Have you ever laughed at someone fall flat on their face, smirked at someone frantically running and missing the bus, or cackled when you’ve seen someone trip down a flight of stairs? Welcome to schadenfreude; taking pleasure in observing the misfortune of others. Schadenfreude, a loanword taken from German, was primarily used to distinguish people who experience a sadistic enjoyment in the grave suffering/despair of others, but nowadays in popular culture, the definition has been softened to include more trivial references (like the ones mentioned above).
Even those of us with upstanding moral values have succumbed to schadenfreude at some point. Gloating is arguably an innate human reaction to observing the misfortune of others. Although this is not necessarily the case at every occasion (I’m sure most of us wouldn’t laugh at someone being stabbed, raped or murdered) the smugness which we experience when watching someone get knocked down a peg or two is somewhat habitual, in some cases even subconscious. But why? The most discernible reason would be because it’s always funnier when you’re the spectator and not the afflicted. Being the bystander enables you to revel in a lack of empathy for the poor infelicitous soul, whose embarrassment makes you feel glad that it’s not you; and we don’t eschew this derisive feeling, we embrace it. The human inclination to laugh readily at somebody else’s downfall or faux pas can be filed under social comparison theory (Festinger 1954), in simple terms, a tendency to evaluate the self against the other. In the instance of schadenfreude, the afflicted person’s situation is the complete antithesis of our own which in turn makes us feel in a more powerful position. This theory can be loosely applied to Darwinism (our pleasure comes from the recognition that the other person is weaker than us, hence ‘less fit’ to survive).
Some other psychologists argue that schadenfreude is directly correlated with envy. For example, although you may derive pleasure from watching the average person ungracefully slip up flat on their face, you would derive more pleasure from seeing a model/celebrity buckle, because whether you like to admit it or not, you are subconsciously envious of that person’s higher status.
It’s precisely this rush of glee and lack of compassion that drives people’s infatuation with watching politicians and celebrities fall from grace, something which tabloid newspapers have capitalized on (think Tiger Woods, Rupert Murdoch, Chris Christie).
If you are still sceptical about the theory of schadenfreude, here are a couple of everyday examples. Girls, think of a time when you’ve been out to a nightclub, spotted a beautiful (but pretentious) girl dolled up to the nines in six inch heels and cackled when she’s dropped smack on the ground in the middle of the dance floor. Guys, think of an instance when you’ve been to a nightclub and noticed the prick at the bar in a XXS vest flexing his muscles and felt smug satisfaction when later, you see him be beaten to a pulp by an average guy looking for a fight.
On a slightly different note, I for one am not averse to squealing with delight when I come across slapstick videos on You Tube. Fat people buckling, stunts gone wrong, some guy getting his balls pummelled, you name it, I’ve watched it. Occasionally I even search You Tube with the sole purpose of finding such videos. Here are some of my personal favourites: