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Why do we feel schadenfreude — and who it feels it the most?
Delving into the psychology of an uncommon joy.
- Few words convey as much meaning as Schadenfreude, or the joy that arises from seeing harm come to others.
- Schadenfreude is a complex psychological phenomenon, and researchers have only begun to look into rigorously.
- Psychology can tell us why we feel schadenfreude, when we feel it, and who feels it the most.
Anybody would admit that they like it when an opposing sports team makes a critical mistake. Many of us also like it when a rival coworker gets turned down for a promotion that we were hoping to get ourselves. Some people think it's funny when others trip. Some find it extremely satisfying that the controversial alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos is more than $2 million in debt.
It's the feeling of joy in other's harm: Schadenfreude. The human experience carries with it a huge spectrum of feeling that can be quantized into a hodgepodge of flavorful words — the dismal sluggishness of the English melancholy; the guilt that prevents you from imposing on others expressed by the Thai greng-jai; and the gloating pleasure of seeing harm come to others expressed by the German Schadenfreude.
For such a nuanced sentiment, schadenfreude has a necessarily nuanced nature. It comes in three primary flavors. Aggression-based schadenfreude occurs when members of a group experience schadenfreude at the misfortunes of those outside their group. The failure of a hated sports team might be enjoyable even if they're not playing against your preferred team, for instance.
Rivalry-based schadenfreude is driven by social comparison. If your neighbor just purchased a new sportscar, and the next day a tornado picked it up and threw it into the next state, you would feel schadenfreude because your rival has returned to his prior, equal level of social standing.
Justice-based schadenfreude is fairly straightforward; it's the feeling that one experiences when somebody finally gets what's coming to them. It's that warm fuzzy feeling one gets when a murderer or con artist gets the book thrown at them.
Gender and schadenfreude
While schadenfreude experiences tend to fall into these general categories, who falls into them and how can vary quite a bit. For example, researchers conducted a study where the participants and some secret confederates of the researchers played a version of the Prisoner's Dilemma, a game that can involve betrayal as a viable strategy. Then, the researchers gave their confederates an electrical shock and measured the brainwaves of the study participant.
When a confederate who had cooperated with the participant was shocked, empathy-related areas of the brain lit up. But when that person had betrayed the participant before, the results were different. Female participants felt slightly less empathy towards the electrocuted confederate. In male participants, however, the area of their brains associated with rewards lit up like a Christmas tree. Based on this research, it appears that men feel justice-based schadenfreude more than women.
Relying on stereotypes
But you don't even have to have been wronged by somebody to experience schadenfreude. In fact, schadenfreude can be experienced when a member of a stereotyped group experiences pain. The stereotype content model (SCM) asserts that, broadly, people are stereotyped according to their perceived degrees of warmth and competence. A highly warm and competent group might be, say, the middle class; they provoke a feeling of admiration. The elderly are an example of a highly warm but incompetent group, and they provoke pity. A low warmth but high competence group would be the rich, who provoke envy. And a low warmth and low competence group might be drug users, who provoke disgust.
Using this framework, researchers showed study participants a random image of a member of the admiration, pity, envy, or disgust groups. Then, the participants were asked to imagine a randomly assigned scenario happening to that person. An example might be an image of a wealthy businessman with a line of text describing how a taxi just ran through a muddy puddle next to him as he was walking down the street, soaking his clothes.The participants also had sensors attached to their faces that measured their facial movements. Generally, participants smiled when something good happened to members of the pride, pity, or disgust groups. But whenever something bad happened to a member of the envy stereotype group, the participants smiled far more than they would when something good happened to an enviable target. People are generally loath to report that they enjoyed seeing somebody in pain — especially a stranger that they are making assumptions about, so measuring facial muscles was an excellent idea to get around this.
Self-esteem and psychopathy
As for who experiences schadenfreude the most, there a few major groups that stand out. Although schadenfreude is particularly noticeable in children, even children as young as 1 years old, it's probably not the case that they feel schadenfreude more. Rather, they simply haven't learned to hide the socially undesirable feeling. Instead, two groups of people stand out as particularly prone to schadenfreude.
Because humans are constantly comparing themselves with one another, status lies at the heart of schadenfreude. Like seen above, we enjoy it when something bad happens to high-status people; taking others down a peg can make us feel like we ourselves have gone up a peg. Correspondingly, people with low self-esteem tend to experience schadenfreude more. When one thinks very little of oneself, seeing other, ostensibly "better" people suffer can be a comfort.
While schadenfreude is a normal, if somewhat unsavory, emotion, it does have a darker side. People who score high in the Dark Triad — narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy — tend to feel schadenfreude more intensely. In addition, depending on which of these three traits are stronger, people feel schadenfreude in different ways. Narcissists, for instance, enjoy downward social comparisons more — such as when a coworker received a poor yearly review.
In part, this effect occurs because both schadenfreude and the Dark Triad personalities require a degree of dehumanization. Healthy humans need the conditions to be right for their empathy to switch off, allowing schadenfreude to be experienced. Psychopathic people, however, don't have that barrier in their way, making it easier for them to feel the perverse pleasure of watching misfortune befall others.
Captain Birdseye. Photo credit: Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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