The Neuropsychology of Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude, the experience of pleasure at the misfortune of others, is a very common emotion. It may seem mean-spirited, vindictive even, but Schadenfreude is the result of several deeply-ingrained processes that the human brain spent millions of years evolving.

Schadenfreude is a German term that translates to “damage” (schaden) “joy” (freude). Research in neural science shows the experience of schadenfreude activates the brain’s reward centers. Psychologically, there are three primary theories regarding schadenfreude: concerns of self-evaluation and self-esteem (feeling better about oneself by lowering another), social identity (identifying with a group with exclusion of others), and justice (feeling that somebody ‘got what was coming to them’ due to their own behaviors).

Dopamine from our limbic system from laughing at another who is struggling can have an addictive quality to it. Think of the perpetual gossips and snipes. Over time, when people make mean words and mockery a habit, the logical and reasoning part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, can shut down, and we are then acting on our most primitive emotions. The dopamine delivery from this can insidiously erode an individual’s ability to empathize.

Empathy is a key aspect of emotional intelligence, or EQ, that is strongly associated with mental well-being, healthy relationships, and social reciprocity. What pulls people away from schadenfreude is the ability to feel empathy for others and to perceive them as fully human, vulnerable, and flawed.

While some degree of schadenfreude is part of the normal continuum of human experience, frequent or chronic schadenfreude can indicate a mental disorder. People with personality diagnoses such as antisocial personality may delight in the pain of others and have little regard for others’ well-being. Chronic anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem might also cause someone to seek validation in others’ failures. People with low self-esteem sometimes experience schadenfreude even when they care about someone. A sibling who feels parents don’t notice their talents, for example, might delight in a sibling’s failures, particularly if the other sibling is often praised by the parents. Somebody who feels unsuccessful may feel glee when a seemingly more successful friend has a break-up or a job setback.

See also: When Friends Are Successful

Recent research:
Schadenfreude can produce a sense of control and dominance. Higher use of social media is associated with more use of schadenfreude as a coping strategy. During times of uncertainty, when people may feel less in control-of health, news, and outcomes, schadenfreude increases.
However, while there IS a temporary boost in mood from schadenfreude, the effects are very short-lived. In contrast, the practice of compassion and self compassion have long-term positive effects on well-being, medical and mental. Breaking malice and ‘I told you so’ habits is literally good for your health.

See also: The Science of Compassion

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