Maybe you haven’t gotten out the voodoo dolls and performed rituals, but chances are good that you’re secretly delighted that your nemesis got fired from her dream job, that your high school prom queen got a bad case of shingles, and that the overachiever triathlon in your family has now been humbled by broken leg. You really try to take the higher road and sympathize with the suffering, to be the evolved human being that doesn’t smile at misery, but there it is … a grin over the misfortune of the people you envy most.
Now a new study finds that people are actually biologically responsive to taking pleasure in the pain of others, a reaction known as “Schadenfreude.” By measuring the electrical activity of cheek muscles, researchers Mina Cikara and Susan Fiske show that people smile more when someone they envy experiences misfortune or discomfort. Their findings were reported in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
“We were interested in the conditions under which people fail to empathize with one another and how, for some of those people, they experience happiness at another’s expense,” said lead author Cikara, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “We wanted to start in a place where people would be willing to express their opinions and willingness to harm more freely, like we see in sports. We asked ourselves: what is it about rivalries that elicit a harmful response? And can we predict who will have this response?”
The study involved four experiments.
In the first experiment, the researchers examined participants’ physical responses by monitoring their cheek movements with an electromyogram (EMG), which captures the electrical activity of facial movements when an individual smiles. Participants were shown photographs of individuals associated with different stereotypes: the elderly (pity), students or Americans (pride), drug addicts (disgust) and rich professionals (envy). These images were then paired with everyday events such as: “Won five dollars” (positive) or “Got soaked by a taxi” (negative) or “Went to the bathroom” (neutral). Participants were asked how this would make them feel, and their facial movements were recorded. The researchers found that people did smile more in response to negative than positive events, but only for groups they envied.
In their second experiment, the researchers used self-reporting and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – which measures blood flow changes associated with brain activity – to determine whether participants were willing to harm certain groups. Participants viewed the same photographs and events as the first study and were asked to rate how they felt on a scale of one to nine (from extremely bad to extremely good). Just as in the first experiment, participants felt the worst about positive events and the best about negative events in regards to the rich professionals.
The third experiment involved manipulating stereotypes. The findings matched earlier experiments – participants rated the articles associated with disgust and envy with less warmth than the pride or pity scenarios.
The final experiment used a game between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. When a third neutral team – the Baltimore Orioles – was thrown into the mix, the fans reported little to no reaction to positive or negative events and did not wish to cause Orioles fans harm. But they were happy when their rival team lost to the Orioles, showing pure Schadenfreude, said Fiske, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School.
Fiske thinks of the study as a simulation or model of group envy or harm.
“In our larger model of stereotypes, we find that when things go smoothly, people go along to get along with these envied groups. It’s when the chips are down that these groups become real targets of Schadenfreude.”
“A lack of empathy is not always pathological. It’s a human response, and not everyone experiences this, but a significant portion does,” Cikara said. “We need to remember this in terms of everyday situations. If you think about the way workplaces and organizations are set up, for example, it raises an interesting question: Is competition the best way to get your employees to produce? It’s possible, in some circumstances, that competition is good. In other ways, people might be preoccupied with bringing other people down, and that’s not what an organization wants.”
Published originally on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.