Psychology behind schadenfreude
Last week, a tourist submersible carrying five people to see the Titanic wreckage at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean lost all communication with its support ship, barely two hours into the journey. The week-long rescue effort ultimately discovered pieces of the Titan on the seafloor, concluding that the passengers had likely died from a catastrophic implosion of the vessel. Along with the media’s extensive coverage of the unfolding events, came an onslaught of online jokes, memes, and angry comments. Some even lamented last Wednesday, that the world only had a day left to make fun of the incident—referring to the passengers’ dwindling oxygen reserves. One is compelled to ask what is it about this particular tragedy that inspired such strong, and at times, distasteful reactions?
Schadenfreude is a German term that refers to the experience of finding pleasure from the suffering of others. While this complex emotion has been recognized since the 1800s, it has become more increasingly visible in the digital age. The impersonal online environment has made it easier for individuals to view another person’s circumstance with emotional indifference, and publicly express schadenfreude with less guilt or remorse.
To understand the psychology of schadenfreude, we must first understand the fundamental human tendency to engage in social comparison. Individuals naturally assess their own well-being, abilities, and achievements in relation to others. Schadenfreude could be one way a person tries to build their self-esteem. When they see that they are in a better state compared to others, they may experience a sense of validation for their own choices and circumstance. For example, someone monitoring the Titan’s situation at home may be subconsciously taking pride in their relative position of safety.
Schadenfreude could also stem from the in-group/out-group dynamics prevalent in society. Human beings often form their social identity based on race, gender, socioeconomic level, religion, and other shared interests. People tend to judge and treat people within their group more favorably, and are more likely to experience satisfaction and superiority when observing the struggles of those outside their group.
While most expressed horror and concern when news about the Titan was first announced, less sympathetic messages started to emerge as more details came to light. In a world where the majority are just trying to get by, it is already quite difficult for people to relate, much less, feel sorry for a billionaire. Even more alienating is the idea that Titan passengers had paid $250,000 per seat for an experience that had unnecessarily endangered, and eventually claimed their lives. Many social media users also complained about the disparity in the resources that were poured into finding five wealthy individuals versus the recent Greek shipwreck that carried hundreds of migrants. As British journalist Ashna Sarkar tweeted, “The Titanic submarine is a modern morality tale of what happens when you have too much money, and the grotesque inequality of sympathy, attention, and aid for those without it.”
If schadenfreude could feel extra satisfying at times, research has shown that it’s because it activates the brain’s reward centers. Circumstances that are suffused with retributive justice could bring an even stronger dopamine high. When news outlets revealed that Stockton Rush, the company’s CEO and pilot of the fated voyage, may have cut corners, bypassed safety measures, and terminated people who questioned the integrity of the submersible, many people online voiced out that he got exactly what he deserved.
Psychologists assure that experiencing schadenfreude once in a while is normal. From an evolutionary standpoint, this could be a demonstration of how our brains learned to take advantage of our competitors’ weaknesses. Left unchecked, however, it could lead to malicious and harmful behavior. At times when we find ourselves enjoying another person’s misfortune, it might be worth taking a step back to examine why we need to see someone in distress in order to make ourselves feel bigger. A simple act of reflection may help temper our elation, as well as our desire to lord our perceived superiority over those going through a difficult time.
Ultimately, the catharsis and validation that moments of schadenfreude may give us must not serve as pretext to let go of basic human decency. In the case of the Titan submersible, we may choose to respectfully articulate our disapproval of how other people use their privilege and show appreciation for how the online jokes had helped put the spotlight on classism. We must not forget, however, that there are people who are mourning the loss of their loved ones. We may not be able to relate to a billionaire’s lifestyle, but grief is a language we all speak, and our empathy and compassion for others should know no limits.