Ook muizen kennen leedvermaak, met dezelfde reden als mensen: vooral bij een soortgenoot die hoger in status is.

Ook muizen kennen leedvermaak, met dezelfde reden als mensen: vooral bij een soortgenoot die hoger in status is. Bij lagere status: empathie.

Originally shared by Rolf Degen

The joy in others’ misfortune

What is funny about someone slipping on a banana peel?

We humans are blessed with an insatiable appetite for the misfortune of other people: Millions of spectators love television series such as “Candid Camera”,  and sports fans in neighboring states get enthusiastic about our team losing at a football championship. Schadenfreude may well have a malignant streak, but it also serves our mental hygiene by delivering poetic justice to a world that seems to be plagued with unrighteousness.

You don’t have to look any further than the Bible to find Solomon saying “When the wicked perish, there is joyful song.”  American writer Ambrose Bierce enthusiastically agrees, defining happiness as “an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.”  His colleague Gore Vidal confirms this bleak world view: “It is not enough to succeed. The others must fail.” But at the same time, it is considered indecent to delight in the misfortune of one’s fellow people. Because Schadenfreude is regarded as a “forbidden emotion”, stresses Michael Titze, Vice President of the International Society for Humor in therapy. Schadenfreude is something you should not feel if you want to be a good human being, says the author of several books about our funny emotions. “Schadenfreude is generally understood to be one of the most reprehensible emotions that a person can ever have,” confirms American psychology professor Richard Smith of the University of Kentucky in Lexington, one of the few scientists worldwide exploring this emotion.

But despite its bad image, Schadenfreude belongs to our “basic human amenities,”  Smith points out. In fact, the feeling has been described since ancient times. Among the ancient Greeks, it was called “Epichairekakia” (joy at the misfortune of others); in ancient Rome it went by “malevolentia”, the “evil will”. Now the field of psychology embarks on the vindication of the forbidden bliss: Schadenfreude is a moral offspring of our justice instinct! It fulfills an important psycho hygienic function that reconciles us with the rigors of life and binds together people who maintain exchange relations with each other. 

Schadenfreude is by definition a pleasant, mostly cheerful emotion that arises when someone observes someone else’s mishap. The word itself is a German export hit: Since there is no Anglo-Saxon term for this emotion, the English and Americans have taken over the German expression. However, it is nonsense to believe that this phenomenon is particularly close to the German soul, warns Peter von Matt, literary scholar at the University of Zurich: “It is simply more easy to built compound words in German than in other languages.”

Seeing someone else taking a beating by life does not automatically cheer us up – such an experience can also cause consternation and compassion. It requires three mitigating circumstances to let the scornful emotion slip through our internal censorship, claims psychology Professor Aaron Ben Ze’ev from the University of Haifa in Israel in a programmatic overview:

• It has to look as if the other one deserves his misfortune. 

• The damage must only be relatively light. 

• We are not to blame for the mishap. 

To neutralize the threat of being accused of heartlessness, the person experiencing this sentiment must initially remediate the morally appropriate response – compassion. Therefore, we quickly stage a trial inside our head that ends with a clear verdict: “It serves him right” or “He had it coming.”  The positive or negative concerns for others are due to the fact that we, as primates,  are involved in a hierarchical “pecking order”, emphasizes Smith. The social position within this order determines our chances of survival. This has the consequence that we define ourselves by constantly conducting social comparisons. Are we as well off as him or her, are the other ones unjustly ahead of ourselves? 

At the slightest suspicion that someone else enjoys undeserved advantages, we are assaulted by jealousy and envy. And we feel joyful satisfaction when fate takes the privileged off the pedestal – if only for a split second. “It’s fun to see how someone who just was above us is transported to a lower position for a moment,” says American psychologist Smith. It makes us feel as if  higher powers had temporarily restored the injured cosmic balance.

According to Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages, Schadenfreude belongs to the “five offspring of envy”, in addition to resentment and defamation among others. And indeed, envy at others who are – without merit – “better off” than ourselves, nourishes the experience of Schadenfreude, as Smith has shown in an experiment. His subjects were presented the video recordings of two students who applied for a job at a medical school. One was a golden boy from a wealthy family, who boasted how easy everything had been for himself. The other came from a modest background and had to study hard to just get a pass. As expected, the subjects only felt envy for the privileged student.

Later, the participants were told that both candidates were rejected because they had stolen drugs in the laboratory. But only the stumbling of the alleged snob made the subjects cheer up. “Envy,” says Smith, “is a potent engine of schadenfreude.”

This was confirmed by the Australian psychologist Norman Feather who presented his subjects examples of celebrities who had been brought down by a scandal. The demise of the big shots produced the largest malice when their success seemed undeserved. The feeling of Schadenfreude was also more intense when the tall poppies fell from greater heights. And when they had triumphed in a field that was particularly important for the appraisers.

As long as the feeling of schadenfreude is driven solely by envy, it is only ignited by minor mishaps. This was proved by the Israeli psychologist Shlomo Hareli and his American colleague Bernard Weiner. They had asked their subjects to imagine scenarios in which they competed with one outrageous privileged student for good grades. In one version, the envied person only fluffed a single test, in the other he forfeited his whole scholarship. Result: Only the small defeat nourished malicious glee. 

