Schadenfreude: pleasure at the misfortune of others

07 October, 2019

That twinge of pleasure you feel at someone else’s mistake doesn’t make you a villain - it makes you human.

I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure. 

~ Mark Twain

There’s a good reason why reality television maintains its firm hold on ratings across the world. Sure, audiences like to see new talent and watch celebrities in action, but there’s something else at work as well. Viewers enjoy seeing contestants make a fool of themselves, be it bombing their auditions or making embarrassing slip-ups in front of the judges. This tendency to feel pleasure at the misfortune of others is all too human. There’s even a word for it – schadenfreude.

The origins of schadenfreude are German: “schaden” means harm, “freude” means joy. If you’re inclined to judge people for this not-very-nice feeling, take a pause. Have you ever felt happy when someone from an opposing sports team got injured?  Or chuckled when a competitor got hauled up for an infraction? Or felt delighted at the misfortune of someone famous? That’s schadenfreude – and we’ve all experienced it.

This week, my message focuses on the peculiar emotion of schadenfreude. When we experience joy at someone else’s expense, what does that say about us? At the workplace, schadenfreude can create rifts between colleagues, which is why it needs to be managed effectively.

The moral dilemma

Some experts suggest that finding a bit of joy in other people’s embarrassments is mostly harmless. It’s part of how you deal with your own shortcomings, since witnessing someone else’s failure makes you feel better about yourself. However, this universal emotion has come under increasing scrutiny over the past few decades due to two main reasons:

  1. the increasingly open display of schadenfreude, driven by reality television and social media
  2. our growing commitment to empathy in all domains – from relationships, to management

Thanks to the Internet, we’ve become much less shy about laughing at one another. In previous eras, schadenfreude was a mostly-hidden emotion; today, it’s out in the open. On YouTube, fail videos do brisk business, allowing us to enjoy other people’s failures without guilt. Looking at it in a simplistic way, schadenfreude seems to be the opposite of empathy. If you take pleasure in someone’s misfortune, you obviously can’t feel compassion or a desire to help them, right?

Well, actually, you can.

In an interview with Science Friday, Tiffany Watt Smith, author of Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune, points out that schadenfreude and empathy aren’t mutually incompatible. Rather, they operate together in a complex dynamic.

If your friend misses out on a promotion, you may feel genuinely sympathetic and have a desire to support her – while at the same time experiencing a twinge of joy that she didn’t outshine you.

Here, your schadenfreude is a means of addressing your own insecurities.

A varied yet universal emotional response

Schadenfreude seems hardwired into us, with even toddlers experiencing it strongly. In the article, Why does it feel good to see someone fail?,Shensheng Wang highlights two compelling examples:

At four years old, children found someone else’s misfortune – like tripping and falling into a muddy puddle – funnier if that person had previously done something to hurt other children, such as breaking their toys.

By the age of seven, children feel more pleased after winning a game if a rival lost than when both won the game.

We tend to feel especially happy at the humiliations of politicians and rival factions. Just think of the glee with which the general public greets political scandals or humiliating sports defeats. During the 2018 football World Cup, the German team was eliminated by South Korea in a surprise upset. The world responded with delight instantly, as fans around the world took to social media to express their joy. In one famous example, Fox Sports Brazil tweeted “HA” 37 times in a row. Indeed, schadenfreude is a powerful emotion: one study found that football fans actually showed greater joy when their opposing team missed a penalty than when their own team scored a goal!

Based on new research, we can now draw a distinction between two types of schadenfreude:

  • Righteous – when your feeling of pleasure is unadulterated because the victim is perceived to deserve their downfall (maybe due to past injustices)
  • Ambivalent – when your feeling of pleasure is mixed with guilt and shame because the victim’s misfortune is perceived as undeserved

Whether or not you’re comfortable with your personal schadenfreude, you can rest assured that the feeling is universal, occurring across cultures and centuries. As noted in The secret joys of schadenfreude by Smith:

The Japanese have a saying: “The misfortune of others tastes like honey.” The French speak of joie maligne, a diabolical delight in other people’s suffering. In Danish it is skadefryd; in Hebrew, simcha la-ed; in Mandarin, xìng-zāi-lè-huò; in Russian, zloradstvo; and for the Melanesians who live on the remote Nissan Atoll in Papua New Guinea, it is banbanam. Two millennia ago, the Romans spoke of malevolentia. Earlier still, the Greeks described epichairekakia (literally epi, over, chairo, rejoice, kakia, disgrace).

Schadenfreude at work – the dark side

While we strive to create an environment of support and camaraderie at the workplace, the fact is that we can’t fully escape human emotions like envy and dislike. In the highly competitive corporate life, where your fall may be perceived to facilitate another’s rise, schadenfreude can escalate and turn toxic. It is generally directed at rivals, “outsiders” and high performers who are deemed to have an unfair advantage.

In Schadenfreude: Your pain is my gain, the authors highlight a recent study focused on how schadenfreude functions at the workplace. If the victim is judged to be responsible for their own downfall, co-workers may show their glee and satisfaction openly – which can be dangerously contagious.

The problem with schadenfreude, particularly that which is considered to be justified, is that it can set off more cycles of mistreatment. So observers may also start treating the target of their schadenfreude unfairly, for example, by refusing to help them or actively excluding them. In this way, pleasure in another person’s pain can create vicious circles of mistreatment.

If this malicious behaviour spreads, mistreatment could become the norm. So, how then can we tackle schadenfreude at the workplace?

1. Create a shared vision

It’s very important to get people to rally behind a common goal or vision. That underscores the importance of why and how they are in it together and builds mutual appreciation. You can use also this to build excitement, shared ownership and team identity, all of which can counter schadenfreude.

2. Have fair policies

A lot of discontent goes back to feelings that question fairness. So, reflect on your policies and make them as transparent and fair as you can. Avoid “exceptions” and instead, work them into your policies. Also, having fair policies isn’t enough. You also need to communicate them and ensure that they are understood and shared in the intended spirit.

3. Build a win-win perspective

This is an important suggestion that the researchers in the article mentioned above, suggest. Avoid pitting team members against one another in zero-sum scenarios, where for one person to win, another must lose. Instead, build a win-win perspective within the group, bolstered by common goals and team incentives.

4. Avoid putting down people in public

If you need to call out an issue with someone’s work, do so one on one. Avoid putting down people in larger groups and offering up situations that could foster schadenfreude.

5. Recognise collaboration

Instead of just focusing on individual stars, also highlight instances of collaboration, which are making overall performance possible. Revise your recognition approaches if needed to incorporate this element.

6. Leverage schadenfreude

You can also flip it on its head and leverage schadenfreude to show you aren’t a threat. For example, if you tell your team a mildly embarrassing story about yourself, their laughter at your expense helps to break down barriers. Being amused at awkward mistakes made by leaders is a healthy way of keeping the power dynamic in check – and should be viewed in this spirit. The conspiratorial act of laughing at bosses is also a way for teams to bond!

How do you think we can best counter vendetta-driven schadenfreude from building up at our workplace?


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