Understanding Schadenfreude and When It Makes You a Bad Person


Schadenfreude is a fun word to say. I could probably spend hours simply finding new ways to pronounce it. Sha-den-froy-duh. SHA-ten-FRAU-de. It’s endless. It is also one of my favorite emotional responses for two reasons. First, the elicit joy it delivers is rarely matched. Second, analyzing whether or not that joy is justified or a dangerous consequence of a deeply held bias. What can I say, I like to self analyze. 

Schadenfreude is defined as the experience of pleasure from learning or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another. Translated directly as “harm-joy.” A better English translation may be ‘malicious joy’ or ‘sinister happiness’. That feeling you get when your team’s archrival loses. Or when a celebrity you’ve never liked gets caught up in a scandal. Or when a member of the Trump family goes to jail. Those are all examples of Schadenfreude. Unfortunately, It really shouldn’t be spoken about in the positive tone I used earlier. 

Psychologists have noted 3 types of schadenfreude and each can have scary consequences if an individual lets them go unchecked. The first is aggression-based schadenfreude. Also referred to as ‘in-group schadenfreude’. This is the joy of observing another’s failure and letting that failure reinforce the hierarchy of the in-group over the failed out-group. Sports, political partisanship, and even religion could be examples of the in-group structure. Every Tennessee Volunteer loss further proves that the Alabama Crimson Tide is superior and therefore I am superior for being an Alabama fan. (I’m not sure if that fact is a good example, just thought I’d share). 

The second type is rivalry-based schadenfreude, which sounds similar to the first but has a clear distinction. It is individually based. It occurs when you go out of your way to compete with another individual. I may have taken pleasure in seeing a coworker struggle. We are also not allowed to play board games in my home because my wife gets far too much schadenfreude from defeating other players.

The final type is justice-based schadenfreude. This is probably the most common version seen on social media and the news cycle. The joy we feel when someone who we deem deserving of punishment gets their comeuppance. When a popular or controversial court case ends in a guilty verdict and celebrations occur is a recent example. Another example could be when a grifter runs for political office with zero experience and barely finishes in fourth place in his primary and I celebrate the end of his ‘gang’ incessantly mailing me flyers. 

The danger with this feeling comes from a lack of self-awareness. If we feed into it too much without reflection, our biases may grow unchecked. Taking a small personal joy in another’s misfortune may lead to craving. That craving could cause you to hope for exponentially worsening experiences. Perhaps even causing them yourself. Violence between groups from sports to religion occurs from such biases. It could cause a privileged class to storm a governmental building with the intent to kill politicians.

Schadenfreude is more common in adults than children. Children are still capable of experiencing it but are much less likely to conceal it. I suppose it’s a good thing we teach people to hide their maliciousness. I would still assume schadenfreude is a learned response, a learned emotion. Groups have been known to teach it as a show of strength. It’s been around since Aristotle and even warned against in the Bible (Proverbs). I always enjoy a bit of schadenfreude, but not without a bit of reflection afterward to ensure my thoughts are well placed. I like to see an opposing player make a mistake, but I hate to see him injured. Some may call that politically correct, which is why we need more PC culture. That’s a rant for another day.