In another version of the experiment, the object of envy was portrayed as an insufferable sleazeball. This time, the subjects experienced joy even at the great misfortune. When Schadenfreude is stimulated by hatred, disgust and other hostile emotions, we allow ourselves to delight in really bad things happening to others. This may explain some really evil examples of Schadenfreude: Palestinians who joyfully celebrated the attack on the World Trade Center in the streets, or the 34 percent of Israelis who expressed satisfaction over the death of Syrian President Hafez al Assad in a survey. 

But sometimes we even rejoice at the mishaps and failures of contemporaries against whom we do not harbor hostile feelings and who do not enjoy undeserved benefits. And here it becomes existential: “We all live with the knowledge that we possess a wealth of weaknesses that we can not show to others,” literary scholar von Matt sums up the paradoxical phenomenon. “At the same time, we are taken in by the feigned self-confidence and composure of our fellow people – and get enthusiastic when some higher justice knocks the seemingly superior ones off their perch.”

Even when a four year old laughs loudly over his beloved grandfather slipping on a banana peel, he does not commit infantile cruelty,” says German author Wolf Schneider. “It is the ancient pleasure that arises when the earthly scales are, for a short, precious time, turned  in our favor.” The adult man who slips on the banana peel, suddenly is on par with the nipper.Laughter, Hnnah Arendt observed in a 1944 essay on Kafka, “permits man to prove his essential freedom through a kind of serene superiority to his own failures.”

So the slipping on a banana peel is a classical case of a “reversal of status”, a switch in which the hierarchies of everyday life are repealed for an instant. The reversal of status, which has been traditionally celebrated in rituals like carnival, is also the most elementary and most powerful mechanism of any comical setup. That may be why slapstick shows and legions of television professionals bet on the success principle of Schadenfreude”. Schadenfreude is “the part of laughter which is socially the least accepted, but at the same time the most reliable and universal,” says the successful Berlin stage comedian Eckart von Hirschhausen. “If everything else fails, the audience participation skit – where a spectator is exposed to ridicule – still goes down well.”

Schadenfreude as the original motive of everything comical? Indeed, this is an ancient theory of the origins of laughter, called the “Superiority Theory”. The evidence for this hypothesis, which already appealed to Sigmund Freud, is still pending, says Düsseldorf Psychology Professor Willibald Ruch, who has a research focus on the sense of humor at the University of Zurich. The reason: In surveys, people do not disclose the real motives for their laughter, and they do not openly acknowledge their glee. Controlled laboratory experiments, however, have shown what happens to subjects who have a giggle over the embarrassment of other people. Participants who had just been amused by the experience of someone else being ridiculed showed a tendency for conformism: Their views on various topics suddenly shifted towards the majority opinion, and they increasingly took over the social norms of their group. That suggests that experiencing Schadenfreude reconciles humans with living in a community and its inevitable injustices. 

The famous sex researcher Alfred C. Kinsey is believed to have said:  “A sin that is committed by everybody is not a sin.” This could well be applied to Schadenfreude. Not only is it good for our mental hygiene and makes easier peoples’ life in a morally imperfect world. But it even has the potential to make us more helpful, selfless and altruistic, study results by anthropologist Daniel MT Fessler from the University of California at Los Angeles indicate. Participants who took part in different economic games behaved more cooperatively and showed a higher willingness to donate money to others after they had watched funny movie clips in which other people were made fun of.

The effects of being ridiculed in front of other people remain unexplored. The fear of becoming a victim of malicious joy and mockery can develop into a real anxiety disorder, a “Gelotophobia”. The analysis of the data from research by psychologist Ruch shows that about five percent of all people are panicked by the thought they could be made fun of in public. The Gelotophobia strikes both sexes equally, and it is more common among neurotics, with a propensity to feel shame. Sufferers avoid social events, stiffen in the presence of others and assume an awkward posture.

Interestingly enough, Schadenfreude is probably the only cause for laughter – besides of being tickled – that we humans have in common with the animal kingdom. What must those nasty young chimpanzees at the zoo in Arnhem have been feeling when they for days teased an elderly, disabled conspecific by imitating its twisted movements? Certainly it must have been Schadenfreude what went through the head of lowland gorilla “King”, whom psychologist Bennett L. Schwartz from Florida International University was allowed to study in the small zoo Monkey Jungle in Miami. Whenever King witnessed someone slip, trip or fall flat on their face, the sardonic ape burst into explosive laughter.

Perhaps this also explains why apes love bananas so much: They do not only indulge in their taste; they also indulge in the idea of us humans slipping on their peels. They envy us our upright gait, which they have not yet mastered, and they sense that banana peels have a great potential for a good old reversal of status.

And elephant riders report that elephants which have been made fun of fill their trunk with water and spray it in the direction of those who ridiculed them. It seems strange that animals that do not laugh themselves are able to identify and resent laughter.

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