Cry Me A River? A Dialogue on Laughing at Other People's Pain

While I was scrolling through Instagram, as one is bound to do for the 51st time, I found myself falling down the vortex of what one may only call the “Fail Videos”; and oh! was I there for the next hour or more (definitely more). But upon much thought about why it tickles us all to see someone fall down the stairs or to see them get hit by animals, I couldn’t justify my behaviour, it was hard for me to come up with a reason other than “…they probably deserved it.” Well, as a Psychology student who is pretty much taught to be empathetic, it irked me why this so happens.

I didn’t have to look much further, one search on Google and I was met with my favourite word ever: Schadenfreude. Oxford Dictionary defines Schadenfreude as pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. The word is borrowed from German and is a compound of Schaden, “damage, harm”, and Freude, ‘joy’. “Harm-Joy”, that’s the only equivalent in English one can find for this word. In fact, in 1926, a journalist in The Spectator asserted that “there is no English word for Schadenfreude because there is no such feeling here.” We shall see about that, UK, we shall. One can mistake Sadism for it, but sadism has an implication of infliction, while Schadenfreude is about merely observing.

English might be falling behind on finding a word for this feeling, others? Not so much. The Japanese have a saying: “The misfortunes of others taste like honey.” The French speak of ‘joiemaligne’, a diabolical delight in other people’s suffering. The Danish talk of ‘skadefryd’, and the Dutch of ‘leedvermaak’. In Hebrew, enjoying other people’s catastrophes is ‘simcha la‑ed’, in Mandarin, ‘xìng‑zāi‑lè‑huò’, in Serbo-Croat it is ‘zlùradōst’, and in Russian ‘zloradstvo’. More than 2,000 years ago, Romans spoke of ‘malevolentia’. Earlier still, the Greeks described ‘epichairekakia’ (literally epi, over, chairo, rejoice, kakia, disgrace). “To see others suffer does one good,” wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “To make others suffer even more so. This is a hard saying, but a mighty, human, all-too-human principle.”

Talking about the emotion, how does it even manifest itself? Exactly like joy does: gleam in our eyes, a wide smile, or perhaps a small one, one may even consider it a smirk. In a laboratory in Würzburg in Germany in 2015, thirty-two football fans agreed to have electromyography pads attached to their faces, which would measure their smiles and frowns while watching TV clips of successful and unsuccessful football penalties by the German team, and by their arch-rivals, the Dutch. The psychologists found that when the Dutch missed a goal, the German fans’ smiles appeared more quickly and were broader than when the German team scored a goal themselves. The smiles of Schadenfreude and joy are indistinguishable except in one crucial respect: we smile more at the failures of our enemies than at our own success. We have used humiliation and the failures of other people to make ourselves happy for a long time. We often use said emotion to work in our favour, people use self-deprecating stories in novice situations to evoke ease amongst the rest and present themselves as non-threatening.

The word was first mentioned in German in the 1740’s, and in English writing in 1853. Richard Chenevix Trench mentioned it in his book on philology On the Study of Words. For Trench, however, the mere existence of the word Schadenfreude was unholy and fearful, a “mournful record of the strange wickednesses which the genius of man, so fertile in evil, has invented.” Ever since, several have spoken it and have eagerly adopted the word, associating it with a range of pleasures, from hilarity to self-righteous vindication, and from triumph to relief.

There are five common themes to be found in the idea of Schadenfreude. The first being that Schadenfreude is usually thought of as an opportunistic pleasure, felt when we stumble across another’s misfortune which we have not caused ourselves. The Hollywood villain gloating when Bond is caught by his dastardly plot is not experiencing Schadenfreude, but sadistic pleasure. By contrast, the sidekick who sniggers as a Hollywood villain is accidentally foiled by his own dastardly plot when he trips and presses the self-destruct button is enjoying Schadenfreude. The second is as a furtive emotion, outbursts of merriment at another’s catastrophes are generally a sign of great villain-ness. Shylock can barely contain himself on learning that his rival Antonio has lost a cargo ship at sea: “I thank God, I thank God. Is’t true, is’t true?” We might be worried not just about looking malicious, but that our Schadenfreude exposes our other flaws too—our pettiness, our envy, our feelings of inadequacy. However, the third feature is that we often feel entitled to it when the other person’s suffering can be construed as a comeuppance—a deserved punishment for being smug or hypocritical or for breaking the law. While it is unlikely that we’d enjoy our moral superiority to their face, gloating is generally permissible at a safe distance. Fourth, we may see it as a form of respite—the failures of others appease our own envy and inadequacy and give us a much-needed feeling of superiority. And just as satire is only funny when it punches up, we are most comfortable sniggering at the failures of those more wealthy, attractive and talented than us. Fifth, often thought of as glee at minor discomforts and gaffes rather than at dire tragedies and deaths, we are willing to see celebrities, or people from the remote past, endure horrors that would dismay us if they were happening now or to our friends.

