Why We Laugh At The Misfortune Of Others: The Science Of 'Schadenfreude'

in sirwinchester •  2 years ago

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!

Images: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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we're not envious of the kids or animals in fail videos, yet we still laugh at it

Perhaps the envy is not recognized in the same way. Most children and pets don't have to work for a living and get joy out of the smallest things, they are amazed at the world, something that many adults can envy, their innocence.

You may be looking at a person which on usual circumstances wouldn't show you anything you can envy, but when you see them smiling and dancing on the video right before they fall...you are probably watching more happiness in them than you are experiencing which can cause envy.

Have you not met people who are always smiling and others ask them why? Some people even get on a bad mood because the other can smile.


Good point, yes that might be an underlying feeling that we have!
In the study, the researchers simply used money because it's the most obvious factor to measure envy, but of course there are many different aspects to it.

I am sooo guilty of schadenfreude, hahahah.. my mom always used to tell me it was rude to laugh at others fail, but I just can't help it


Now you know it's nothing to feel bad about, it's a natural human reaction!

Is it still Schadenfreude when you laugh at yourself?

Nothing like a good laugh at the fact that we are all human 😂


I think no, that's just healthy self-evaluation 😁 it's always good if someone is able to laugh about their own mistakes!


Maybe I should say 'Nothing like a good laugh to remind us that we're human?' Fact is, I'm talking to a computer screen. 😦

That gif with the girl twerking and then falling down just cracked me up :D
Good to know that this is actually quite normal and nothing to feel bad about!


I'll admit, I had to laugh when I found that one too!

"In german, we have"
You, Sir, are a German?
Never judge by the name I guess ^^

Wer den Schaden hat, braucht für den Spott nicht zu sorgen.


I'm not technically german I'm British, but I partly live there so I'm fluent in german!

Schönes Zitat!

Guilty :D


Me too! ✋🏾 totally

I was going to say "I'm guilty of this", but after reading through I can honestly say I'm normal.

(Hey, there's a first for everything)


Exactly, it's normal and I do it a lot too!

I usually can't watch the fail compilations. It gives me an uneasy feeling in my stomach. Occasionally I will see a gif that just cracks me up.


when someone gets hurt, I can't laugh anymore, I hate those compilations with crashes or something like that.. but if someone just slips, or failed to do something stupid like a headstand, I'll definitely laugh

Good read. My first article on Steemit certainly made a good first impression. I'll be uploading my share of articles in due time. Hope the community here loves MMA!

Upvoted followed and resteemed!!

I always feel bad for the person who failed guess I never understood why it was still so funny to watch. I guess now it might be a good time to watch those clips and really start to laugh.

I think we laugh because it just looks funny and out of the ordinary, not because the peson failed. We laugh because the situations and movements that happen, are uncommon. When others fail in a competition that we are also in (like a game or a race) we might feel happy, but that is just because we are happy that we didn't fail, not that the other person lost. We are socialized into a winner/loser society and think there is no other way to play the game of life.

These two feelings get mixed up. When we are happy that we didn't fail, we think that we are having Schadenfreude, which is wrong in my opinion. We are just happy that it didn't happen to us.

Imagine your on a camping trip with a friend. If your friend gets bitten in the butt by a dog you might laugh because it just looks funny. But if your friend is killed by a wolf, you would certainly not laugh. Still, you would be happy that it didn't happen to you.

This becomes obvious when you watch fail videos where people actually get hurt. You might laugh because of the funny situation at first, but when you see that they got hurt, the laughter quickly turns into silence.