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Schadenfreude (/ˈʃɑːdənfrɔɪdə/; German: [ˈʃaːdn̩ˌfʁɔʏ̯də];

lit. 'harm-joy') is pleasure derived from the misfortune of
others. Borrowed from German into English and several
other languages, it is a feeling of joy that comes from
seeing or hearing about another person's troubles or
failures. It is an expression of pleasure or
self-satisfaction at another's failure.[1]
Return to the Convent, by Eduardo
For schadenfreude, relationship between observer and
Zamacois y Zabala, 1868. Note the group
target of the emotion is typically negative. Such
of monks laughing while the lone monk
undesirable behavior encourages dislike and resentment
struggles with the donkey.
in the observer.[2] The resulting negative attitude of the
observer leads to a variety of feelings, such as anger,
rage, embarrassment or satisfaction. It reveals that the pleasure in schadenfreude is due to the fact
that the observer engages in a self-other comparison (with the target of schadenfreude as a
comparison object). This indicates that observers experiencing schadenfreude typically recognizes
that the target of schadenfreude suffers due to the misfortune. Hence, a situation involving
schadenfreude often seems to provide an opportunity for a more favorable self-view and self

Moreover, people experiencing schadenfreude typically attempt to hide the emotion and are aware
of the fact that the joy one takes in the misfortune of another person is hurtful and potentially
maladaptive in social situations.[4][5] It typically appears when a person is convinced that the
misfortune has been predictable and thus preventable.

For example, schadenfreude is especially likely when an interaction partner suffers a misfortune
because s/he disregarded the advice of the person who subsequently experiences schadenfreude.[6]
Actually, it is often the case that the target of schadenfreude could have prevented the misfortune
(nota bene, according to the point of view provided by the person experiencing schadenfreude).
One might say that the misfortune is deserved in such cases, which is well in line with previous

1 Linguistic analysis
1.1 Spelling and etymology
1.2 English equivalents
1.3 Related words

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1.4 Neologisms and variants

2 Developmental origins
2.1 Gain theory
2.1.1 Sibling rivalry
2.1.2 Mating rivalry
2.2 Inequity aversion
2.3 Vicarious ostracism
2.4 Oxytocin
3 Triggering Factors
4 Literary usage and philosophical analysis
5 Malicious pleasures
5.1 Corollary emotions
5.1.1 Jealousy
5.1.2 Gloating
5.1.3 Sympathy
5.2 Discordant emotion
5.3 Moral emotion
5.3.1 Classification
5.3.2 Determinants
5.3.3 fMNR studies
6 Instantiation of values
7 Neural networks
7.1 Ventral striatum
7.2 Anterior cingulate
8 Sensitivity
8.1 Fairness
8.2 Social comparison
8.3 Cost-benefit analysis
8.4 Shared activation
8.5 Justice sensitivity
9 Scientific studies
10 In popular culture
11 See also
12 References
13 Further reading

Linguistic analysis
Spelling and etymology

Though normally not capitalized in English, the term schadenfreude is sometimes capitalized to

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mimic German-language convention, as German nouns are always capitalized.

The corresponding German adjective is schadenfroh. The word derives from Schaden (damage,
harm) and Freude (joy). Schaden derives from the Middle High German schade, from the Old High
German scado, and is a cognate with English scathe. Freude comes from the Middle High German
freude, from the Old High German frewida, and is a cognate with the (usually archaic) English
word frith. Schadenfreude can be enjoyed in private or it can be celebrated openly.

English equivalents

Little-used English words synonymous with schadenfreude derive from the Greek word,
epichairekakia (ἐπιχαιρεκακία, first attested in Aristotle[10]).[11][12] Nathan Bailey's 18th-century
Universal Etymological English Dictionary, for example, contains an entry for epicharikaky that
gives its etymology as a compound of ἐπί epi (upon), χαρά chara (joy), and κακόν kakon (evil).
[13][14] A popular modern collection of rare words, however, gives its spelling as epicaricacy.[15]

An English expression with a similar meaning is Roman holiday, a metaphor from the poem Childe
Harold's Pilgrimage by George Gordon, Lord Byron, where a gladiator in ancient Rome expects to
be "butchered to make a Roman holiday" while the audience would take pleasure from watching his
suffering. The term suggests debauchery and disorder in addition to sadistic enjoyment.[16]

Another phrase with a meaning similar to Schadenfreude is "morose delectation" (delectatio

morosa in Latin), meaning, "The habit of dwelling with enjoyment on evil thoughts".[17] The
medieval church taught that morose delectation was a sin.[18][19] French writer Pierre Klossowski
maintained that the appeal of sadism is morose delectation.[20][21]

An English word of similar meaning is "gloating", where "gloat" means "to observe or think about
something with triumphant and often malicious satisfaction, gratification, or delight" (e.g. to gloat
over an enemy's misfortune).[22] Gloating is differentiated from Schadenfreude in that it does not
necessarily require malice (one may gloat to a friend about having defeated him in a game without
ill intent), and that it describes an action rather than a state of mind (one typically gloats to the
subject of the misfortune or to a third party). On the other hand, unlike Schadenfreude, where the
focus is on someone's misfortune, gloating often brings to mind inappropriately celebrating or
bragging about one's own good fortune without any particular focus on the misfortune of others.

Related words

The Buddhist concept of mudita, "sympathetic joy" or "happiness in another's good fortune", is
cited as an example of the opposite of schadenfreude.[23][24] Alternatively, envy, which is
unhappiness in another's good fortune, could be considered the counterpart of schadenfreude.
Completing the quartet is "unhappiness at another's misfortune"—which can be called sympathy,
pity, or compassion.

The transposed variant "freudenschade" has been invented in English to mean sorrow at another

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person's success.[25][26]

The term "compersion", taking joy in the joy of loved ones, is generally considered an antonym of

In Chinese, the set phrase "幸災樂禍" (pinyin: xìng ) literally translates to take "joy
z ā i lè h as schadenfreude.
in calamity and delight in disaster", and serves the same meaning

The Finnish language contains a word with a meaning similar to schadenfreude, vahingonilo, which
literally means "joy of misfortune". Likewise, Swedish also has a term equivalent to schadenfreude:
skadeglädje, which translates literally as "injury joy" (the joy of watching someone's injury, be it
figurative or literal). Similar terms exist in Danish (skadefro), Norwegian (skadefryd), and Estonian
(kahjurõõm) as well.

The Dutch word leedvermaak (literally translatable as "suffer entertainment") is said to be a calque
of the German "Schadenfreude.[27]

Afrikaans inherited leedvermaak without any changes in spelling or meaning from Dutch, though
the pronunciation is slightly different.

The Arabic language contains the term shamaatah, which, according to the Arabic thesaurus means
"to enjoy the calamity upon the enemy".

The Hebrew language contains the biblical term simkha laid, literally means "joy of calamity",
mentioned in the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible.

French uses joie mauvaise (bad or evil joy) and a few similar terms in a sense close to

Bulgarian and Russian have the noun злорадство Bulgarian pronunciation: [zɫorˈadstvo], from зло
(evil) and радост (joy). Also Bulgarian has a corresponding adjective злорад. Slovak langauge
knows the term as well - škodoradosť Slovak pronunciation: [škodoradosť] from škoda (harm) and
radosť (joy, pleasure).

Portuguese possesses no single word that can exactly translate the term, but it has a common adage
for the same emotion covered by schadenfreude in other languages, pimenta nos olhos dos outros é
refresco, which means "to have someone else's eyes peppered is a refreshment" or, more literally,
"pepper in someone else's eyes is [to the unaffected] a refreshing drink". According to popular
folklore, this might often be the consequence of one putting an olho gordo over another person and
the consequential failure that might ensue to their fate. To consciously place a bad omen on
someone and then relish with their affliction is called agourar. The meaning of the verb agourar is
ambiguous, though, as it might imply just common ill omen (for example, the literal, folkloric bird
of ill omen[28]).

