Is This The Dawning Of The ‘Age Of Schadenfreude?’

17:00 minutes

Schadenfreude, or deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune (which you have not caused), may seem to be everywhere in the modern era of internet trolls,  but the misunderstood emotion is not a modern phenomenon. The German word first appeared in English text back in 1852, although people in English-speaking countries were so scared of what it would mean to admit to feeling schadenfreude that they never came up with a comparable English word for it.

Over the years people have tried to analyze why we feel schadenfreude—evolutionary psychologists say it’s a way for us to assess risk and 19th-century Darwinian scholars suggested it was a behavior associated with “survival of the fittest”—but people have never really gotten comfortable with those academic explanations. You might outwardly protest that you don’t feel joy in seeing another person suffer, before returning to “fail” videos on YouTube.

But according to Tiffany Watt Smith, a cultural historian of emotions, you don’t have to feel shame about feeling this way. Schadenfreude doesn’t make us psychopaths, or internet trolls—it just makes us human. And if we are living through an “age of schadenfreude,” as some have suggested, perhaps there’s something useful to be learned from it. Smith joins Ira to discuss the origins of this complex human emotion and her new book Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune. Read an excerpt here.

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Segment Guests

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.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Do you find pleasure in seeing the quarterback of your despised sports rival getting sacked, even hurt? Do you give a fist pump when another White House staffer resigns or is fired? Well, you may be practicing schadenfreude. It means to derive pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. 

It’s not an English sounding word is it? In fact, years ago English speakers were so scared of what it would mean to admit to feeling schadenfreude that they never came up with an English word to describe it. They had to borrow from the German. And over the years, people have tried to analyze why we feel schadenfreude. 

Evolutionary psychologists say it’s a way for us to assess risk. Darwinian scholars suggest it was a behavior associated with survival of the fittest. But we’ve never really gotten comfortable with those academic explanations. We outwardly protest that we don’t feel joy in seeing another person suffer before returning to watch a stream of fail videos on YouTube. 

But according to my next guest, we don’t have to feel shame about feeling this way. Schadenfreude doesn’t make us psychopaths or internet trolls. It just makes us human. And if we’re living through an age of schadenfreude, perhaps there’s something useful to be learned from it. 

Tiffany Watt Smith is a cultural historian of emotions at Queen Mary University in London. And she’s also the author of a great little book called Schadenfreude– The Joy of Another Misfortune. Dr. Smith, welcome to Science Friday. 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: Hi, thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: I want to ask our listeners first before we begin our conversation when was the last time you had a moment of schadenfreude? How did you feel about it? Did you feel guilty or ashamed, satisfied, smug? Give us a call. Our number 844-724-8255, 844-SCITALK, or as always you can tweet us at SciFri. 

Well, let me begin with– let’s define some terms and pronunciation first. What is the accepted way to say the term, the word? 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: Schadenfreude, so four syllables usually in German. But this is a word that has been co-opted from the German into English, so in some senses, we can be free I think to say as we want to. This is one of the interesting things about loanwords, isn’t it, that they do change shape as they travel. 

IRA FLATOW: And define the term exactly for me. 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: Well, in German, schaden means damage and freude means joy, so damaged joy, which is kind of broad. When the word was first started to be used in English in the middle of the 19th century, it was used to describe quite a lot of pleasures in other people’s misfortunes. So some that we would think of as very familiar to us, say enjoying politicians make a mess of something, enjoying seeing your sports rival mess up, et cetera, but some of them wouldn’t quite sit with what we think of as schadenfreude today. 

So, for example, in the late 1890s, someone says schadenfreude is the pleasure that people feel watching cats being tortured on the streets, and that to me sounds more like what we think of as sadism. What happens in the 19th century is that this new term sadism comes in and schadenfreude gets all the fun silly stuff and sadism gets the most serious brutal delight. 

IRA FLATOW: I think you’re right that the digital age– social media are approaching– it’s a perfect time. It’s a perfect place for schadenfreude now. It seems quite obvious. 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: Yes, so that was one of the things I found really interesting about the research for the book. So I had– one of the things that prompted me to write is I kept on coming across this phrase, “we’re living in an age of schadenfreude,” and as a historian I’m very interested in those kinds of claims that when one emotion is thought to define an entire public mood or spirit. But, yes, the internet seems to have an awful lot to do with it. 

One of the things that caused us to feel schadenfreude is injustice– sorry, excuse me. [COUGHS]– and seeing people who have done something bad get their comeuppance. Now, of course, if you wander up and down your street, you don’t see an awful lot of injustice, but you spend five minutes hanging around online and you see terrible atrocities. And any chance that we get to then see those people punished and get their comeuppance I think fills us with a certain amount of glee and satisfaction. So, yes, online we experience a lot more of this kind of schadenfreude, but also it’s a lot easier for us to express it. 

