Gory Details

The bizarre side of science

Erika Engelhaupt
Gory Details

Schadenfreude starts young

Children as young as 2 feel joy at another’s misfortune, showing jealousy’s deep roots

PLEASURE IN PAIN  The word is German, but the feeling of schadenfreude is universal. Even two-year-olds showed joy in another’s misfortune during a recent study.

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Just like us adults, little kids revel in the suffering of others. In a new study, kids as young as 2 years old expressed feelings of schadenfreude, that special cheer that comes from witnessing someone else’s misfortune.

Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, kids are no kinder than adults. We all joke that kids are little monsters, as in this parody article in which a psychologist argues that most children under 10 would qualify as sociopaths if they were grown-ups. It’s funny because it’s so true: Kids lie, manipulate others and are totally egocentric.

Schadenfreude (German for “harm” and “joy”) is something we all feel, even if we don’t like to admit it, says social psychologist Richard Smith, who wrote a book on the subject called The Joy of Pain. There are many shades of schadenfreude satisfaction, from watching the downfall of someone who deserves it (maybe you high-fived after Osama bin Laden’s death) to seeing someone you envy being taken down a peg. And there’s competitive schadenfreude: Searches for the word on Merriam-Webster’s website spiked when Brazil lost the World Cup. The team’s rivals were said to experience schadenfreude in watching Brazil’s humiliating defeat.

So it makes sense that even young children would feel schadenfreude too, Smith says, especially since the researchers in the new study, published July 2 in PLOS ONE, first made kids feel jealous of another child getting attention from Mom, then had something bad happen to this interloper. “What’s more important than a mother’s attachment?” Smith says. “You see the emotions come to the fore.”

Envy and jealousy are often at the heart of schadenfreude. And kids are certainly capable of those emotions, so the researchers looked at how kids responded to someone’s misfortune (in this case, spilling water on a book) both when jealousy was involved and when it wasn’t. The team had 35 mothers read aloud either to themselves, in front of their own child and a friend of the child, or while cuddling their child’s friend. When kids were jealous because Mom was cuddling the friend, they were much more likely to express happiness when she spilled water on the book and had to stop reading.

And toddlers don’t hide their feelings. The children showed happiness by doing anything from saying “good” to jumping up and down and clapping. Girls and boys behaved the same way.

The kids’ schadenfreude was tied to feelings of unfairness, says Simone Shamay-Tsoory, a psychologist at the University of Haifa in Israel who led the study. Kids are generally obsessed with fairness, or at least with what’s fair to them. (If you think kids don’t know geometry, watch them divvy up a cupcake with razor-sharp mathematical precision.)

Children with lower self-esteem may feel unfairness the most acutely, Shamay-Tsoory says. “It has been shown that envy, which is related to schadenfreude, is related to a sense of inferiority,” she says. “Individuals with low self-esteem feel more envy and tend to be more concerned with social comparison.”

Shamay-Tsoory thinks children as young as 1 year old may experience schadenfreude, given that other research has revealed signs of jealousy and envy before 12 months of age.

“That inequity aversion is evident early indicates that it has deep developmental roots,” the team writes, adding that it’s possible that schadenfreude evolved as a positive feeling when an unfairness is rectified, and that could have fostered human cooperation.

It’s hard to speculate on how emotions evolved without resorting to “just-so” stories, but it’s clear that the motivations for schadenfreude are deeply social. We are social creatures who are wrapped up in comparing ourselves to others. That’s just as true for most adults as it is for toddlers.

And our social nature explains why schadenfreude is so universal. The new paper takes its title from a Hebrew phrase, “There is no joy like malicious joy,” but most languages seem to have an analogous expression. My favorite comes from Japan: The misfortunes of others taste like honey.

Follow me on Twitter: @GoryErika

Editor's Note: As noted in the comments and elsewhere, this article was amended on July 24, 2014, to delete a sentence that unintentionally linked to a parody article. Science News regrets the error but does think the parody article is pretty funny.

Update, August 1, 2014: The original intent of the author was to make light of the parody article mentioned above. So, upon further reflection, we have restored the sentence deleted from the second paragraph on July 24 and edited it to include the originally intended context and qualifiers.

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