Neologisms and variants

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Neologisms and portmanteau words were coined from the word as early as 1993, when Lincoln
Caplan, in his book Skadden: Power, Money, and the Rise of a Legal Empire,[29] used the word
Skaddenfreude to describe the delight that competitors of Skadden Arps took in its troubles of the
early 1990s. Others include spitzenfreude, coined by The Economist to refer to the fall of Eliot
Spitzer[30] and Schadenford, coined by Toronto Life in regards to Canadian politician Rob Ford.[31]

Developmental origins
Human emotions are strongly shaped by the tendency to compare the relative state of oneself to
others. Although social comparison based emotions (such as schadenfreude, jealousy etc.) are
important social emotions, little is known about their developmental origins. Studies conducted to
examine if schadenfreude develops as a response to inequity aversion, show that the reactions of
children (as early as 24 months ) to the termination of unequal and equal triadic situations show
signs of schadenfreude following the termination of an unequal situation. Although both conditions
involved the same amount of gains, the children displayed greater positive expressions following
the disruption of the unequal as compared to the equal condition, indicating that inequity aversion
can be observed earlier than reported before. These results support an early evolutionary origin of
inequity aversion and indicate that schadenfreude has evolved as a response to unfairness.[32]

The developmental origins and proximate mechanisms behind social comparison based emotions
are not well understood, despite recent progress.[33][34] Social comparison based emotions involve
two (or more) person situations in which one's emotions depends on the other's state. The process
of social comparison triggers prosocial emotions such as empathy and compassion to the distress of
others but also competitive emotions such as malicious joy or schadenfreude when facing other's
misfortune. Schadenfreude is a relatively unstudied emotion and is related to other competitive
social comparison based emotions such as envy[35] and resentment and it frequently arises in
situations in which the target deserves the misfortune.

Interestingly, while there is strong evidence for biological, evolutionary and developmental roots of
prosocial empathically motivated helping behaviors[36][37] the evolutionary and developmental
origins of schadenfreude are unknown.

Gain theory

Schadenfreude, as well as other competitive social comparison based-emotions such as envy and
jealousy, originally evolved, as a response to competition between rivals over limited resources.
According to this notion, schadenfreude involves pleasure associated with gains in the context of
limited resources.[32]

The sibling and the mating rivalry accounts of schadenfreude are in line with the ‘gain’ hypothesis,
according to which, schadenfreude is viewed as an emotion that originates from competition over
limited resources and therefore it involves a positive reaction to a potential gain during
competition.[38] According to this theoretical formulation, pleasure, is a basic automatic reaction to

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positive rewards and malicious pleasure is the result of the potential reward rather than pleasure in
the other's misfortune.[38] This proves that schadenfreude involves a positive reaction to potential
gains which is unrelated to the suffering of the rival. Thus, if indeed, as depicted by the gain
hypothesis, schadenfreude is a response to a potential gain regardless of a rival's' misfortune, than it
should involve similar amounts of positive reactions in response to the termination of a competitive
situation vs. a non-competitive situation if both situations involve similar amounts of gains.

Thus, the sibling and mating rivalry accounts of schadenfreude indicates that the distress of a rival
(e.g. same-sex rival; sibling) is rewarding as it indicates a potential increase in resources such as
parental attention or mating partners.

Sibling rivalry

Siblings who from conception are rivals for a parent's resources[39] do experience schadenfreude, as
a response to a potential reward such as parental availability. Thus, the suffering of the sibling is
rewarding because it signals potential additional parental resources. Sibling rivalry is frequently
reported in the animal kingdom, including sibling murder between baby eaglets and pelicans[40] or
between shark embryos[41], indicating that it has an evolutionary importance.

Mating rivalry

Similarly to sibling rivalry, mating rivalry has evolved as a response to competition between
same-sex individuals—who are rivals for mating partners. It has been shown that mating strategies
in both men and women includes derogating other individuals as a basic mechanism for increasing
self-attractiveness.[42] Based on these findings it has been proposed that schadenfreude is a
psychological mechanism that responds to misfortunes that lower competitors' mate value in order
to increase mating opportunities.[43]

Inequity aversion

Studies show that schadenfreude has evolved as a response to inequity aversion or the resistance to
unfairness and inequalities. Inequity aversion predicts that individuals are sensitive to how their
payoffs compared with those of others and therefore individuals react negatively to unfair
treatment.[44] According to this, schadenfreude involves the pleasure of termination of an
unpleasant unequal situation. Interestingly, it has been shown that inequity aversion develops early
in children, further attesting to its evolutionary significance. Fehr, Bernhard, and
Rockenbach[45][46] have reported that children at age 7–8 prefer resource allocations that remove
advantageous or disadvantageous inequality. Other studies show that inequity aversion is observed
even before the age of five. It has been shown that children as young as four years old can judge
situations to be undesirable based on concerns with fairness.[47][48] In addition, Paulus, Gillis, Li, &
Moore[49], reported that preschool children involve third parties in dyadic sharing situations.
Moreover, LoBue, Nishida et al., have recently reported that even three years old children react

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negatively to disadvantageous inequality. Other reports show that even 15-month-old infants are
sensitive to fairness and can engage in altruistic sharing. [50]

That inequity aversion is evident early indicates that it has deep developmental roots. It has been
confirmed that negative reactions to an unequal reward distribution in regard to the effort invested,
is essential for the evolution of cooperation.[51] Indeed, negative reactions to inequalities have been
reported not only in human adults but also in capuchin monkeys[52] and domestic dogs.[53]

Considering the evolutionary significance of negative reactions to disadvantageous distribution,

schadenfreude has evolved as a positive reaction to the termination of inequity.[32]

Vicarious ostracism

Ostracism (being ignored and excluded) causes distress and threatens psychological needs (i.e.,
belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence). Even subtle behaviors, such as
withholding eye contact or staring through someone as if they did not exist, can induce feelings of
ostracism. Empathy research show that individuals vicariously experience others' pain. Most of this
research has focused on vicarious physical pain, but might observers also experience vicarious
social pain (i.e., ostracism).[54]

In light of the research on vicarious ostracism a paradox emerges: why are

rejection/ostracism-based reality television programs (e.g., Survivor) popular? When participants
are eliminated, they are openly rejected (told they are not wanted)[55] and ostracized from the show.
Initial rejection undoubtedly hurts, but so does subsequent ostracism; they are no longer on the
show, no longer included in activities, no longer talked with or about. These two types of social
pain have similar psychological outcomes. There have been no vicarious rejection studies, but
based on the extant data on vicarious ostracism and other social pain (e.g., vicarious
embarrassment)[56], it is likely that observing rejection would have similar vicarious effects.

In such cases, attributions influence interpretations of and reactions to ostracism. Recent neural
evidence prove that external attributions for being ostracized (i.e., racism) can help reduce the
initial negative effects.[57] By extension, an observer's attributions about an ostracized individual
influences vicarious ostracism. Individuals feel satisfaction in others' suffering if perceived as
deserved (Schadenfreude) and Schadenfreude research has found feelings of dislike, anger, or
resentment can lead to perceived deservingness and pleasure at another's misfortune, both in
self-reports and neurological measures.[58] If ostracized/rejected individuals are viewed as
deserving their treatment, observers should feel less sympathy for them. Perhaps viewers of
rejection-based reality shows lament for individuals unjustly rejected but rejoice when others get
what they deserve for behaving anti-socially.