I was thinking actually about an anecdote that I read now. I don’t follow American football, but I read an anecdote about a New England Patriots player called Tom Brady who fell and tore a ligament. And apparently everyone in the stadium was absolutely silent when he screamed and he fell, but everyone listening on their radios and especially online we’re really whooping and celebrating at this. I think it’s much easier to express that kind of glee when we’re not in the presence of the person who’s suffering. 

IRA FLATOW: He’s about as famous as Harry Kane is in Europe. Saying who’s this guy Tom Brady who’s all like Beckham. He’s that level. 


IRA FLATOW: That’s quite all right. Let me go to the phones. So many people want to talk about this. Let’s go to Gwennie in San Antonio, Texas. Hi, Gwennie. 

GWENNIE: Hi, thank you so much for letting me through. Wow. This is awesome. So I first discovered about schadenfreude actually a month or two back when I was in Avenue Q at a Woodlawn. And so that musical contains a song called Schadenfreude, and it explains what it is and gives examples and this stuff. I was wondering if there’s a part that I really want in that musical. And I’m sitting in the audition room, and something in me just wanted to be better than everybody else so that I would get the part. I didn’t, but, oh, well. And so I was wondering if wanting to get something over somebody else [INAUDIBLE] indirectly, would that count as an indirect sort of schadenfreude? 

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Gwennie. It’s a great question. 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I’m sorry that the part was not yours, but I’m sure it will come around again. But the– but that interesting– that you have interesting point. I think that rivalries are where we get almost intense schadenfreude. I think we can feel ourselves to be inferior to someone in some way, whether that’s just being less successful or rich or beautiful or whatever it is, that you’re competing over. 

And then there are minor disappointments or them experiencing some sort of setback is a great moment of psychic compensation I think for us, a little win and a feeling I think that gives us a certain boost. I think that in this way schadenfreude can be– is, in fact, very useful to us, and we experience it a lot in that context because it gives us a little bit of confidence back when we’re feeling at our lowest and gives us– makes us feel a little bit more sprightly and ready to take on the world again. 

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Robert in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Hi, Robert. 

ROBERT: Good afternoon. The best quote, the one that we all can live by is the one that Mark Twain made. It said, “I’ve never killed anyone, but I’ve read many an obituary with a great amount of satisfaction.” 


IRA FLATOW: Thanks for that anecdote. Have you heard of that one, Tiffany? 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: No! I wish I had. That’s absolutely wonderful. Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: Is there a time– you say we’re living in the age of schadenfreude– is there a time when the pendulum might swing in the other direction where we’ve had enough of schadenfreude and we want the anti-schadenfreude? Is there such a thing? 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: Well, yeah, that’s very interesting because on one level I think that one of the reasons why we’ve got so interested in schadenfreude at the moment is not just because there’s more of it washing around but because we’re more anxious about it. And one of the reasons why we’re more anxious about it I think is because of a real interest in the last– really since the 1990s I suppose– in empathy and recognizing how valuable empathy is, not just in our personal relationships but in our public relationships and how we learn, how we do business, how we manage, and so on. 

And in that context where empathy is really being celebrated, schadenfreude looks really, really problematic I think. Certainly, when people were discussing schadenfreude in the 18th and 19th century, people were saying this is a terrible emotion. It’s really ungodly, it’s fearful, and so on. But I think in a way we’ve slightly turning back to that quite moralistic stance around schadenfreude. 

Actually I read– published only a few weeks ago an article that brought together a lot of existing research and said schadenfreude it really brings out our inner psychopath. And I thought that that was really problematic language actually because in this context, schadenfreude gets defined as the opposite of empathy as if those two emotional states were fundamentally incompatible. But that’s not really how our emotions work. 

Emotions all tumble together in a big mess, and it’s perfectly reasonable that you might have an experience where you’re genuinely sorry for your friend, who is very successful and happens to have not got their latest promotion. But there’s also some terrible sly smile creeping up on the side of your lips because it makes you feel slightly better about your job. We can feel two emotions at once. 

IRA FLATOW: I– from a personal experience, I was driving a while back and there was a crazy driver behind me. And he was zigzagging all over the place, and he zipped right by me almost clipping at 90 miles an hour. I said, oh, I hope that guy gets caught by a cop. And literally coming around the corner, I saw that his car had flipped over three times. He couldn’t take the turn. 

And suddenly I felt maybe that’s just too much. That’s too bad a sentence to have for that person who– that’s just too much punishment to take for something that silly. And I immediately switched over to empathy from having a disgust for the driver. Is that a common sort of thing? 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: I think that’s very common I think schadenfreude is an interesting emotion not just because it shows up all kinds of hidden ways in which we relate to one another but also because it’s what psychologists call a cognitive emotion. So instead of something like fear, which is trigger response type of thing, schadenfreude really involves us thinking and calibrating our response and judging the situation and trying to work out what’s fair and what’s deserved and so on. 

