Schadenfreude is the positive feeling about another person’s misfortune, either because you dislike them, because you believe they deserve it, or because you see them as a rival. For example, after a waiter has treated you very rudely, you may secretly enjoy seeing him trip and drop his serving tray. You may laugh when a player of the opposing team scores an own goal. Or you may get a good feeling when a colleague, whom you despise, is passed over for promotion. As you may gather from these examples, schadenfreude is in most cases not an emotion that people are proud of having or like to share with others. Nevertheless, it is a common emotion that everyone experiences from time to time.
Schadenfreude is an atypical positive emotion because it is directed at misfortune*. The misfortune of others can also trigger empathic emotions like sadness or compassion; thus, more needs to be involved for one to experience schadenfreude. To start, you need to somehow feel that the other person deserves the misfortune. There are several ways to arrive at that feeling. Firstly, you may dislike the person – because of things they did in the past, or simply because of their personality – and want bad things to happen to them. We call this Aversion Schadenfreude. Secondly, you may think someone deserves misfortune because they did something that was unfair or received an unfair advantage. For example, when someone has cheated you in the past now gets cheated in a similar way by someone else. In short, you feel they got what was coming to them, and with their misfortune justice is served . We call this Injustice Schadenfreude. Thirdly, you can feel Identification Schadenfreude when you identify with a group that is in competition with another group, and that other group makes a mistake or is performing poorly. This type of schadenfreude is especially prominent in areas where there is strong competition and group identification, such as sports, games, and politics. In each case, the higher the stakes are, the more intense the schadenfreude. Lastly, you can also feel schadenfreude without having negative feelings against any particular person. When you have suffered an unfortunate event yourself, you may be satisfied to see another person suffer a similar misfortune. For instance, if you recently failed your driving test, you may be glad to see that a few of your peers also failed theirs. In this case, you experience Compensation Schadenfreude.
*For this reason, you may classify schadenfreude not as a positive emotion at all. There are different ways of categorizing positive and negative emotions. We have categorized the emotions based on the feeling of the person experiencing the emotion – enjoyable or unenjoyable – and in this categorization, schadenfreude is a positive emotion.
Many people consider schadenfreude an immoral emotion, because it can promote asocial behavior or pit people and groups against each other. Therefore, most (adult) people do not condone overt schadenfreude. There are exceptions, though. For instance, identification schadenfreude can be encouraged to increase feelings of in-group belonging, such as in sports and politics. Injustice schadenfreude can be socially acceptable when a person is universally despised and then makes a downfall. A simple example of this is when viewers gloat when the movie villain meets their end.
In most cases of schadenfreude, the other person’s misfortune is caused by external events or by their own doing. However, you can also feel schadenfreude when you caused the misfortune. For example, when you make a hurtful remark at someone that makes other people laugh. This type of schadenfreude is prevalent in bullying. If someone experiences this type of schadenfreude frequently, they may be classified as a sadist or a psychopath.
Other circumstances and emotions may intensify schadenfreude or make it more likely to occur. For instance, if you see another person as more powerful or privileged than yourself, you may feel envy or resentment towards them, which in turn can make it more likely to also feel schadenfreude if something bad happens to them. It is also more pronounced if there is some kind of irony involved in what happened to them. For example, if they lose something that they were overly proud of and made them feel superior to you.
Certain personality traits can increase or decrease the likelihood of experiencing schadenfreude. People who score high on agreeability (one of the Big Five personality traits) experience schadenfreude more rarely, and will instead tend to feel sorry for the misfortunate person. People with low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy, on the other hand, are more likely to feel schadenfreude because the other’s misfortune can help decrease their feeling of inferiority.
Schadenfreude (‘I feel good when you feel bad’) is one of the possible reactions to other people’s misfortune; compassion/pity could be considered its contra-harmonious counterpart (‘I feel bad when you feel bad’). A similar complementary pair of emotions is also associated with other people’s happiness: envy/resentment (‘I feel bad when you feel good’) and happy-for (‘I feel good when you feel good’).