In recent decades, Schadenfreude has been talked about more often than ever. Now I don’t know what it says about our generation, i.e. if we’re more aware than ever or if Schadenfreude is a ‘problem’. A great multitude of researches exist to explain to us how it works, what ages experience it more, is it okay to experience it in the first place, and if not, how not to feel it? As somewhat of a researcher, I can conclude that the latter questions are yet to receive a clear answer. While everybody experiences it every now and then, the literature shows that people with the traits of Machiavellianism, narcissism, or psychopathy, together known as the “dark triad”, feel Schadenfreude more often. Some researchers propose that feeling Schadenfreude requires us to dehumanise the person whose failure we are laughing at. They further suggest dehumanisation might be the fundamental aspect of this emotion, though further research is needed before that can be proven. They sure sound dark, especially because Schadenfreude is such a universal emotion (this had me sweating, I can’t lie). But they justify it by suggesting that dehumanisation occurs more often than most would like to think. The researchers explain that people with low self-esteem are more likely to feel Schadenfreude when they see other people fail. This is because the success of others can be a threat to their sense of self and seeing the mighty fall can be a comfort.

In today’s age, Schadenfreude is all around us, it’s in the way we do politics, how we treat celebrities, and in online fail videos. We felt it when NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because half the team was using imperial measurements, and the other half, metric. We felt it when Trump walked the ramp to his private flight with toilet paper stuck to his right shoe. We feel it when the self-righteous satisfaction of hypocrites is thoroughly exposed, when a celebrity is caught cheating on his/her significant other. You hear it when Bob Dylan sings ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, or when Jessie J flaunts her success in ‘Who’s Laughing Now’.

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called Schadenfreude “an infallible sign of a thoroughly bad heart and profound moral worthlessness,” the very worst trait in human nature. There are often comparisons to how the emotion is on the flip side of empathy. Debates muster up enough evidence for the same but not enough for the debate to be over. Twenty-first-century humanists who regard empathy as a “natural” response under threat in a frenetic, atomistic modern world find Schadenfreude awkward too. It has variously been called the “absence of empathy,” the “opposite of empathy” and “empathy’s shadow,” casting the two as fundamentally incompatible. Some suggest that only a few of us enjoy other people’s pain for its own sake, but more often because we have judged it deserved or useful in some way, evidence not strictly of malice but of our desire to preserve a moral balance. Schadenfreude has been told to be beneficial by some, a quick win which alleviates inferiority or envy; a way of bonding over the failure of a boss or smug senior colleague. And above all, it is a testament to our capacity for emotional flexibility, as opposed to moral rigidity, and our ability to hold apparently contradictory thoughts and feelings in the mind simultaneously. If asked, I’d say Schadenfreude and sympathy are not either/or responses as is sometimes suggested, but can be felt all at once, but, that is for all of us to seek for ourselves.

Schadenfreude has become a part of how we are engaging with everyone online – it creates camaraderie and political momentum. The big question for moral philosophers, now, is whether by enjoying Schadenfreude you are endangering empathy, trust, and a good society. Both ancient and early modern descriptions of comic enjoyment acknowledge proximity to cruelty, but they usually stop short of admitting kinship. The same goes for Schadenfreude, it may well be rested in the bed of cruelty but what connections may we retain? We may well be living in an Age of Schadenfreude, and fear that this emotion is leading us astray. But as with all emotions, condemning it only gets you so far. What we really need is to think afresh about the work this much-maligned emotion does for us, and what it tells us about our relationships with ourselves and each other. The brain will always choose pleasure over fear, always. Understanding why you feel what you feel creates an advantage and opportunity to respond with more thought than impulsivity. As a very smart lady once said, “Don’t reach for the halo too soon. You have plenty of time to enjoy yourself, even a little maliciously sometimes, before you settle down to being a saint.”


Harshita Jain

Second year Psychology student from Delhi University, with a keen interest in reading anything from Archer to Rumi. Speaks in analogies, more often than not. Writes poetry and paints, when not testing people's attributes. Believes in Occam's Razor.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.