Laughing at other people’s woes

Door Petra Meijer

Leiden social psychologist Wilco van Dijk and communications scientist Jaap Ouwerkerk have published the book Schadenfreude, Understanding Pleasure at the Misfortune of Others. “In the Netherlands, we love it when the Germans lose at football.”

So what is schadenfreude?
Schadenfreude means that we’re enjoying the fact that someone else is suffering.
“However, it’s important that we haven’t caused that suffering, because then we’d be ‘gloating’. It might be quite trivial: a child falling off a beam in gym or a girl breaking the heel of her nice new shoes. But it could be serious too, like someone’s death.”

Why do people enjoy seeing others suffer?
“We think that people ‘enjoy’ something if it appeals to something they think is important. We like to hear about other people’s bad luck if it helps our own goals or interests. Most of all, we want to see justice, fairness: we think it’s right if something bad happens to someone we don’t like or someone we think is arrogant.”

Anything else?
Schadenfreude can be caused by envy. We feel inferior and the fact that someone else is faring badly removes the grounds for our envy. And in the same context: it can be caused by social comparison: we like to feel good about ourselves and if someone else suffers a misfortune, we are socially advantaged by comparison.”

What did you study?
“We asked students to watch footage from Idols in which a girl sang terribly out of tune and was then slated by the jury. The students had done an intelligence test before they watched the clip. We told half the participants that they had done very badly in the test: their scores were in the lowest ten per cent, which students really don’t like to hear. We told the other half that they were extremely bright: their scores were among the highest ten per cent. The students who felt badly about themselves – because they thought they had done badly on the test – enjoyed the Idols footage far more than the people who felt good about themselves.”

When does a situation provoke schadenfreude and when do we feel sympathy?
“Misfortune should be relative: the punishment should fit the crime. We might experience pleasure if a dictator is sentenced to death, for example. If a fellow-student always gets top marks, it feels good when he almost fails a test for once. But it wouldn’t be funny if he were killed in a car crash.”

Is it linked to a country’s culture?
Schadenfreude – malicious joy – is found in all cultures, but not all languages have a word for it, including English, where they use the German term. The Japanese had a saying about schadenfreude dating from around 1300 or 1400: another man’s misfortune tastes like duck. At the time, duck was a delicacy. Nonetheless, schadenfreude varies from person to person and depending on the circumstances – in the Netherlands, we love it when the Germans lose at football, for example.”

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