The neuropeptide oxytocin (OXT) has received much attention for its role in social cognition and

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prosocial behavior.[59][60] Previous studies have revealed that OXT strengthens cooperation by
stimulating trust[61][62][63][64], generosity[65], and social perception[66][67][68] providing a strong
association between OXT and empathy.[69][70]

However, recent evidence specifies that these effects are more nuanced than once assumed and
often moderated by situational or personal characteristics.[71] Some findings even point to rather
“antisocial” effects of OXT, such as increased envy and Schadenfreude[72] as well as ingroup-
favoritism and aggression towards outgroup members.[73][74] Similarly, OXT diminishes
cooperation when social information about the interaction partner is lacking[75] and loses its trust-
enhancing effect when interaction partners are perceived as unreliable.[76]

Triggering Factors
Guided by the results of the regression analyses, path models were developed. The models
integrated schadenfreude and sympathy as mediators of the relation between gender of the
protagonist, severity of the misfortune, valence of behavior & responsibility and reward

Schadenfreude is not influenced by the protagonist’s gender and the severity of the misfortune;
nevertheless, it has a direct impact on reward granting: Children were less likely to give rewards to
protagonists when they felt schadenfreude. Likewise, sympathy is not influenced by the
protagonist’s gender, however, it has a direct impact on reward granting. The severity of a
misfortune has an indirect effect on reward granting via sympathy. When children evaluate a
misfortune as severe, sympathy, and consequently, the desire to grant a reward is increased.
Likewise, children feel more sympathy towards and grant more rewards to the female

Also, schadenfreude and sympathy mediate the effect of valence of behavior and responsibility on
reward granting. When a behavior is evaluated as immoral, schadenfreude increases, and
subsequently, fewer rewards are granted. Protagonists who perceive as being responsible for their
misfortunes elicit more schadenfreude and are granted fewer rewards. Furthermore, children feel
more sympathy and granted more rewards to protagonists who engage in moral behavior. Lower
perceived responsibility elicit more sympathy, which consequently, encourage greater granting of

Literary usage and philosophical analysis

The Book of Proverbs mentions an emotion similar to schadenfreude: "Rejoice not when thine
enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the LORD see it, and it
displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him." (Proverbs 24:17–18, King James Version).

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle used epikhairekakia (ἐπιχαιρεκακία in Greek) as part of a

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triad of terms, in which epikhairekakia stands as the opposite of phthonos (φθόνος), and nemesis
(νέμεσις) occupies the mean. Nemesis is "a painful response to another's undeserved good fortune",
while phthonos is a painful response to any good fortune, deserved or not. The epikhairekakos
(ἐπιχαιρέκακος) person takes pleasure in another's ill fortune.[78][79]

Lucretius characterises the emotion in an extended simile in De rerum natura: Suave, mari magno
turbantibus aequora ventis, e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem, "It is pleasant to watch from
the land the great struggle of someone else in a sea rendered great by turbulent winds." The
abbreviated Latin tag suave mare magno recalled the passage to generations familiar with the Latin

Caesarius of Heisterbach regards "delight in the adversity of a neighbour" as one of the "daughters
of envy ... which follows anger" in his Dialogue on Miracles.[81]

During the 17th century, Robert Burton wrote in his work The Anatomy of Melancholy, "Out of
these two [the concupiscible and irascible powers] arise those mixed affections and passions of
anger, which is a desire of revenge; hatred, which is inveterate anger; zeal, which is offended with
him who hurts that he loves; and ἐπιχαιρεκακία, a compound affection of joy and hate, when we
rejoice at other men's mischief, and are grieved at their prosperity; pride, self-love, emulation, envy,
shame, &c., of which elsewhere."[82]

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer mentioned schadenfreude as the most evil sin of human
feeling, famously saying "To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is diabolic."[83]

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People describes
schadenfreude as a universal, even wholesome reaction that cannot be helped. "There is a German
psychological term, Schadenfreude, which refers to the embarrassing reaction of relief we feel
when something bad happens to someone else instead of to us." He gives examples and writes,
"[People] don't wish their friends ill, but they can’t help feeling an embarrassing spasm of gratitude
that [the bad thing] happened to someone else and not to them."[84]

Susan Sontag's book Regarding the Pain of Others, published in 2003, is a study of the issue of
how the pain and misfortune of some affects others, namely whether war photography and war
paintings may be helpful as anti-war tools or, whether they only serve some sense of schadenfreude
in some viewers.

Philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno defined schadenfreude as "... largely unanticipated
delight in the suffering of another, which is cognized as trivial and/or appropriate."[85]

Malicious pleasures
It seems clear, however, that all pleasure at adversity is not the same. Misfortune, direct defeat,
deserved failure, and comeuppance are very different types of adversity. Thus, it seems reasonable
to expect that the pleasure experienced at each of these adversities is different. Indeed, pleasure at a

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rival’s misfortune is about something very different than pleasure at defeating a rival oneself or at
seeing a rival deservedly punished. One important way in which emotion concepts can be
differentiated conceptually is to specify what the experience of pleasure or displeasure is about. For
example, pride works well as an emotion concept because it is conceptualized as pleasure about the
particular advantage of a deserved success that is distinct from the pleasure of joy or love.[86]

Corollary emotions

Defining schadenfreude as (any) pleasure at (any) adversity suffered by another party is akin to
defining pride as (any) pleasure at (any) good fortune for the self. Such a general definition
undermines the value of specific emotion concepts. For this reason alone, schadenfreude is
classified as a specific pleasure about a particular kind of adversity that can be conceptually and
empirically differentiated from other pleasure at adversity (such as gloating), in terms of its
situational features, typical appraisals, and the quantity and quality of the experience and
expression of pleasure. More practically, a finer conceptualization of pleasure at adversity can
clarify how malicious emotions like schadenfreude and gloating constitute different ways of
relating to those suffering adversity. Emotions can be conceptualized as relational states, in the
sense that they both reflect and arguably constitute social relationships.[87]


Since schadenfreude is an emotion that originates from inequity aversion, the termination of an
unequal condition triggers more positive reactions as compared to the termination of an equal
event, even if the two conditions involve equal gains. Jealousy is the emotion children experience
in a triadic situation, when there is a potentially unequal situation which raises a concern about
losing exclusivity in significant relationships to a third party.[88] In contrast, envy involves only
two-person situations, and this feeling comprises the wish to have another person's possession or
success and/or the wish that the other person did not possess this desired characteristic or object.
Whereas envy and jealousy are somewhat different[89], these emotions are related and often
co-occur[90], indicating that jealousy could equally be associated with schadenfreude.

Studies confirmed that jealousy ratings were higher than schadenfreude ratings, concluding that
jealousy is highly intense as compared to schadenfreude. Indeed, it has been shown that jealousy is
more intense than other social comparison based emotions such as envy[89] perhaps because it
involves an extreme fear of loss of maternal attention. Research on jealousy also shows that this
emotions appears most intensely in the majority of children between approximately 13 to 25
months and can be clearly observed around the third year of life. Moreover, there are even reports
of forms of jealousy in babies as young as 6 months old, further indicating that jealousy is a
powerful emotion that develops extremely early in life. Greater responses to negative events are
related to a more basic negativity bias which refers to the psychological phenomenon by which
humans pay more attention to and give more weight to negative rather than positive
information.[91] Hence, the adaptive nature of negativity bias is such that jealousy in response to
unfavorable comparison is likely to motivate specific behaviors for eliminating the gap between the

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self and the other, whereas there is little in the way of response warranted by the favorable

Furthermore, it has been resolved that there are potential social comparison benefits behind any
misfortune to the extent that it represents downward comparison and the boost to self-evaluation
that might follow.[89] Jealousy, like envy represents the polar opposite of a downward comparison
and therefore a misfortune befalling on someone we are jealous of, reverses the unfavorable
comparison and has an ameliorating effect on self-esteem. [92]

Collectively, the current study shows for the first time that children as early as 24 months show
signs of schadenfreude following the termination of an unequal situation, indicating that inequity
aversion can be observed earlier than reported before. These findings imply that social comparison
and sensitivity to fairness develop early in life further highlighting the evolutionary significance of
positive reactions to the termination of an unfair situation. Furthermore, it has been reported that
social comparison based emotions are related to different personality traits including self-esteem,
neuroticism and sense of inferiority. Smith et al., for example, reported that dispositional envy is
negatively correlated with measures of self-esteem and positively related to depression.
Considering the strong relationship between envy, jealousy and schadenfreude, individuals with
low self-esteem experience more schadenfreude.[93]