And so we often find ourselves in these awkward predicaments where we think that one person– initially we might think, oh, that person deserved it and I’m really pleased and then immediately starting, oh, actually no, they’ve suffered more than I think they deserve, and now I don’t– now I’m not pleased anymore. This kind of situation I think happens all the time with schadenfreude. It’s very interesting. 

IRA FLATOW: Let me go to the phones to Creston, Iowa. Julie, welcome to Science Friday. Julia. 

JULIA: My question is just along those lines. Does it count that schadenfreude if somebody– if someone has already done something nasty to you and they’re jerks about it and then you just feel like, oh, well, karma is going to get you, just desserts, and what goes around comes around. 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: Absolutely. Karma I think is the most basic form of schadenfreude isn’t it. I think we enjoy seeing justice carried out, but I think it’s particularly delicious when the universe seems to have intervened and the person who shoved past you on the station stairs still manages to miss their train. These moments are just spectacularly pleasing I think. 

IRA FLATOW: You’re right that the schadenfreude is part of what drives fake news. Why is that? 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: Well, I think that there’s a particular desire and hunger to see politicians and those in power humiliated or suffer setbacks. I mean, politics is one of the areas where schadenfreude is particularly rife. There’s been several studies on this, but it was very clear that schadenfreude gets very intense when we divide ourselves into tribes, particularly into rival tribes. The schadenfreude is part of what allows us to bond together in those groups and confirm our social identities. But it’s also really important for us to denigrate the other side and therefore feel like we’re coming out on top. 

So this landscape is really fertile both for schadenfreude and therefore for offering the possibility of enjoying fake news or blatantly made up terrible stories about the other side because the schadenfreude is so irresistible really. And I think this is the other thing that I was really interested in when I was writing the book was that on the whole I think schadenfreude is pretty harmless and it’s just a bit of fun. And it’s fine, and we can cut ourselves some slack. 

But I do think it is worth understanding it better and understanding the kinds of situations which provoke it in ourselves because we do find ourselves at the mercy of whether it’s the news or our politicians who recognizes this is a very powerful emotion and try to elicit it in us. So it’s good for us to understand how it works so that we can recognize when our schadenfreude strings are being plucked, and we can take a step back. 

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Tiffany Watt Smith, author of Schadenfreude– The Joy of Another’s Misfortune, on Science Friday from WNYC Studios. A little bit along this idea about tribalism and being with your cohorts, I got a tweet from Michael. He says is “As a relatively new parent, I do feel some pleasure or kinship when I see other parents struggling or dealing with the trials of parenthood with their children. Misery loves company.” 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: Yes, you can go two ways with this can’t you. Like sometimes I’m a parent of young children as well, and I definitely feel camaraderie when I see another parent with their child having a tantrum in the middle of the shops or whatever it is. But sometimes you do get that moment where you just feel a little bit smug cause your child is being well-behaved temporarily, and their child isn’t. I suppose it just depends on your mood at the time and how generous your feeling and perhaps how naughty your child has been in the previous few minutes. 

IRA FLATOW: What is– what’s the difference between schadenfreude and slapstick comedy? We grew up with I Love Lucy, which was a sitcom about a woman who was always getting into trouble. We took– it was the most popular show on TV. We watched her get in and out of trouble, and we laughed at it. 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: I think schadenfreude is the pleasure that we get when we watch slapstick. I think that, in fact, that’s probably the most fundamental earliest form of schadenfreude. I came across a really intriguing study that was done at the University of Oxford in 2011, and they found that there was– the particular kind of laughter, belly laughter, which is laughing so much it hurts type of laughter, and they found among all the different laughters that they studied that this is very unique to humans. And they also found that this sort of laughter only seemed to ever arise in response to slapstick. And they particularly found in response to Mr. Bean if you’re familiar with him. 

IRA FLATOW: I know Mr. Bean. Absolutely. But the difference is that we know they’re not being hurt. We know that it’s just comedy. That no one’s going to go home with a broken leg or something. 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: Well, I think know that it’s– absolutely, you know that it’s being choreographed, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not funny. One of the things this study found was that it actually lowered people– raised people’s tolerance to pain. So they suggested that that kind of laughter is really important for bonding groups together but also helping people survive in very hostile environments. 

And I think it doesn’t really matter in that sort of situation, whether it’s someone’s pretending to be banged over the head with a saucepan or whether someone really accidentally trips and falls into a saucepan. It’s the moment of bonding that happens as a result of it that seems to matter in that situation. 

IRA FLATOW: Now you certainly have covered every situation I could think of in the book of schadenfreude. And every just when I think, oh, she’s never done this. Oh, yeah, next turn, the next page, you’re talking about it. 

Tiffany Watt Smith, author of the new book Schadenfreude– The Joy of Another’s Misfortune. If you want to read an excerpt, you can find one on our website. It’s ScienceFriday.com/emotion. Thank you for taking time to be with us today and happy holiday to you. 

TIFFANY WATT SMITH: Thanks for having me and to you, too.

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