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