Schadenfreude is a term to describe the feeling of pleasure or joy people get from watching someone struggle or fail. It may seem sadistic and by definition it might not be too far off. However, it is more common than people realize. Think about the way you felt when someone you did not like at work got reprimanded. Maybe a small part of you enjoyed it? It is not necessarily something people are raising their hands to admit but it is a normal response. It is a feeling many people experience and does not mean you are devoid of empathy.
Researchers have found there to be three different categories that schadenfreude comes from: aggression, rivalry, and justice.
These feelings are usually centered around groups. It is associated with the idea of who is “in” and who is “out.” For example, if you are a sports fan and your particular team misses the playoffs, you may find pleasure in watching other teams get knocked out of the playoffs. Watching the misfortune of another team you dislike can bring some satisfaction to a disappointing season. This type of feeling is tied closely to group identity and draws the line between thoughts of “us” versus “them.”
These feelings can come from a place of envy or jealousy. It may seem similar to aggression, but these feelings can be a little more personal and can be more focused on achievement. For example, imagine there is an opportunity at work for a promotion. Unfortunately, you find yourself passed over for someone else who you feel is less deserving. Then, in a meeting, your promoted co-worker comes unprepared and gets reprimanded in front of the group. You may derive a little pleasure from watching that happen. Those feelings would likely come from a place of jealousy after they get the promotion. It can also come from a place of competition as you work to show your superiors that in your mind they “made the wrong choice.”
These feelings are focused around the concept of justice. For example, think about the way many people responded to the execution of the serial killer Ted Bundy. People sat outside the prison the day of his execution with signs and cheered when they heard the execution had been completed. On a smaller scale, a bully gets expelled from school and hurting someone else. You want to see justice occur. You want to witness bad people and people who do bad things suffer the consequences of their actions. When justice is served, there can be a sense of relief and satisfaction that is associated with it.
These examples can illustrate the normalcy of schadenfreude. It can be more common than people realize. It can be a normal response when competition, justice, and jealously are thrown into the mix. It is important to understand the idea of schadenfreude and the frequency in which you experience these emotions. While schadenfreude is normal, the frequency and intensity of those feelings can be considered abnormal. Having awareness is important to understanding where your feelings and experiences are coming from.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.