Schadenfreude, the experience of pleasure at the misfortune of others, is a very common emotion. It may seem mean-spirited, vindictive even, but if you have ever felt guilt about the satisfaction you experienced when someone else messed up, don’t be too hard on yourself. Schadenfreude is the result of several deeply-ingrained processes that the human brain spent millions of years evolving.
First and foremost, human beings are incredibly social animals. Some scientists even label us ‘ultrasocial’. We’re constantly aware of other people, our relationships with them, and, most importantly in this context, our social status.
That last one is key here; we humans are also instinctively aware of the general hierarchy, the pecking order, and our standing within it. We want to be liked, respected, looked up to, at the subconscious level. It’s a big part of how we understand our place in the world, and underlines a lot of our behaviour and motivation.
There are a lot of ways to improve your social status. You can achieve great feats of athleticism, succeed at work, have the biggest and best house, have the latest gadget, the highest score in Fortnite, and so on. However you go about it, raising your social status feels good, because when we do it, it triggers the pleasure-creating reward pathways in our brain. The inverse is also true; studies have shown that having very low social status is very stressful, and bad for your wellbeing.
But because it’s all subjective and relative, one way for your social status to improve is for someone else to lower theirs. And so, when we see someone mess up in ways that cause them to lose face, and thus lose social status, we can feel a burst of satisfaction as our own status is raised, at no cost to us. And so, schadenfreude.
It doesn’t happen every time someone messes up, though. Usually, it has to be proportional (someone who has a nicer garden than you ending up in a car crash is seldom ‘satisfying’), and often the victim is someone who ‘deserves it’, in some way. Nice, likeable people experiencing misfortune is seldom enjoyable, even if they are higher-status.
This all stems from another deeply ingrained tendency of the human brain: the ‘Just World’ bias. Our brains have evolved to assume that the world is a fair place, even if the actual evidence for this doesn’t stack up. Our brains respond to perceived fairness and justice like they do to raised social status: they really like it.
So, when someone we deem to be higher status, who perhaps achieved their status via means we deem to be unfair, comes a cropper and experiences appropriate failure and misfortune, in ways that lower their standing relative to our own, it produces a heady cocktail of status and fairness, at zero cost to us. Looked at that way, it would be more surprising if our brains didn’t enjoy schadenfreude.