German. Its literal translation being ‘Harm-Joy’, schadenfreude encapsulates perfectly that slight sense of elation one feels watching lost tourists reading maps, or stressed waitresses dropping warm soup into the lap of restaurant patrons. Tumbling ice-skaters, Kim Kardashian’s weight gain and news anchor gaffes are other instances in which one savours a gratifying sense of amusement. Schadenfreude differs from loathing or true malice in that it is not malevolent but rather mischievous in nature.  An expression with a similar meaning is Roman Holiday, derived from Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Here, an atmosphere of debauchery and sadistic delight is created when a gladiator in Ancient Rome expects to be ‘butchered to make a Roman holiday’. Lord Byron’s got nothing on Broadway though – the musical Avenue Q sums up the feeling succinctly:

“Right now you are down and out / and feeling really crappy, I’ll say / and when I see how sad you are / It sort of makes me happy, happy.”


The opposite of sadness is joy; the opposite of schadenfreude may well be the Buddhist concept of “Muditā (Pāli and Sanskrit: मुदिता)”; “sympathetic joy” or “happiness in another’s good fortune.” A classic example of this might be the joy of a parent observing how little Tommy can now walk four steps. However muditā is distinct from pride in that the person feeling muditā may not have any interest or beneficial outcome from the success of the other. Muditā therefore is pure joy unadulterated by self-interest. I watch my anxiety-riddled friends get their acceptance letters into med school with a certain measure of goodwill, but this feeling isn’t nearly as satisfying as watching my enemy realise he’s missed a deadline. 

According to the medieval church, ‘morose delectation’ (the Latin equivalent of schadenfreude) was a grave sin, and indeed the Book of Proverbs warns us:

“Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth.”

Why, then, are we thus inclined? A number of scientific studies of schadenfreude are based on the social comparison theory proposed by Leon Festinger, which claims that when those around us encounter bad luck, we appear better to ourselves. In keeping with this theory, it has been found that people with low self-esteem are more likely to feel schadenfreude than people with high self-esteem are.

Electromyograms and Envy

Schadenfreude is also inextricably tied up with envy. Professor Susan Fiske, of Princeton University and her PhD student Mina Cikara conducted an illuminating study with regards to schadenfreude and its relation to envy. The electrical activity of participants’ cheek muscles (highest when the participant smiled) was measured with an electromyogram. Each participant was shown photographs of people associated with different stereotypes; rich professionals (envy), students (pride), drug addicts (disgust), and the elderly (pity). Alongside these images were everyday events such as “Was soaked by a taxi” (negative), “Won ten dollars” (positive) or “Went to the bathroom” (neutral). Participants were asked how each pairing made them feel and their facial movements were recorded. Results indicated that people took greater delight in the misfortune of those they envied – the rich professionals.

Schadenfreude – harmless, or something more malicious? Artwork by Ceri Giddens.

Let me digress for a minute. My father, being of the old-school mentality, disliked long hair on boys to the extent that he would regularly haul out the electric razor and shave my brother’s head. The razor had a cap that left a little hair – about 1.5cm – forlornly sticking up on Andrew’s head like shorn grass. One afternoon we gathered around to watch this monthly ritual. I don’t know quite what was distracting my father that day, but his mind was far away from the mundane reality of shaving his son’s head, and he forgot to secure the cap on the razor. About three strokes in, I realised that Andrew was swiftly becoming totally bald. Being the caring, affectionate elder sister that I am, I held my tongue and gleefully watched his shiny bald head emerge. This spectacle paled in comparison to the look of shock and abject misery on my brother’s face when he finally beheld his billiard-ball reflection in the bathroom mirror. Now, I tell you this only to illustrate the perfectly obvious fact that children experience schadenfreude. 

