Schadenfreude sheds light on the darker side of humanity

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Oct. 25, 2018

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“We all experience schadenfreude but we don’t like to think about it too much because it shows how ambivalent we can be to our fellow humans,” says Emory psychologist Philippe Rochat.

Schadenfreude, the sense of pleasure people derive from the misfortune of others, is a familiar feeling to many — perhaps especially during these times of pervasive social media.

This common, yet poorly understood, emotion may provide a valuable window into the darker side of humanity, finds a review article by psychologists at Emory University. New Ideas in Psychology published the review, which drew upon evidence from three decades of social, developmental, personality and clinical research to devise a novel framework to systematically explain schadenfreude.

The authors propose that schadenfreude comprises three separable but interrelated subforms — aggression, rivalry and justice — which have distinct developmental origins and personality correlates.

They also singled out a commonality underlying these subforms.

“Dehumanization appears to be at the core of schadenfreude,” says Shensheng Wang, a PhD candidate in psychology at Emory and first author of the paper. “The scenarios that elicit schadenfreude, such as intergroup conflicts, tend to also promote dehumanization.”

Co-authors of the study are Emory psychology professors Philippe Rochat, who studies infant and child development, and Scott Lilienfeld, whose research focuses on personality and personality disorders.

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