We offer the first empirical comparison of the pleasure in seeing (i.e., schadenfreude) and in
causing (i.e., gloating) others’ adversity. However, the two pleasures differ greatly in their
situational features, appraisals, experience, and expression. This parsing of the particular pleasures
of schadenfreude and gloating brings nuance to the study of (malicious) pleasure, which tends to be
less finely conceptualized and examined than displeasure despite its importance to social
relations.[86] Distinguishing schadenfreude and gloating in terms of the position of the self, is
relative to the other party. For example, the wish to flaunt the pleasure of gloating puts the self
above the defeated party, who is belittled.[94]

Pleasure in actively and directly causing a rival’s adversity is referred to as gloating, especially
when it is experienced as an empowered state of superiority that is lorded over the defeated
rival.[95] It is believed that the emotion concept of schadenfreude should describe a particular
pleasure at adversity that is distinguishable from other pleasure (e.g., pride and joy) and also
believed that schadenfreude should describe a particular pleasure at another’s adversity that is
distinguishable from other pleasure at another’s adversity (e.g., gloating). More specifically, the
malicious pleasures of schadenfreude and gloating should be experienced differently, with
schadenfreude less pleasurable, less empowering, and more passive and indirect than gloating.
Schadenfreude and gloating should also be expressed differently, because gloating should be
boastful and triumphant in nature and schadenfreude should be more furtive. The experience and
expression of schadenfreude and gloating should be corroborated by the quite different ways that
the two malicious pleasures position the self in social relations. Whereas gloating is an experience

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and expression of superiority over others, the muted pleasure of schadenfreude is based in passivity
and concerns about inferiority and powerlessness.[96][97] Thus, the distinctions between
schadenfreude and gloating can be conceptualized in terms of the

1. features of the event

2. appraisals of the event
3. experience of pleasure
4. expression of pleasure

The experience of gloating should be more pleasurable than schadenfreude. It is expected that the
experience of the two pleasures differ in quality. In comparison to passive schadenfreude, the
phenomenological experience of gloating should be embodied as a state of physical activation and
arousal. Gloating should also be embodied as a greater state of physical elevation, as people should
feel “10 feet tall” and “on top of the world” when they defeat a rival in this way. This elevated
phenomenology is consistent with the appraisals of power and status that characterize gloating and
schadenfreude.[98] Thus, those experiencing gloating should also feel more triumphant (i.e.,
victorious, proud) and emboldened (i.e., bold, fearless) than those experiencing schadenfreude.

Thus, schadenfreude is characterized by appraisals that others, rather than the self, are the agent of
the precipitating event. Schadenfreude is also unique in being experienced as a state of lower power
and performance. Unlike, gloating, joy, and pride, the pleasure in schadenfreude is expressed
somewhat furtively; there is less reported smiling and less glee, boasting, and flaunting of one’s
pleasure. As well as being distinct from schadenfreude, gloating tends to be as pleasurable as joy.
Gloating and joy also tends to be about equal in openly expressing pleasure. This further confirms
the intense pleasure of “making others suffer” by defeating them in direct competition. Importantly,
gloating is also characterized by greater boasting than pride.[86]

People who express emotion, like those who study emotion, share a rich and varied vocabulary for
dysphoric feelings. Our language for euphoric feelings is more limited.[99] Yet, it is evident that all
pleasures are not the same. The elation at winning the lottery is different from the pride in seeing a
daughter graduate or the joy in watching the sunset. Although pleasures at bad things that happen to
other people have a certain malice in common, they too are different from one another. The
conflation of schadenfreude and gloating in academic and popular discussion masks the ways in
which these two pleasures differ in terms of situational features, appraisals, experience, and
expression. Schadenfreude is a modest, furtive, guilty pleasure that does little to empower those
who experience it.[100] Gloating is a very different pleasure. It is about a direct and active
outperformance of another party who is then made to witness one’s pleasure at their defeat.
Gloating is not only a greater experience of pleasure. In contrast to schadenfreude, gloating is
experienced as a physical invigoration and elevation of the body. People beam as they “walk on
air,” elevated above their defeated rivals. A little smile, and a quiet satisfaction, is all that people
seem to get from schadenfreude.[101]

The many distinctions observed between schadenfreude and gloating illustrate the ways in which
emotional experience and expression is situated in social relations. Despite being close cousins

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within the broader family of pleasures, and siblings within the family of pleasures at other’s
adversity, gloating and schadenfreude are very different ways of relating to the social world.
Although taking pleasure in another’s adversity necessarily positions one against the other, the
pleasure of schadenfreude is not flaunted. In fact, it is suppressed to some degree. As such,
schadenfreude seems unlikely to lead to more direct derogation or more active mistreatment of the
other party.[96] What is gained in schadenfreude is a modest psychological boost for the self. In
contrast, gloating is a more active and direct opposition to the other party. The pleasure of gloating
is not only experienced more intensely, it is expressed more intently. These emboldened
expressions of presumed superiority seem much more likely to fuel further antagonism. Gloating
encourages the defeated rival to seek revenge or retribution for the indignity they have been made
to suffer. As such, gloating presents a greater risk to social relations than schadenfreude because the
experience and expression of gloating empower more, and more direct, antagonism.[97]


Moral judgments and moral emotions are a ubiquitous feature of social interactions. Humans decide
quickly and intuitively whether an action is morally right or wrong. Schadenfreude and sympathy,
as emotional reactions to the misfortunes of others, are prototypical moral emotions. So far,
however, little evidence exists concerning children’s understanding of schadenfreude. Children
experience sympathy as well as schadenfreude at the age of 4 years. Sympathy is more likely to
arise when the protagonists of a story are likable, when these actors typically pursue morally
positive goals, and if they are not responsible for their misfortune. In contrast, schadenfreude is
more likely when the protagonist is disliked, when actors pursue immoral goals and if they are
responsible for their misfortune. In addition, sympathy increases approach (helping behavior, sitting
next to the agent and doing favors), whereas schadenfreude increases avoidance tendencies.[102]

Schadenfreude and sympathy are two sides of the same coin—they are elicited in situations in
which we observe another person who experiences a misfortune. In the case of schadenfreude, we
feel pleasure in the other person’s misfortune (positive hedonic quality), while in the case of
sympathy, we feel the pain of the other person (negative hedonic quality). Schadenfreude functions
as a “stop” signal in social regulation processes indicating a prior misconduct or inattention of the
actor. Sympathy on the other hand is a moral “go” signal for the actor as it shows that he was not
responsible for his misfortune.[103]

The presence of a comparative situation that is related to one’s own feelings of inferiority towards
the actor is a predictor. In this way, schadenfreude is also linked to feelings of envy. This relation is
particularly strong for interactions with close actors.[104] In addition, the severity of the misfortune
must not be too intense. Imagine if the boy in the park passed out, because his fall was severe. Even
if we feel schadenfreude for a second, this will turn into sorrow and fear, which then results in
prompt helping behavior. Finally, negative feelings like envy, anger, rage, and hatred towards the
actor will enhance feelings of schadenfreude.[105] This is associated with the first argument, as we
are more likely to assume that a disliked person has greater deservingness of misfortune. We may
think, for instance, that the other person’s experience of the negative event is justice being

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Sympathy and schadenfreude have similar triggers. Similarly, deservingness is a crucial dimension.
In contrast to schadenfreude, feelings of sympathy are more likely to be elicited when a misfortune
is undeserved. In terms of attribution research, this clearly leads to the causal dimension of
controllability.[107] Thus, there is a focus on the moral value of the action that directly leads to the
negative event.[108] Accordingly, we show sympathy when a positive action fails, whereas
sympathy is absent when we fail to achieve an immoral goal. Another factor associated with
sympathy is whether the person experiencing the negative event is liked or disliked. This factor
references very early cognitive psychological concepts.[109]

Prior research on children’s emotional development has largely focused on empathy (to feel as the
other) and sympathy (to feel concern for the other). Even infants show reactions to the crying or
distress of others.[110] Beginning at the age of two years, children empathize with others. This
ability is a prerequisite for perspective taking and thus for sympathy. Furthermore, three-year-old
children begin to attribute causality to events and assume what other people feel, think, intend and
expect. This development results in the ability to feel and display sympathy. [111]

Schadenfreude can be seen as a “stop” signal and as a response to wrongdoing or carelessness.