Envy and Jealousy

A study by Simone Shamay-Tsoorly, a psychologist at the University of Haifa in Israel found that envy and jealousy are at the heart of schadenfreude in children. Here, researchers studied the manner in which children responded to someone’s misfortune (in this case, spilling water on a book) under two conditions; when jealousy was involved and when it wasn’t. In this study, 35 mothers read aloud either to themselves, in front of their own child and the child’s friend, or while hugging the child’s friend. When the children were jealous because their mother was cuddling the friend, they were more likely to exhibit joy when she ‘accidentally’ spilled water on the book and had to stop reading. These little angels showed their happiness by doing anything from smirking to jumping up and down and clapping. If anyone has noted the acute mathematical precision with which children divide cookies, you’d realise that kids are generally obsessed with the notion of ‘fairness’. This idea of ‘fairness’ is related to their feelings of schadenfreude. Self-esteem is also a factor. According to Shamay-Tsoory,

“It has been shown that envy, which is related to schadenfreude, is related to a sense of inferiority…Individuals with low self-esteem feel more envy and tend to be more concerned with social comparison.”

Given that children exhibit signs of jealousy and envy before 12 months of age, schadenfreude evidently has deep developmental roots. Humans – be they drooling toddlers or aggressive businessmen – are social creatures, primarily concerned with comparing oneself to others.

Schadenfreude in the media

Schadenfreude, like every emotion, has the tendency to range in intensity from the benign to the outrageous. Perhaps the most harmless example of schadenfreude is the tendency to giggle when someone slips on ice. Personally, while I like to think of myself as being generally above evil intentions and pure malice, I do savour the slight amusement derived from watching my brother walk into a glass door. Far more chilling, however, are the more serious examples of schadenfreude: the insatiable curiosity we have for bad news in the media. Events such as fraud, embezzlement, shootings, earthquakes and tsunamis evoke within us an avid fascination, and perhaps a sense of relief that we’re not the ones suffering. While an admirable few might turn away, many watch the sad exploitation of others’ suffering from the happy comfort of their living room, unthinking, uncaring.

So when is schadenfreude socially acceptable?

In my opinion, feelings such as envy, jealousy and schadenfreude are involuntary responses – unconscious by-products of living our lives. Schadenfreude is admissible if the person has brought misfortune upon himself. As long as schadenfreude remains a silent, passive emotion it amplifies our self-worth and reminds us that even the most privileged people are fallible. Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year or so, you would have hear of Martin Shkreli – the greasy frat-boy pharmaceutical mogul infamous for raising the price of one of his company’s drugs by more than 4000 percent. Shkreli’s eventual arrest for security fraud elicited a wave of pure joy the internet had never seen before. However, the public’s unanimous baying for blood had little to do with the consequences of his white collar crimes – they were merely cheering on the demise of a sanctimonious bastard – in short, they were feeling schadenfreude. 

Be it the basketball court, football stadium or swimming pool, the sportsground is undeniably one public sphere where schadenfreude is acceptable. One might argue that tabloids constitute another, yet these sickeningly salacious rags (I’m looking at you, Daily Mail) actively turn human failures into entertainment, and like Aunt Petunia Dursely, we’re unlikely to jump up in the air upon hearing about Ben Affleck’s split from Jennifer Garner. Politics is another sphere where schadenfreude is admissible, although it comes with an inherent social or moral justification for chuckling at the latest high profile scandal (David Cameron’s affinity for pigs, anyone?). In sports however, codes of sportsmanship dictate that the winners shouldn’t pick on the losers – but in my opinion, these attitudes don’t strictly apply to people off the field. Recall if you will, the satisfaction you may have felt while watching France getting beaten by England in the 2007 World Cup after ignominiously defeating the All Blacks a week earlier. 

Schadenfreude – acceptable on the sportsfield?

Although the English language does not have a word for it, schadenfreude is undoubtedly an emotion we recognise. While schadenfreude is deeply repressed within our culture for its primitive and often cruel nature, one might argue that increased awareness of schadenfreude will help us to be more compassionate and sensitive. According to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer,

“To feel envy is human, to savour schadenfreude is devilish.”

In the case of a cream-pie to the face, devilishly satisfying, perhaps.

This article by Jean Balchin was originally published by Critic te Arohi, the University of Otago’s student magazine.