Schadenfreude is a German term that describes the joy people sometimes get from someone else’s misfortune. It’s a complicated emotion and one that psychologists still struggle to identify and understand.
Schadenfreude may arise after seeing a rival fail or watching coverage about an unlikable celebrity whose career takes a nosedive. You might even feel schadenfreude when someone gets what they justly deserve, like a criminal who is sentenced to prison.
Because this particular emotion can be felt in so many different situations, pinning down an exact definition or framework for schadenfreude has proven more than a challenge for scientists.
Wang and his colleagues conducted a study examining schadenfreude in the hopes of creating a universal model for the emotion that incorporates its complex and multifaceted nature.
There are three schools of thought on schadenfreude according to Wang. The first views schadenfreude as a form of social comparison. The second holds that the emotion is linked to personal feelings of justice and fairness as people are more likely to feel schadenfreude if they think the person deserves their unhappiness. The third describes schadenfreude as a way to establish social identity in a group because group members can bond over the misfortune of someone outside of that group.
Wang and colleagues incorporated all these definitions into one multifaceted approach with dehumanization at the center.
“In our view, the different definitions point to multiple sides of schadenfreude, each of which might have distinct developmental origins,” Wang wrote.
In the team’s view, schadenfreude is a way to look at another person as “less than human.”
“Linking schadenfreude with dehumanization might sound dark, especially because schadenfreude is such a universal emotion,” Wang concluded. “But dehumanization occurs more often than most would like to think – and we believe it’s behind the pang of pleasure you feel when you see someone fail.”