Children need to have a rudimentary understanding of the moral norms of society (e.g. prohibitions
against harming others or stealing things) and be able to perceive norm violations. Children
between two and a half and three years old understand norms and recognize their transgression.
[112][113] Furthermore, children between five and nine years old learn that the transgression of a
norm will lead to immediate punishment. Young children see punishment as a deterrent to further
wrongdoing and the stricter it is the more effective they think it will be. In a first study of
schadenfreude in preschool children, Schulz, Rudolph, Tscharaktschiew, and Rudolph[114]
document that children feel and display schadenfreude beginning at age four. In this study, children
were interviewed about their emotional and behavioral reactions towards the protagonist in a
picture story. In these stories, the protagonist pursued a moral versus an immoral goal before
experiencing a misfortune. Children were more likely to display schadenfreude when the
protagonist of the picture stories pursued an immoral goal relative to a moral goal. In contrast,
children were more likely to display sympathy and helping behavior when the protagonist pursued
a moral goal.

Discordant emotion

Discordant emotions differ with respect to their hedonic and functional qualities. This is the case
for sympathy and schadenfreude. For sympathy, it feels sad to experience this emotion, while it
sends a positive signal to the person in need, increasing the likelihood that help will be provided. In
contrast, schadenfreude feels joyful (as someone takes joy in the misfortune of others), at the same
time, it feels very bad to be the target of schadenfreude. Although these two are very complex
emotion, children can feel and display schadenfreude and sympathy already at an age of about three
to four years.[115] Sympathy is linked to prosocial actions, whereas schadenfreude predicts absence

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of help-giving.[116]

Sympathy should predominantly occur when another person fails to attain a morally positive goal.
This should be even more the case when much effort is put it to attain this positive goal, but this
nevertheless fails. Furthermore, sympathy should also be elicited when effort is unmentioned. For
schadenfreude also a negative goal-attainment should be a crucial prerequisite. In contrast to
sympathy schadenfreude should be much more likely elicited in situations where a person pursues a
morally negative goal. Again, this pattern should apply when high effort is put in or is not
mentioned at all. Analyses revealed that situations in which schadenfreude or sympathy was
experienced, different kinds of interaction partners were involved. For both discordant emotions, all
reported situations included interactions in which participants were ‘observers’ who witnessed
another person (the ‘target of the emotion’) suffering a misfortune.[117]

Moral emotion

Moral emotions are typically elicited in everyday social interactions and regulate social behavior.
After analyzing a diverse range of moral emotions, i.e., admiration, anger, contempt, indignation,
pride, respect, schadenfreude, and sympathy, by using a mixed-method approach, qualitative and
quantitative methods were able to clearly corroborate the important role of ought, goal-attainment,
and effort as eliciting conditions of moral emotions. On a most general level, we might say that
moral emotions like pride or anger, sympathy or schadenfreude, and the like, regulate our
tendencies to approach versus avoid, to praise versus reprimand, and to reinforce versus correct. We
also assume, and this characteristic shapes the methodology of the present paper, that these moral
emotions evoke vivid memories of our interpersonal life, as they become an integral part of the
recollections we tell when it comes to describing and explaining interpersonal events.[117]

We assume that these recollections will shed light on the eliciting conditions of our emotional life.
More specifically, we focus on moral emotions which we experience vis-à-vis the actions of others,
like anger, indignation, sympathy or schadenfreude. A common feature of these moral emotions is
that all these require considerations of good and bad or wrong and right.[103]


Fritz Heider[118] proposed a classification of moral emotions by identifying their presumed

cognitive antecedents.[108] According to this, moral emotions are strongly determined by three
concepts, that is, ought, effort, and goal-attainment. Considerations of ought (i.e., right and wrong),
either vis-à-vis one’s own or other persons’ actions, include evaluations of whether a morally
positive or negative goal is present. Furthermore, human actions differ with respect to the amount
of effort or intensity with which such goals are pursued. Finally, the respective goal, be it right or
wrong from a moral perspective, can be attained or not attained. Ought, effort and goal-attainment
explain large amounts of variance in moral emotions. Two other conceptual elements help to
classify the variety of moral emotions, namely -

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the target of the emotion

the evaluative or signal function the emotion serves

Moral emotions can be classified according to their target: Emotions evaluating one’s own actions
or characteristics, such as guilt, pride, regret or shame, have been referred to as self-directed
emotions or actor-emotions.[119] In contrast, emotions that are directed at other person’s actions or
characteristics, such as admiration, anger, schadenfreude, scorn, or sympathy, have been labeled as
other-directed emotions or observer emotions.

Moreover, all moral emotions contain an evaluative function: That is, positive moral emotions are
elicited following one’s own (actor emotions) or another person’s (observer emotions) morally
positive behavior, i.e., actions meeting or exceeding positive moral standards like help-giving to
someone in need or investing effort to attain a morally positive goal. In contrast, negative moral
emotions occur after one’s own (actor emotions) or other’s (observer emotions) morally negative
behavior, i.e., transgressions of moral standards like lying or cheating or not investing effort to
attain a positive goal.[120][121]


It turns out that sympathy and schadenfreude occur when a positive goal is not attained. In contrast
to sympathy, schadenfreude also arises in situations when a negative goal is not attained.[122][123]
While non-attainment of a goal is an inevitable prerequisite to experience either sympathy or
schadenfreude, effort plays a minor role for the discordant emotions. This finding clearly
distinguishes the discordant moral emotions from the remaining moral observer emotions.

Finally, the functional value of the discordant emotions is complex, as functional value and hedonic
quality are inverted: For sympathy, which feels bad, we have a positive signal conveying that the
respective behavior is morally right. The autobiographical recollections of our participants typically
consist of descriptions of positive goals that had been pursued with high effort. In contrast,
schadenfreude feels good–however, this emotion signals that another person’s behavior has been
wrong. In line with these considerations, the autobiographical recollections of our participants
typically depict morally negative goals that have been pursued. [103][117]

fMNR studies

The Functional magnetic nuclear resonance (fMNR) was utilized only recently to explore the
neuroanatomical substrates of the moral sense generally in healthy subjects during tasks involving
their moral judgment.[124][125][126] From these studies it emerged that the brain areas potentially
involved would be the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the adjacent orbitofrontal, the
ventrolateral cortex (OFC/VL), the amygdala, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC)[127];
It is believed that one of the main roles of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is to attribute moral
and emotional values to social stimuli, anticipate their future outcome, and modulate the
mechanism of the theory of mind and empathy, as well as to perceive the other's' intentions.

