Whether it's laughing at fail videos or relishing those times when a rival sports team lost the big game, we all enjoy watching other's misfortunes. There's actually a word for this. It's called schadenfreude. Literally, it means "enjoyment obtained from the trouble of others." It sounds twisted — and it is. Even more than you might think.
Schadenfreude is nothing new. Chances are it's been hardwired into our way of thinking of millions of years.
Emile Bruneau: One of the strongest arguments to my mind is that our brains evolved for millions of years in a situation when you had small groups of humans scrabbling out in existence against other small groups of humans in a relatively harsh environment. In order to survive that you’d need your group to be incredibly tight-knit, and so this would both select for something like empathy — feeling for the suffering for other group members — and also extreme aggression towards others, something like schadenfreude.
Schadenfreude and empathy are two sides of the same coin. They're both a response we feel to seeing someone else’s trials and misfortunes. However, there’s one big difference. Schadenfreude isn't something parents teach their children. Yet, researchers know that babies as young as 2 can experience it. All it takes is a little competition to trigger the reaction. For one study, 2-year-olds watched as their mothers doted on other infants. Later, the mothers were told to spill water on the infants. When they did, the onlooking 2-year-olds got so excited that some of them literally bounced with joy. It’s not hard to see how this childish rivalry could develop into something more sinister in adults.
And that’s exactly what Emile Bruneau studies. He’s traveled to many parts of the world to investigate conflicts, including: Americans and Mexicans on the Arizona border, Israelis and Palestinians in Israel, and Democrats and Republicans in the US. It doesn't matter where the conflict is or what it’s about, he’s found that at the root of it all is schadenfreude.
Emile Bruneau: We are extraordinarily motivated by who belongs to our group and who belongs to the other group. We have a strong tendency to think not just in terms of me and you but of us and them. And people who I identify as them, I’ll feel more schadenfreude towards them than towards us and certainly, that is the type of thing that drives behavior. If you feel empathy for somebody else you’re motivated to help them, similarly, if you feel schadenfreude you’re motivated to harm the other person.
Neuroscientists think they've pinpointed the area of the brain behind all this. For one study, Red Sox and Yankees fans watched simulated plays while a fMRI measured their brain activity. When a fan saw the rival team fail, a special area in the brain called the ventral striatum lit up. It helps process reward, pleasure, and decision making — suggesting the fans were experiencing schadenfreude. But the ventral striatum is also involved with decision making. But also, interestingly, fans who showed more activity in their ventral striatum also reported that they were very likely to harm a fan of the rival team either by heckling, insulting, threatening, or hitting. This could explain why schadenfreude seems to be driving human conflicts and violence worldwide. But isn't time that we finally shake off this archaic way of thinking?
Emile Bruneau: The modern world is very different than the world our brains evolved in and right now we're trying to solve modern-day problems with Stone Age psychology. In an environment that is global and multicultural where you have much less conflict where collaboration and cooperation can get you much farther than conflict, then yes, I feel like it is not as productive.
Instead, Bruneau is exploring how to use empathy to resolve conflict and move toward resolutions.
Emile Bruneau: Most recently what I've been interested in is how we intervene. How do we motivate empathy towards the other group? Interestingly enough, what I've found that interventions directed more at trying to challenge their cognitive perceptions of the other side are the types of things that kind of open up their empathy. So, it's almost like the best approach to opening people's hearts is by opening their minds.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you can't laugh at fail videos on YouTube. But perhaps if we all tried to have a bit more empathy for the “other groups,” we could make the world a better place