Gossip. Is There a Biological Reason Behind It?


With every celebrity meltdown, nasty break-up or cringe-worthy interview, it is not uncommon to watch the lives of many well-known celebrities drop from A-list to no list. Yet, is it our empathy and compassion that keep us tuned in, or is it the idea that we want to see ‘successful’ people fail? How does this translate to us ‘regular’ folk? Do we crave seeing ‘successful’ people in our own lives plummet?

Schadenfreude is translated from the German language and literally means, “harm-joy.” This word represents the idea that pleasure can be derived from the misfortune of others.

Does this explain why we care to know all the scandalous details behind the collapse of the marriage between the most successful couple in town, or why the prettiest girl in college has been crying after class all week? No, not necessarily! There is a difference between schadenfreude and general curiosity. Schadenfreude refers to pleasure, enjoyment and satisfaction felt as a result of another’s tribulations as compared to just being nosey. Let’s admit it, many of us care to know way more than our share of the details of a Hollywood, national or local scandal.

You may be thinking: Who receives pleasure from another’s hardship? Unfortunately, experiencing schadenfreude is not as infrequent as one may think. It is thought that individuals with low self-esteem are more likely to feel schadenfreude compared to those with high self-esteem; it often occurs when they are envious of another. Human beings often engage in social-comparison as a method of self-evaluation, therefore, if others around us ‘fall,’ then we may feel better about our own ability to stay standing.

… if others around us ‘fall,’ then we may feel better about our own ability to stay standing.

Researchers have discovered that certain areas of the brain are affected and light up on imaging when an individual is experiencing schadenfreude. When using advance fMRI technology to measure brain activity, they found that the ventral striatum (a part of the brain involved in experiencing pleasure and reward) increased in activity when participants saw their rival team (Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees) experience a negative outcome (ex: strike out). Conversely, when the participants’ home team experienced a similar negative outcome, there was increased activity in the anterior cingulate (a part of the brain involved in rational thinking and empathy).

What can we do to help prevent this feeling? Based on the theory and research discussed above, the majority of the work remains with ourselves. We often evaluate our own worth based on how we compare to other people who we believe are more successful. Our self-esteem is not something we can change overnight but it is something we can work on daily. Let’s focus on our strengths, accept our challenges, and put down the juicy tabloids this week.

What do think? As a culture, do we get too much entertainment from the misfortune of others?

Image via Müjgan Afra Özceylan

Blare June is a lifestyle blogger from Halifax, Nova Scotia. What makes Blare June's blog unique is that in addition to fashion she writes about mental illness, empowerment, and overall wellness. When Blare June isn't blogging, she is working as a physician specializing in psychiatry in Halifax.

  • An informative article-Thank you! Just another great reminder that comparison to others gets you nowhere good!


  • Jasmine Vanessa Cedeno April 21, 2016

    Amazing article. I learned at a very young age about the jealousy my success brings to people. Jealousy is only natural but having joy in watching someone else fail is a disease. A successful young woman can make anyone jealous. Even men become envious of a young woman’s success. It is not sexist. It is the smell of a woman’s sweet success that can drive someone crazy. Being a woman is a privilege. So, being a successful woman is like maintaining excellence while running a marathon around the world. People will see the great things she can accomplish but the woman is experiencing them. If there is a damsel in distress along the way there will be someone longing for her place. Most of the time, there is no hero and she will be responsible for picking herself up. As long as she gets back on the right track then everything will align. Failure only happens to the best of us. A person only becomes a failure after trying and a person can only thrive on failure if a person is so close to success. It is all about knowing how lovely you truly are no matter how much someone wants to see you fail.

  • Chloe April 21, 2016

    Loved this article. Thanks for sharing! I’m so passionate about this topic.

    I think we’ve been conditioned as a society to find pleasure in someone’s misery or ‘failure’. The idea that gossip comes naturally is just not something that sits right with me. I believe that we can receive these nasty and unwholesome thoughts towards others but as you said, majority of the work remains in us. We do not have to ‘rest’ on a thought because it enters our mind. It’s all about what we choose to do with the thoughts that come. What kind of person we want to be, etc. If we can start with our thoughts, it will then change our words which will then turn into action. http://www.soulandsparkle.com

  • Elise Hodge April 21, 2016

    Hey Blare. Thanks for sharing this interesting insight. As much as gossip is something that tends to be natural, it can also be a choice. We can choose to talk about people or we can choose to shut up & redirect the conversation in another direction. I run a blog, http://www.sheislight.com, and one of the main aims is to create and foster a community of women who know their worth & who cheer each other on, not tear each other down. If we can speak life into someone else’s, then we can create a whole lot of change. X