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[128][129] The OFC/VL region would mediate aversive responses related to the social context,
modify responses based on feedback, and inhibits automatic-impulsive behaviours triggered by the
amygdala.[130][131]The amygdala, located in the antero-medial temporal lobes, modulates responses
to situations or stimuli perceived as frightening or dangerous, even through the recognition of
specific facial expressions.[132][133] The DLPFC would modulate this network, since it is at the
basis of the reasoning applied to different moral questions. Furthermore, during some particular
tasks in healthy subjects, other brain regions begin to activate in particular the anterior insula,[134]
the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)[135][136] the anterior cingulate gyrus[137] the inferior
parietal lobes and the temporo-parietal junctions[138][139][140] the mesolimbic pathway and the
ventral striatum, the precuneus and the posterior cingulate. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex,
especially the right one seems to play a fundamental role in the innate moral sense, as it becomes
activated during tasks requiring explicit moral judgments, such as the presentation of a “personal”
moral dilemma which involves participants provoking a severe harm to someone.[141][142] By
contrast, the presentation of general moral dilemmas seems to activate mainly the DLPFC.
However, a subsequent work shows an integration between emotional and cognitive processes in
both personal and general dilemmas.[143]

Besides the ban to harm others, moral feelings serve to reinforce the rules of the group, by
attributing a negative judgment to certain actions, and punishing those who do not follow the
rules[144][145][146] “Altruistic punishment” is considered a manifestation of the moral desire for
justice and fairness, and seems to involve an increased activation of the ventromedial prefrontal
cortex.[147] This altruistic punishment is strongly dependent on the fact that others, especially those
who carry a bad reputation, deliberately act against the rules.[148] Although not directly linked to
altruistic punishment, sometimes the “Ultimatum Game”, a neuropsychological test, is used to
explore the sense of equity, fairness and justice that are related to altruistic punishment. In this case,
a player is asked to divide a sum of money with a second player who can either accept or reject this
proposal. If the second player rejects, no player receives anything. If the second player accepts, the
money is split according to the proposal.[149] The fMNR scans of individuals playing the
Ultimatum Game showed that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex appears to be involved in the
attribution and interpretation of the others’ intentions through their behavior.[150]

Instantiation of values
Now, it is hard to understand how it can be the case that being pleased is an intrinsically
good-making property whereas being pleased that someone is suffering is not. That the two cases
are different is clear, how their difference is to be accounted for, is unclear. It should be noted that
neither ‘being pleased,’ nor ‘being pleased that someone is suffering’ are, strictly speaking,
properties. Both are expressions of facts, thus, the problem of how to account for a difference
between facts is, in the quotation above, simply transposed to the realm of universals. This is why
the difference between the two putative properties remains puzzling. Let us, therefore, reformulate
the two ‘properties’ as ‘being Pleased at’ and ‘being Pleased at Suffering (of) (at/from)’ (read, for
instance,’ Jim is pleased at Joe’s suffering from headache.’) Evidently, these are relational entities,

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or simply, relations. The first is a simple universal, the second, involving a reference to another
relation (‘Suffers at/from’), appears to be a complex universal. For sake of grammatical simplicity,
let us replace ‘being Pleased at’ with ‘Enjoys’.[151]

Following the line of argument about the instantiation of the relation value ‘Loves’ it may first be
assumed that the content of the relation value ’Enjoys’ is the same in schadenfreude as in other,
morally acceptable, cases of enjoyment. Then it can be maintained that the enjoyment of suffering
is a true case of enjoyment, and perhaps add that ethical theory must depart here from axiology.
Enjoying suffering or pain is always a perverted or an impure kind of enjoyment, or perhaps a
combination of sentiments and feelings that is fundamentally, ontologically different from
enjoyment, a case of joy, even though there is no separate word for that. Briefly, if we want to
maintain the enjoying suffering is not a true case of enjoyment, thus, the value of ‘Enjoys’ is not
instantiated, we may insist that another relation value (if it is a value at all) is instantiated.[151]

Secondly, the instantiation of enjoyment as a value is not merely a matter of the content or the
relation but also of the relata and the context. Thus, even if the relation ‘Enjoys’ is instantiated and
it relates adequate relata, it outlines above, that certain axiological properties instantiated by the
relata influence the instantiation of the value of ‘Enjoys.’ Unlike the complexities of ‘Loves,’ the
worth of the relatum that is being enjoyed is usually easier to determine. Pain and suffering are in
most cases disvalues, even though they might have some value aspect as well (I might enjoy the
[sight of? experience of? a] painful tiredness of my son, after a long bicycle tour). But enjoying
disvalues is hardly a value. Thus, in the case of ‘Enjoys the Suffering (of) (at/from),’ the value
relation of ‘Enjoys’ is not instantiated, after all.[151]

It is here where the fact that in ‘Enjoys the Suffering (of) (at/from)’ we have to deal with two
relations becomes relevant. For suppose that the suffering of a human being is well-deserved. Some
scholastics opined that the sight of those suffering in the Hell is a source of enjoyment for those in
the Heaven. The idea behind the justification for such an enjoyment is that Hell is a result of divine
justice and suffering in it is deserved. If one enjoys deserved suffering, one does not enjoy a
disvalue, but something worthy (usually, but not always, due to moral reasons and disvalues)16. It
is then interpreted that the case in point such that ‘Enjoys the Suffering of a Wicked person’ where
‘wicked’ may be replaced by ‘having negative worth.’ Of course, to arrive at an ethically right
judgement of ‘Enjoys,’ one needs to look deeper in the individual case. It is also seen that in
‘deserved suffering ‘desert’ and ‘suffering’ must be delicately and minutiously balanced so that the
pain or suffering wipes off, as it were, the transgression. This happens automatically, for instance,
when a child feels immediate pain after wounding his finger despite warnings, but often it needs
external remedy. In such cases we usually have a number of further requirements which are, of
course, not our concern here. It suffices to note here that unless punishment is proportionate to the
misdeed, suffering becomes a disvalue and ‘Enjoys’ is not instantiated.[151]

It is also arguable that what gets instantiated in such cases is not ‘Enjoys’ but ‘is morally Satisfied
at’ or something like this; or perhaps ‘Enjoys Justice’ which, obviously, would dispel all
reservations about enjoying some cases of suffering as being only apparent cases of ‘Enjoys
Suffering (of) (at/from).’ The point remains, namely, that a change in the relatum (carrying out a

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morally evil action, or, repentance), which partly is brought about by further relations’ being
instantiated (the wrongdoer suffers from a disease wholly unrelated to his misdeeds) affects the
instantiation of the relation. Such a change blocks it.[151]

Thirdly, since enjoyment and suffering (pleasure and pain) are related to one another in an opposite
way, it is a reasonable assumption that they play negatively constitutive, blocking roles in one
another’s instantiation. But it is impossible to tell in principle where enjoyment ceases and
something else (hatred, despise, cruelty) replaces it; or where ‘pure’ suffering ceases and something
else (e.g. courage), replaces it. It is psychological suffering that is especially complicated. Think,
for instance, of jokes told at another person’s expense in his presence. His suffering might be
undeniable, yet the enjoyment of his pain by others might not be entirely bad. Sometimes suffering
of this kind is fundamentally, ontologically, tied up to certain values such as comradeship, equality,
which surely are values worthy of enjoyment.[151]

It is hardly necessary to consider in detail further cases of “mixed wholes” or “organic wholes” in
which suffering or pain and pleasure or enjoyment participate. The analysis of such cases runs on
the same track as in the case of malicious pleasure. Take some complicated cases, such as the
following: Jim suffers at Joe’s partly undeserved enjoyment of a reward. Or an even more
complicated case: Ann suffers at Barbara’s suffering at Cindy’s deserved pleasure. In simple words,
Barbara is envious of Cindy and Ann feels ‘compassion’ for her. Such cases can be changed ad
libitum: Cindy might suffer at Barbara’s being envious of her and Ann may be compassionate with
Cindy. Remaining with the last case, we have to do with three persons (particulars) and four
relations -

1. ‘Cindy (deservedly) Enjoys something‘

2. ‘Barbara Suffers at Cindy’s enjoyment‘
3. ‘Cindy Suffers at Barbara’s envy‘
4. ‘Ann is Compassionate with Cindy(’s suffering)’

