Have you ever taken pleasure at someone’s misfortune? Maybe you have smirked when a manager who had it out for you got fired. Or, you felt oddly pleased when a competitor who stole your business model went out of business. Or, laughed heartily when the person your ex left you for, left them broke. As unchristian as this may sound, chances are, you have experienced many pleasurable moments at others’ misfortune.
Yesterday, I was looking at one of my favourite TV shows – ‘Chopped’ and couldn’t help noticing how the contestants overtly showed satisfaction as the judges pointed out their competitors’ flaws.
Such reaction is as common in real life as it is on reality TV. This behaviour is a phenomenon called ‘Schadenfreude’. A 2014 study in PLoS One found that children as young as two years old showed signs of ‘schadenfreude’ in response to unfair situations involving their peers.
“Feeling schadenfreude is a very human experience,” says Mina Cikara, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University who has done extensive research on schadenfreude and empathy.
“Even when there is not a tangible benefit to the observer or some greater social justice served, [other people’s] misfortunes are pleasurable in part because they make people feel better about themselves. It seems to be borne mostly out of social-comparison processes: If I compare myself with others and find that I’m not as good as [they are], I’m much more likely to be pleased when they get taken down a notch.”
But what is the appropriate way to react to others misfortune and when is it okay to display an unnatural response to an ordinarily human behaviour? Carol Clark-Emory in an article “Why does other people’s misfortune give us pleasure?” concluded by saying “Concerns of self-evaluation, social identity, and justice are the three motivators that drive people toward schadenfreude. What pulls people away from schadenfreude is the ability to feel empathy for others and to perceive them as fully human and to show empathy for them.”
As human beings we are certainly capable of selfish, even cruel, behaviour. However, “If success in life and work is about building effective relationships, then success in relationships is about demonstrating empathy.”
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