science of us

Schadenfreude Turns You Into a Temporary Psychopath

Photo: Robert Daly/Getty Images

Schadenfreude, German for “harm-joy,” is an incredibly seductive feeling, at least for me — I find it pops up most in the context of professional rivalry, especially with people who I do not know and who are way more successful than me. I don’t feel great about this now, but when it’s happening, there is nothing sweeter, particularly when the harm suffered by the enemy in question isn’t physical or fatal but merely, say, public embarrassment. Typing this all out I feel quite evil, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that a group of psychologists at Emory University have argued that a key element of schadenfreude is a temporary dehumanization of the subject — much like what psychopaths do toward everyone else, all the time.

Admittedly, people high in “dark triad” traits —  narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism — tend to experience schadenfreude more often than the rest of us, but the paper’s authors say we’re all susceptible to it. In trying to understand what motivates schadenfreude, the researchers suggest that, in certain situations, even those of us ranking low in dark triad traits might dehumanize the victim, thereby “temporarily losing the motivation to detect the victim’s mind, much like a psychopath.” When we’re able to empathize with the victim, or imagine their thoughts and feelings, we’re less likely to experience schadenfreude. In the absence of that empathy, and in taking joy (however brief) in someone else’s pain, we may be as close to psychopathic as most of us will ever get.

Interestingly, the paper’s authors also hypothesize that there are actually three kinds of schadenfreude, some of which sound less psychopathic than the others, if you ask me. “Aggression schadenfreude,” for instance, is mostly found in athletes (or those athletes’ fans) delighting in a rival team’s loss, and that only seems natural. What would be weirder is feeling sorry any time any football team lost. “Rivalry schadenfreude,” while similar, refers more to personal competition, or “the desire to do better than your peers.” Again, seems normal and totally healthy to me.

The third form of schadenfreude identified by researchers is “justice-based,” which refers to taking delight in the downfall of someone who acquired their power or wealth by means you perceive as unfair. I guess in this category it’s a question of whether your perception of what’s fair is, itself, fair. (As for me: yes, always.) Schadenfreude may be a psychopathic tendency, but given the breadth of the researchers’ examples, it also seems an inherently human one.

Schadenfreude Turns You Into a Temporary Psychopath