Subscribers to the Moorean conception of intrinsic value rooted in organic unities simply declare
what normal moral intuitions tell us, namely, that certain propositions designate facts (‘wholes’)
that have different values. If pressed, they might say that as newer and newer relations are added,
the ‘value’ of the ‘whole’ changes. Thus -

is valuable
is not
is valuable (perhaps)
is also valuable

But in virtue of what these changes occur, remains obscure. If values are universals, either
properties or relations, then we have a conception by which the differences between (i) through (iv)
can be explained. A value is instantiated in one case but not in another. The ontological grounds for
this can be different. As in the former example, it may be the content of the value, it may be the
relata (in case of relation values) or the context that is responsible for the instantiation of the value

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or for the blocking of it.[151]

Neural networks
Many situations in daily life require competing with others for the same goal. In this case, the joy
of winning is tied to the fact that the rival suffers. In an fMRI study, participants played a
competitive game against another player, in which every trial had opposite consequences for the
two players (i.e., if one player won, the other lost, or vice versa). The aim was to disentangle brain
activation for two different types of winning. Participants could either win a trial in a way that it
increased their payoff; or they could win a trial in a way that it incurred a monetary loss to their
opponent. Two distinct brain networks were engaged in these two types of winning. Wins with a
monetary gain activated the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with the processing
of rewards. In contrast, avoidance of loss/other-related monetary loss evoked activation in areas
related to mentalizing, such as the temporo-parietal junction and precuneus. However, both types of
winnings shared activation in the striatum. The findings extend recent evidence from
neuroeconomics by proving that we consider our conspecifics’ payoff even when we directly
compete with them.[152]

Ventral striatum

A competitive situation elicits different types of emotional reactions. Individuals experience

empathy while observing failure of a group member, but failure of a rival causes schadenfreude, i.e.
pleasure about someone else’s misfortune. Schadenfreude also arises when people can gain from
another’s misfortune. [153] Takahashi et al. (2009) demonstrated a stronger correlation between
activation in ventral striatum and self-reported Schadenfreude in a situation when misfortunes
happened to envied persons[137], and a different study concluded that the striatum plays a role in
mediating the emotional consequences of social comparison during competition.[154] Furthermore,
in a social group competition an increase of ventral striatum activation was observed during success
of the favored team or failure of the rival team, even against a third team.[155] Similarly, the ventral
striatum was activated during watching a negatively evaluated out-group member receiving
pain[156], and observing others making errors.[157]

With the rising of social neuroscience in recent years, an increasing number of studies have
concentrated on neural underpinnings of social comparison.[158][159] Studies found that the
activation of the ventral striatum, a reward-related brain region, was affected by variations of social
comparison contexts defined by the difference of payoffs between two players who performed the
task simultaneously.[160] This finding was supported by following neuroimaging findings that
relative reward in social comparison contexts elicits neural responses which show similar patterns
with the absolute reward condition.[161][162] Social emotions like schadenfreude and gloating are
found to be provoked by positive outcomes in social comparison, while negative outcomes in
similar circumstances provoke emotions like envy and jealousy.[137][163] Electroencephalography
(EEG) studies on social comparison have described temporal characteristics of outcome evaluation

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in social contexts, but their findings are heterogeneous. An event-related potential (ERP) study
showed larger negative waves elicited by inequitable outcomes than equitable ones.[160] ERP
results of another study showed that the feedback-related negativity (FRN) post-stimulus and is
larger following losses than gains[164], was significantly enhanced when another anonymous player
won.[165] However, a recent study found that social comparison modulated not the FRN, but a later
stage of outcome evaluation indicated by the late positive component (LPC)[166]. The conflicting
results of these studies show that the temporal hallmarks of social comparison are not yet clear.

Anterior cingulate

In the case that the “self” is threatened by the superiority of others (envy)[137], there is the
involvement of the anterior cingulate area, or of the ventral striatum when the pleasure is derived
from the misfortune of others - Schadenfreude. As far as mirror neurons are concerned, this is a
class of neurons which selectively are activated by both when an action is carried out by an
individual or he/she observes that action being performed by others. The neurons of the observer
“mirror” what is taking place in the mind of the observed subject, as if it were the observer that was
carrying out the action.[167][168] The areas activated during the observation of behaviour of the
other individuals are the anterior rostral portion of the inferior parietal lobe, the inferior part of the
anterior central gyrus, and the posterior part of the inferior frontal gyrus. In some cases, the
activation of the anterior area of the inferior frontal gyrus and of the dorsal premotor cortex have
been reported. The ability of the human brain to self-activate when the emotions of others are
perceived, expressed through facial mimicry, gestures, and the tone of voice, and the ability of
immediately decoding this perception in “visceromotor” terms, enables every individual to act
according to the so-called “empathic participation”.[142][169] This represents a form of bio-social
behaviour, prior to linguistic communication, that characterizes and triggers inter-individual
relations, which are at the basis, perhaps, of all social behaviours. It must be underlined, however,
that, as fascinating as all this might be, these are only hypotheses, given that mirror neurons have
been found only in motor areas.[170]

Social comparison is a prerequisite for processing fairness, although the two types of cognition are
associated with different emotions. Whereas social comparison induce envy, the perception of
unfairness elicit anger. Yet, it remains unclear whether people who tend to have a strong sense of
fairness also tend to compare themselves more with others.[171]


Fairness is a typical aspect of interpersonal interaction. Research on economic games depict that
people expect fairness in wealth allocation and are willing to sacrifice self-interests to punish unfair
behaviors.[172] The ultimatum game (UG) is a classical paradigm for investigating preference for
fairness.[173] In the UG, one player, the responder, chooses whether to accept or reject a ‘take-it-or-

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leave-it’ reward allocation offered by another player, the proposer. Some argue that rejection of
unfair offers reflects inequity aversion that propels participants to equalize the payoff distribution,
even if it means zero payoff. Others propose a reciprocity model in which individuals could be kind
or unkind to others; this model emphasizes that strong reciprocators are willing to sacrifice their
own resources in order to reward fair and punish unfair behavior.[174] A recent study found that the
rejection of unfair offers is considered a means to avoid subjugation to the proposer, but this is not
the case for reciprocity.[175] Indeed, fair (prosocial) and unfair (antisocial) punishers coexist in the
ultimatum game[176], proving that there is more than one motivation behind rejection in the UG.

Social comparison

Although social comparison is an essential component of fairness sensitivity and any theory of
fairness should be formulated by incorporating some kind of comparison, the precise role of trait
social comparison in fairness sensitivity is not clear. For example, different emotions caused by
different types of social comparison (i.e., self-advantageous comparison, self-disadvantageous
comparison and equivalent comparison) can affect decision-making, such as schadenfreude and
envy.[177] If some individuals tend to compare with those below them, these individuals show
stronger empathy (unhappiness at another's misfortune) or stronger schadenfreude (happiness at
another’s misfortune). Similarly, individuals feel strong envy or strong vicarious pleasure when
they compare with those ahead of them. Intuitively, an individual who cares much about relative
outcomes could be either a fair-minded person or a person who enjoys taking advantage of others.
Thus, delineating the relationships among different types of social comparison and various types of
fairness has important theoretical and pragmatic implications.

