Schadenfreude refers to the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. That is, something bad happens to someone else, and that makes you happy. We all experience schadenfreude from time to time, at least in its mild form. For example, imagine you’re on the interstate, and someone comes up behind you, tailgates you aggressively for a while, and then blows by you at 100 mph. Then a few minutes later, you see him pulled over receiving a ticket from a state trooper… you’re likely to extract a small bit of joy from that. So we’ve all felt it, but we don’t have a word for that emotion in English—but the Germans do, so we have borrowed their term for it: schadenfreude. It’s a fairly new topic of study, relative to most other psychological topics that have been studied for almost a century; schadenfreude has only been seriously studied for the last 20 years or so.
Individual differences study
I recently conducted a study in which I investigated the relationship between schadenfreude and a variety of individual differences (personality traits). That is, are there certain kinds of people, based on their personality traits, who are more likely to experience schadenfreude than others? I had two goals in this study. First, the majority of past research has examined situational factors that predict whether someone will experience schadenfreude. For example, we are more likely to feel schadenfreude if we don’t like the target person, the person deserved his/her misfortune, or if we are envious of the person (mixed research findings on envy, by the way). I was more interested in personality traits that predict schadenfreude, not situational factors.
In terms of individual differences related to schadenfreude, some recent research has found a connection between schadenfreude and “the Dark Triad,” an ominously named collection of traits that include Machiavellianism (manipulating others for your own gain), narcissism (self-centeredness), and psychopathy (emotional coldness). In my study, I wanted to replicate this finding and include other personality traits as well. Because situational envy has sometimes predicted schadenfreude, I included a measure of dispositional (trait) envy. I also included a measure of something called “belief in a just world,” which is the belief that people get what they deserve—good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. Because of the Dark Triad relationship, I also included some “opposite” measures to tap into emotional warmth toward others: empathy and agreeableness. Lastly, I included a measure of “the Big Five” personality traits. The Five Factor model of personality is widely accepted as a good, general measure of who you are as a person. The five factors are neuroticism (anxiety), extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness (emotional warmth toward others), and conscientiousness.
So I brought in a bunch of people and gave them all of these personality measures. Then I presented them with six different written scenarios describing various people experiencing misfortunes. I wanted to see which personality traits predicted schadenfreude reactions to the scenarios.
My second major goal in this study was to include a live situation for people to react to. Practically all of the past research on schadenfreude has relied on the use of hypothetical situations (e.g., written scenarios, actors on videotape, and role playing). I have long thought that a glaring absence in the schadenfreude literature is that nobody has tested for schadenfreude reactions to a live event! It has all been hypothetical. To test this, I brought the same people who completed all those personality measures back for a second session about a month later. In groups of four, they worked on a group problem-solving task. One of the four participants, though, was actually a confederate (actor working with me) who showed up late to the session and then proceeded to engage in a variety of disruptive and unhelpful behaviors (playing on her cell phone constantly, not paying attention, etc.). On her third cell phone usage, it emitted a loud noise. At this point, the experimenter kicked the confederate out of the study without her receiving any research participation credit (this was her misfortune). I then measured the actual participants’ reactions to this event (i.e., potential schadenfreude).
Again, the second goal was to compare responses to the written scenarios with the responses to the live situation involving the confederate. Would people’s personality traits predict schadenfreude reactions in the same way, regardless of whether it was a hypothetical vs. live situation? Turns out, the answer is no. Personality predicted responses to the written scenarios in a nice, clear, interpretable pattern. Personality did not predict schadenfreude responses to the live situation at all. (See the figure below for all the relevant correlations.) In my opinion, this casts a bit of doubt on the external validity of studies that have relied solely on hypothetical measures. That is, I don’t think the hypothetical situations are capturing what it’s really like when we find ourselves experiencing schadenfreude in real life. Obviously, though, this is just one study (perhaps two) that used a live situation, so maybe there was something wrong with the situation I created (though I don’t think so), or maybe there’s a situational factor that needs to be included. In any event, more studies need to be done using live situations. (The study I just described is currently under review for publication.)
In 2015, I published the results of a study in which I investigated the role of agency in schadenfreude. All of the past research on schadenfreude has been done from the perspective of a passive observer. You see something bad happen to someone, and how does that make you feel? In this study, I was interested in seeing if the feelings of schadenfreude change if you are the agent (i.e., the cause) of the other person’s downfall. I added in the variable of Liking because I thought the outcome might change depending on whether you like the person experiencing the misfortune. We might enjoy seeing a rude jerk lose in a competition, but would we enjoy it even more if we were the one to bring about the defeat of a rude jerk? On the other hand, shouldn’t we feel sympathy if someone we like has a misfortune?
To study this, I had a research participant and a confederate (actor) compete on a round of anagrams. I held up a series of flash cards with jumbled letters on them (e.g., NICEPL) and the two players competed to see who could unscramble the letters first to make a real word (in this case, PENCIL). The task was rigged. The confederate knew the answers ahead of time and thus proceeded to win two extra research participation credits as her prize. During the course of this first round, the Liking variable was manipulated. The confederate either made rude comments (e.g., “Are these gonna get any harder?”), nice comments (e.g., “Whoa, I never would have gotten that one”), or no side comments at all.
