Do Babies Experience Schadenfreude?

Author Tiffany Watt Smith and her nine-month-old baby meet with a developmental psychologist to find out what makes infants laugh—and when humans begin to experience joy out of other’s misfortunes.

The following is an excerpt of Schadenfreude: The Joy Of Another’s Misfortune by Tiffany Watt Smith. 

I am sitting in a laboratory at Goldsmiths, University of London, in a small cubical draped with black curtains. There are two seats. One is for me. The other, which has a child’s booster seat attached to it, is for E, my by-then nine-month-old baby. There are cameras positioned at various points on the curtains, all directed at us. And in front of us sits Dr. Caspar Addyman. Shaking a rattle.

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Caspar is a developmental psychologist and founder of the Baby Laughter Project, whose aim is to understand what makes babies laugh and why. It sounds like a project of great charm and whimsy—and Caspar, with his bright-blue hair, has the air of relaxed geniality you might expect from someone whose job it is to make babies laugh all day. But to Caspar, studying the origins of laughter, its point zero, is crucial if we want to understand not only laughter itself, but how we bond with one another, learn and survive.

We try one of his experiments. E giggles as Caspar blows raspberries and I tickle him. It’s all very lovely.

“Do babies experience Schadenfreude?” I ask, glancing a little nervously toward the chubby, sparkling-eyed E, who is now sitting on my knee grinning delightedly at a dinosaur sock puppet.

“Well Freud thought so, didn’t he,” Caspar says, and grimaces.

Freud has this theory in The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious that children don’t really have a sense of humor. What they have instead is a taste for gloating and triumph, which emerges in those rare moments that they feel superior to the adults around them. “The child will laugh out of a feeling of superiority or Schadenfreude,” writes Freud, “you’ve fallen down—I haven’t.” “It is the laughter of pure pleasure”—pleasure, for Freud, being the gratification of all urges, but especially the desire to overpower, or triumph over, others, and especially others who wield some power over you.

“It’s horrible,” says Caspar.  “It’s very Freud. I think it’s completely wrong.”

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I point out that my three-year-old is always very excited to see me or her father mess up, when we mispronounce something or get confused about a friend’s name. Sometimes we deliberately make mistakes, just because it brings her such joy to laugh at us.

Most parents of preschool children are familiar with this (arenthey?). Caspar agrees that there might be pleasure, but not for the reasons Freud suggests. Children “aren’t very aware of their own limitations… they’re not obsessing over their failures in the way Freud assumes they’re going to be.”

Caspar opens his computer and shows me two graphs relating to what parents and caregivers say their babies laugh at. When asked how often the baby laughed when they themselves fell over, the overwhelming majority of parents answered “often” or “very often.” When asked how often the baby laughed when someone else fell over, the answer was unanimous: “never.”

This makes sense—seeing another child fall, hurt themselves and cry would be frightening for a baby, never mind if the person who hurt themselves was one of their caretakers. But to Caspar, the fact that babies don’t laugh when other people fall over is about not simply fear, but morality: “Historically,  everyone thought babies were amoral, and you had to teach them right from wrong, but they do have a sense of fairness and a strong sense of empathy—if someone has hurt themselves, babies can see that and are concerned.”


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But what about less dramatic failures? I tell Caspar a story about a friend of mine who once tried to entertain his baby by juggling, imagining the child would be delighted by all the colors and move- ment. The baby showed no interest whatsoever, until my friend accidentally dropped the balls, sending them bouncing across the floor, and he went scurrying after them. The baby enjoyed that greatly, and unleashed a peal of raspy giggles (the merciless bugger). If babies don’t enjoy adults actually falling over, how about seeing them mess up once in a while?

Caspar chuckles, and tells me about the director of Theatr Iolo, Sarah Argent, who makes theater for babies and very young children. “She told me the one thing guaranteed to get all the babies laughing was when one of the performers accidentally dropped something. They really love that.”

Older children do develop a taste for more serious injuries (as we’ll discover in Chapter 3). But if babies aren’t laughing because they feel superior, as Freud thought, then why do they find our incompetence so amusing? For Caspar, laughter is interesting because it is con- nected to learning, and so much of what makes babies laugh is to do with surprise: games like peekaboo or things suddenly being turned upside down help them learn about the world, their laughter—as it is with adults—a sign of seeing the world afresh.


Excerpted from the book SCHADENFREUDE by Tiffany Watt Smith. Copyright © 2018 by Tiffany Watt Smith. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

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Meet the Writer

About Tiffany Watt Smith

Tiffany Watt Smith is author of Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune (Little, Brown, 2018). She’s a cultural historian of emotions at the Queen Mary University of London in London, United Kingdom.

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