It has been found that, envy, a painful emotion activates the pain region (i.e., the anterior cingulate
cortex) and schadenfreude, a rewarding reaction, activates the reward region (i.e., the ventral

Cost-benefit analysis

If a goal is successfully achieved following direct competitive aggression, perceived utility should
also be enhanced by continued peer interest or desire for the contested-for outcome, a subtle
schadenfreude type endowment effect. Continued peer interest endowment is modified by peer
group composition, similar to what is proposed whereby Schadenfreude and its opposing partner
envy are more likely to arise when fellow competitors are self-relevant, salient conspecifics.[179]
Ventral striatal activations are also noted in two-person tasks that are not explicitly competitive, but
where monetary payout information is provided to both players at the end of each trial. If person
A's payout is higher than that of person B, striatal activity increases in person A and decreases in
person B, independent of the actual financial amount being awarded.[180]

When resource valuation, pre- and post-competition, is viewed in this multi-factorial light, it helps
to explain the “joy” of winning, or conversely the enhanced feelings of loss, unfairness or pain after
losing. Whereas in non-competitive situations one might gain/lose a resource.[181] In

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non-pathological conditions, competitive aggression is an instrumental behavior, used to achieve an

outcome that aids in self-preservation. Inherently it is a selfish behavior, with a binary outcome for
the individual: good or bad. Reduced in this way, it is intuitive that competitive aggression utilizes
reward-based reinforcement learning systems in the brain. As competitive behavior neuroscience
progresses, it will be important to test social and nonsocial choice tasks in the same participant, in
the same session, to delineate any uniquely social computations. Moreover, highly salient, realistic
resources should be included in the non-social choice tasks to ensure directional attention that is on
par with the directional attention prompted by the prospect of winning. It will be important to parse
temporal sequences of activation in terms of pre-choice, choice, and post-choice, and to examine
functional coupling between reward networks and the instrumental aggression network that is
predictive of competitive dispositions.[182]

Shared activation

Shared activation in the ventral striatum is when participants won a trial and received a monetary
gain, and when winning in loss frame trials (which incurred a loss to the opponent) is that this
activation is associated with general reward processing.[183] According to a recent concept it
indicates an enhanced motivational value in the form of incentive salience attribution to stimuli
perceived at that moment.[184]

We need to take into account that humans are not exclusively motivated by material self-interests,
but that people often also care for the well-being of others.[185] Moreover it was found that
individual differences in prosocial value orientation are important for the allocation of resources
between self and others, and that amygdala, striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex play a
critical role mediating this effect.[186][187]

Studies demonstrates that two distinct brain networks are engaged when people process of two
types of winning in the game, i.e., own monetary gain and others-monetary loss. A medial-frontal
network demonstrated activation for own monetary gain, while a temporo-parietal network was
more involved in response to others’ monetary losses. Both types of winning in the game shared
activation in the VS which represents the “joy of winning” for outperforming someone else during
competition. Alternatively, this provides with the misfortunes of opponents were treated as reward
and elicited schadenfreude.[152]

Justice sensitivity

Personality characteristics of social comparison sensitivity and justice sensitivity were positively
correlated. Studies show that individuals who have a tendency to compare themselves with others,
have a strong sense of justice, and vice versa. There were two key pieces of evidence that social
comparison and fairness sensitivity do have a common effect in human decision-making.[171]

Victim-sensitive and observer-sensitive participants are more likely to be concerned with

disadvantageous inequality. Individuals who dislike disadvantageous status have a tendency to

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compare with others. Similarly, when individuals are concerned with advantageous inequality (i.e.,
beneficiary and perpetrator), they also have a tendency to compare with others. As with the fear of
being exploited, observer and beneficiary sensitivity also reflect a concern for self.[188] Social
comparison sensitivity regulates the effects of perception of unfairness on outcomes and might
deepen the experience of negative feeling caused by victim and observer injustice sensitivity. Even
someone in advantageous status will inevitably compare the self with others, and the emotion
associated with the compensation of a victim or retaliation against a perpetrator will prompt the
individual to feel concern for others.[189]

Scientific studies
A New York Times article in 2002 cited a number of scientific studies of schadenfreude, which it
defined as, "delighting in others' misfortune". Many such studies are based on social comparison
theory, the idea that when people around us have bad luck, we look better to ourselves. Other
researchers have found that people with low self-esteem are more likely to feel schadenfreude than
are people who have high self-esteem.[190]

A 2003 study examined intergroup schadenfreude within the context of sports, specifically an
international football (soccer) competition. The study focused on the German and Dutch football
teams and their fans. The results of this study indicated that the emotion of schadenfreude is very
sensitive to circumstances that make it more or less legitimate to feel such malicious pleasure
towards a sports rival.[191]

A 2011 study by Cikara and colleagues using fMRI examined Schadenfreude among Boston Red
Sox and New York Yankees fans found that fans' showed increased activation in brain areas
correlated with self-reported pleasure (ventral striatum) when observing the rival team experience a
negative outcome (e.g., a strike out).[192] By contrast, fans exhibited increased activation in the
anterior cingulate and insula when viewing their own team experience a negative outcome.

A 2006 experiment about justice served suggests that men, but not women, enjoy seeing "bad
people" suffer. The study was designed to measure empathy, by watching which brain centers are
stimulated when subjects inside an fMRI observe someone experiencing physical pain. Researchers
expected that the brain's empathy center of subjects would show more stimulation when those seen
as "good" got an electric shock, than would occur if the shock was given to someone the subject
had reason to consider "bad". This was indeed the case, but for male subjects, the brain's pleasure
centers also lit up when someone got a shock that the male thought was "well-deserved". [193]

Brain-scanning studies show that schadenfreude is correlated with envy in subjects. Strong feelings
of envy activated physical pain nodes in the brain's dorsal anterior cingulate cortex; the brain's
reward centers, such as the ventral striatum, were activated by news that other people envied had
suffered misfortune. The magnitude of the brain's schadenfreude response could even be predicted
from the strength of the previous envy response.[194][195]

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A study conducted in 2009 provides evidence for people's capacity to feel schadenfreude in
response to negative events in politics.[196] The study was designed to determine whether or not
there was a possibility that events containing objective misfortunes might produce schadenfreude.
It was reported in the study that the likelihood of experiencing feelings of schadenfreude depends
upon whether an individual's own party or the opposing party is suffering harm. This study suggests
that the domain of politics is prime territory for feelings of schadenfreude, especially for those who
identify strongly with their political party.

In popular culture
In "When Flanders Failed", a 1991 episode of The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson defined
"schadenfreude" to Homer as "shameful joy", repopularizing the term, which had faded from
English publications since spiking after World War II.[197]

In the 2003 Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q, the song "Schadenfreude" parodies the
language instruction songs of Sesame Street.[198] The song, sung by characters Gary Coleman and
Nicky, describes schadenfreude as "German for 'happiness at the misfortune of others'". In the song,
schadenfreude is also described as "making me feel glad that I'm not you" and "people taking
pleasure in your pain". The characters use examples like "D'ja ever clap when a waitress falls and
drops a tray of glasses?" and "Don'tcha feel all warm and cozy, watching people out in the rain?" as
being schadenfreude.[199]

A 2005 episode of the television drama Boston Legal carries the term as its title. In the episode,
attorney Alan Shore describes this condition to a jury in order to describe the only way they could
possibly attain a guilty verdict against his client.[200][201]

A 2005 episode of the television police drama Cold Case also carries the term as its title. The
episode describes this condition as the media's motive for the quickened prosecution of a doctor on
his wife's murder and the re-opening of the case years later after new evidence comes to light.

New Orleans-based blackened thrash metal band Goatwhore has a track titled "Schadenfreude" in
their 2014 album Constricting Rage of the Merciless.

In 2013, electronic music group The M Machine released a track titled "Schadenfreude" on their
album Metropolis, Pt. II.

In 2008, American electronic-industrial group Aesthetic Perfection released a track titled

"Schadenfreude" on their second album A Violent Emotion.

The video game Team Fortress 2 has a taunt in the game called "The Schadenfreude" where classes
will point and laugh.

A frequent guest on the BS Report and other Bill Simmons related podcasts named John O'Connell

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(aka JackO, aka The Gregarious Raconteur) refers to his own sense of schadenfreude frequently as
it relates to watching athletic teams he dislikes either losing games or making poor decisions with

See also
Gallows humor
Katagelasticism, a psychological condition in which a person excessively enjoys laughing at
Mudita, the appreciation of the success (rather than the suffering) of others
Slapstick comedy


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Further reading
Smith, Richard H. 2013. The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature.

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