I first wrote a blog post about schadenfreude on 31 May 2007 (see “Die reinste freude ist die schadenfreude”). As I stated then, a good translation of the German word is “the malicious glee experienced as a result of someone else’s misfortune”. I made the point that it was, at that time, by far the most popular word listed on Wordie (a fabulous website devoted to words and language which, sadly, no longer exists), and that it forms the basis of much of what we think of as humour. I also expressed the opinion that schadenfreude is one of the main reasons that people still buy our doom laden newspapers.
In the intervening period, schadenfreude has continued to form a ubiquitous part of human behaviour. There are equivalents for the word in practically every language. The French use the term joie maligne, the Danish talk about skadefryd, and the Dutch speak of leedvermaak. There is a corresponding expression in Hebrew, Mandarin, Arabic, Serbo-Croat, Swedish, Finnish, Czech and Russian. Even the ancient Romans spoke of malevolentia, and before them the ancient Greeks used the word epichairekakia.
In a typical bit of British hypocrisy, there is not really an equivalent to schadenfreude in English. An attempt was made to introduce the term epicaricacy, derived from the Greek, many years ago, but it never really caught on. This led a journalist in the Spectator in 1926 to claim that the lack of an English word for schadenfreude implied that we don’t indulge in the practice in the UK. This is, patently, not the case! As Martin Amis said “The English feel schadenfreude even about themselves.”
Schadenfreude in Literature & Art
Literary references to schadenfreude can be found in places as diverse as the Bible and Bob Dylan’s song “Like A Rolling Stone”. Proverbs 24:17-18 states “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.” In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is clearly absolutely delighted to learn that his rival Antonio has lost a cargo ship at sea: “I thank God, I thank God. Is’t true, is’t true?”; “good news, good news!”.
A brilliant quotation on the subject comes from Iris Murdoch:
“We are all the judges and the judged, victims of the casual malice and fantasy of others, and ready sources of fantasy and malice in our turn. And if we are sometimes accused of sins of which we are innocent, are there not also other sins of which we are guilty and of which the world knows nothing?” In “Nuns and Soldiers”.
“Rumors and “Schadenfreude” are well-liked, and people adore gossips. They find tittle-tattle irresistible because chitchat is so appealing and mouth-watering. It uplifts and makes people feel better. Gossips have a swift ripple effect, and once the ball is rolling, it kick-starts a flood of moral destruction. It spreads like an unstoppable virus, and “Schadenfreude” can then be thoroughly enjoyed.”
Features of Schadenfreude
Those who have made a study of schadenfreude have identified five features of the behaviour. Firstly, it tends to occur opportunistically, when we unexpectedly encounter another’s misfortune for which we are not responsible. Secondly, schadenfreude tends to be something we indulge in furtively, to avoid looking malicious or petty. The third feature is that those feeling schadenfreude often regard themselves as entitled to it. The focus of the emotion is seen as deserving the bad experience happening to them. Fourthly, we tend to see schadenfreude as a form of respite: the failures of others tend to encourage a feeling of superiority in us. Finally, the glee of schadenfreude tends to be restricted to a response to minor unpleasant events happening to others, rather than more severe life events, or even death.
Scientific Studies of Schadenfreude
Psychology and neuroscience have allowed us to investigate the tendency further. An example of this was a study carried out in Germany in 2015. Thirty-two football fans agreed to have electromyography pads put on their faces to assess their smiles and frowns as they watched television clips of successful and unsuccessful football penalties by the German team, and by their great rivals, the Dutch. The researchers found that when the Dutch missed a goal, the German fans’ smiles appeared more quickly, and were broader than when the German team scored a goal themselves! The unavoidable conclusion seemed to be that we smile more with the failures of our enemies than we do at our own success.
An equivalent 2011 study using functional MRI (fMRI) brain scanning looked at schadenfreude in fans of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. It found that fans showed increased activity in brain areas associated with pleasure when the rival team had a negative outcome. Another fMRI scanning study in 2006 suggested that men, but not women, got more activation of their “pleasure centres” when subjects whom they were told were “bad” people were given a painful stimulus. Interestingly, brain scanning studies tend to show that schadenfreude is correlated with envy in many subjects.
Schadenfreude and the Tory Party
I have detested the Conservative Party for all of my adult life. It is a very difficult choice, but the Tory politician that I most despise is our esteemed Prime Minister Boris Johnson. I definitely experienced schadenfreude when Johnson developed COVID at the end of March this year. I started to feel slightly guilty about the emotion when he was admitted to intensive care and there seemed to be a definite chance that he might die, but it was a great pleasure while it lasted. I also experienced more sustained schadenfreude when Dominic Cummings became the subject of almost universal criticism over his “interpretation” of the lockdown rules. There was absolute glee as he was hounded by the press, and harangued by members of the public. As a consequence of the incompetence and corruption of the current administration, there have been many recent instances where people with political views like mine might have been tempted to experience schadenfreude over various Tory failures in the handling of the COVID pandemic (See: “Tory COVID Lies and Incompetence”), or the Brexit negotiations. It is, however, hard to get much pleasure out of these when you know (a) that their consequences will adversely affect, or even kill, thousands of people; and (b) that the cock-ups will, apparently, have no long term detrimental effects on the life or career of the persons truly responsible. Sadly, really bad things seldom seem to happen to bad people!