We all know how popular "fail compilations" videos are on youtube.
When someone slips or falls, we just can't help it - it's funny!
This concept is so successful that there were even whole TV shows created only for these Fail Videos.
But why exactly do we feel joy when others fail (or even slightly get hurt)?
In german, we have a wonderful word that describes this feeling - "SCHADENFREUDE". This word has become so popular that it's now even used globally, because the english language doesn't really have a word for it.
Schadenfreude literally means the joy of damage - "Schaden" = damage, and "Freude" = Joy.
We often associate Schadenfreude with a lack of empathy, or feel bad for laughing.
But now, scientists have actually found out that it's a natural human feeling, and that the activity can even be shown in the brain.
An extreme example of Schadenfreude is the rivalry in sports: Members of one club would experience joy if the saw the rival team slipping, getting soaked in rain or something similar.
This is actually what sparked the idea for a 2013 study at Princeton University.
The subjects were shown stereotypical groups of people (students, elderly, drug addicts and rich professionals) and different scenarios that happened to these groups of people.
Meanwhile, the electrical activity of their cheek muscles was being monitored - indicating whether they'd smiled at a certain scenario or not.
The results showed that Schadenfreude was linked to envy - when something bad happened to an elderly person the subject felt pity, but when a rich person experienced something negative, the participants rather felt joy instead.
"This experiment shows that the dimensions predicting envy are high status and competition, and, when you move those around, the envy goes away. This is consistent with the story about who gets envied and why. A lot of it is tied into money because that's an easy thing to look at."
-Prof. Susan Fiske, Princeton University
But obviously, this is not always the case, it's just a way to show in which case we experience schadenfreude the most - we're not envious of the kids or animals in fail videos, yet we still laugh at it.
Getting back to the original rivalry between sports clubs, the researchers then showed fans of New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox clips of a game between the two teams.
What's obvious is that the subjects felt joy whenever the rival team made a mistake or lost a point.
But what's interesting is that even when the rival team was playing against a neutral team, the subjects still experienced joy if the rival team lost - and this is pure Schadenfreude.
In September 2016, researchers from the UCLA even identified the "Schadenfreude Neurons" - the brain cells that fired when we experienced schadenfreude.
The study was actually focusing on something else: observational learning, the process that we learn from other people succeeding or failing at a certain task.
For the study, they had epileptic patients draw a card from 2 different decks.
They didn't know yet that one deck of cards hat a 70% chance of winning, while it was only a 30% chance at the other deck.
All participants could then observe the other players, and figure out through observational learning which deck they would choose to draw a card from.
The results showed that specific neurons in the frontal lobe fired when the player won but the opponent lost, and were not as active when the player lost but the opponents won - which fits the definition of Schadenfreude perfectly."While obviously we don't know precisely what it is that these neurons encode, it's fascinating to see something like schadenfreude reflected in the activity of individual neurons in the human brain"
-Michael Hill, UCLA scientist and lead author of the paper
So in conclusion, scientists are not entirely sure yet why exactly we experience the feeling of Schadenfreude. It's linked to envy and depends a lot on the situation, and also everybody experiences it in different levels.
But it's definitely a normal, human reaction that can even be proven in the brain - so next time you laugh about someone slipping, you don't have to feel as bad!
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