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The Neuroscience of Schadenfreude

Why do we sometimes delight in other people’s misfortune? The ugly emotion has an appropriately harsh name—Schadenfreude—and most of us have been guilty of it on occasion.

But the emotion may reveal something not terribly flattering about the person who feels it. A 2011 study concluded that we’re more likely to experience Schadenfreude if we suffer from low self-esteem. Researchers evaluated the self-esteem of 70 undergraduates and then told them about a fellow student who was a high-achiever. They later told the subjects that the successful student had given a lousy thesis presentation and was being forced to rewrite it.

The students’ levels of Schadenfreude were tested by asking whether they agreed with statements like “I couldn’t resist a little smile.” Those with low self-esteem felt more threatened by the achievements of the student, and those who felt more threatened registered higher levels of Schadenfreude. They were more pleased when the perceived threat was knocked down a peg.

Another study found that Schadenfreude is stronger the more similar the two people are. For instance, men were more likely to experience Schadenfreude when the person who suffered a setback was a man (the same was true for women). In general, the researchers found that men experienced more intense feelings of Schadenfreude.

In 2009, researchers tried to determine where precisely Schadenfreude occurs in the brain and concluded that “pleasure at another’s misfortune is correspondent to the activation of the ventral striatum and the medial orbitofrontal cortex.” There are accompanying fMRI scans of a brain with a tiny lit-up portion circled in red.

This kind of neuroimaging research, which locates emotions in certain parts of the brain, has been under scrutiny for a while and, when questions were raised about this particular study, the authors defended their work. Let’s hope they did everything right.

(image via Flickr)

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