We are not always the most noble of creatures. Although we should feel sympathetic when seeing others suffer, we sometimes feel pleased. The German word schadenfreude describes this malicious pleasure. Meaning literally harm joy.
Nietzsche (1887/1967) argued that those who are threatened by the possibility of their own inferiority have “a desire to deaden pain by means of affect” . So, feeling pleasure at another’s misfortune can act as an “imaginary revenge” against the threat of inferiority. In essence, Nietzsche suggested that the affective pleasure of schadenfreude is a way in which in-groups can compensate for a status inferiority that threatens their self-worth.
This common, yet poorly understood, emotion may provide a valuable window into the darker side of humanity. Schadenfreude seems to comprise of three separable but interrelated feelings — aggression, rivalry and justice.
Dehumanization is the process of perceiving a person or social group as lacking the attributes that define what it means to be human. It can range from subtle forms, such as assuming that someone from another ethnic group does not feel the full range of emotions as one’s in-group members do, to more blatant and extreme forms of expression.
There is no agreed definition of schadenfreude. Since ancient times, some scholars have condemned schadenfreude as malicious, while others have perceived it as morally neutral or even virtuous. Schadenfreude is an uncanny emotion that is difficult to assimilate. It can make you feel odd to experience pleasure when hearing about bad things happening to someone else.
Psychologists view schadenfreude through the lens of three theories. Envy theory focuses on a concern for self-evaluation, and a lessening of painful feelings when someone perceived as enviable gets put down. Deservingness theory links schadenfreude to a concern for social justice and the feeling that someone dealt a misfortune received what was coming to them. Intergroup-conflict theory concerns social identity and the schadenfreude experienced after the defeat of members of a rival group, such as during sporting or political competitions.
What pulls people away from schadenfreude is the ability to feel empathy for others and to perceive them as fully human and to care for them. Ordinary people may temporarily lose empathy for others. But those with certain personality disorders and associated traits, such as psychopathy, narcissism or sadism are either less able or less motivated to put themselves in the shoes of others.
A little known and understood emotion, Schadenfreude is something we can possibly all uncomfortably relate to.