Because she won Round 1, the confederate was given the option of gambling her credits on a second round of anagrams. To win, she would have to match her performance from the first round (i.e., win 10 of the 15 anagram trials). Here, the Agency variable was manipulated. The confederate either competed with the participant again (thus, participant as agent) or against the clock (she played alone and was given 5 seconds to come up with a correct answer or it would be considered wrong; i.e., the participant was a passive observer). In all cases, the confederate wagered all three of her research credits. The outcome was rigged again such that the confederate did not match her Round 1 performance, and so she lost all three of her credits. This was her misfortune.
It turns out, the combination of Agency and Liking matters. Participants experienced clear signs of schadenfreude when they were the cause of a rude confederate’s downfall. As you can see in the graphs below, they had a significant reduction in negative affect (emotion) and an increase in happiness following the confederate’s loss. Merely being the passive observer of the loss didn’t generate schadenfreude. This was a fun study to run. The participants were clearly annoyed by the rude confederate, and I could see them trying their hardest to take her down!
The other important contribution of this study was that it was really the first study to use a live situation. All the past research on schadenfreude had relied on hypothetical scenarios, but I wanted to get participants’ immediate reactions to a real, live event that they witnessed.
Greenier, K. D. (2015). Seeing you fall vs. taking you down: The roles of agency and liking in schadenfreude. Psychological Reports, 116(3), 941-953.
Past research – Social Facilitation
In 2001, I published a study I conducted on social facilitation, which refers to the effect that an audience has on someone performing a task. Specifically, in the presence of audience, people tend to perform easy tasks faster/better and difficult tasks slower/worse than if they were alone. An ongoing debate surrounds WHY the audience has this effect. One camp of research subscribes to an “evaluation apprehension” explanation, which asserts that the performer feels anxiety about being judged by the audience and doesn’t want to perform poorly in front of them, thus the change in performance. A second camp of researchers subscribes to a “mere presence” explanation, which asserts that it is simply the physical presence of another person that produces the performance effects, and concerns about being evaluated are essentially “unnecessary overkill.” The problem in answering the question regarding which explanation is accurate centers around the difficulty in creating mere presence in a laboratory setting. How do you create an audience that is physical present but which is completely incapable of evaluating the performer? In my study, I created mere presence by putting the audience on the other side of a two-way mirror (like in a police lineup) such that the performer could see the audience (thus they are present), but the audience couldn’t see the performer (thus they couldn’t evaluate performance). I found that mere presence was sufficient to produce social facilitation effects, especially for the easy task.
Greenier, K. D., Devereaux, R. S., Hawkins, K. C., Hancock, S. D., & Johnston, M. (2001). Social facilitation: The quest for true mere presence. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 16(1), 19-34.
Past research – Stability of Self-esteem
In the 1990s, I conducted a series of studies with Dr. Michael Kernis on the stability of self-esteem. You’re probably familiar with self-esteem levels, which can be high or low (or in between). However, self-esteem stability is another individual difference. Some people have stable self-esteem, which means that their feelings of self-worth don’t change much on a day-to-day basis. Other people have unstable self-esteem, which means that some days they have higher feelings of self-worth than other days. The more variability in daily feelings of self-worth, the more unstable the person’s self-esteem.
I won’t describe each study in detail, but an overview of the self-esteem stability research is that if you have high self-esteem, it’s better to be stable than unstable. You’re less depressed, less prone to anger and hostility, etc. The research for low self-esteem people is mixed. Sometimes stable low self-esteem people fare better, sometimes unstable low self-esteem people fare better; it just depends what life outcome you’re looking at.
Greenier, K. D., Kernis, M. H., Whisenhunt, C. R., Waschull, S. B., Berry, A. J., Herlocker, C. E., & Abend, T. A. (1999). Individual differences in reactivity to daily events: Examining the roles of stability and level of self-esteem. Journal of Personality, 67(1), 185-208.
Kernis, M. H., Whisenhunt, C. R., Waschull, S. B., Greenier, K. D., Berry, A. J., Herlocker, C. E., & Anderson, C. A. (1998). Multiple facets of self-esteem and their relations to depressive symptoms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(6), 657-668.
Kernis, M. H., Greenier, K. D., Herlocker, C. E., Whisenhunt, C. R., & Abend, T. A. (1997). Self-perceptions of reactions to doing well or poorly: The roles of stability and level of self-esteem. Personality and Individual Differences, 22, 845-854.
Kernis M., Whisenhunt C., Waschull S., Greenier K., Berry A., Herlocker C., Anderson C. (1996). Multiple facets of self-esteem as diatheses and vulnerability factors for depressive symptoms. International Journal of Psychology, 31(3-4), 2808.
Greenier, K. D., Kernis, M. H., & Waschull, S. B. (1995). Not all high (or low) self-esteem people are the same: Theory and research on stability of self-esteem. In M. H. Kernis (Ed.), Efficacy, Agency, and Self-esteem. New York: Plenum Press.