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Schadenfreude is better than reputation

Schadenfreude is one of the "weird", "awesome", "perfect German words", the meaning of which is known to many foreign languages. Not all of them have a designation as such. Instead of translating it," Schadenfreude "was even simply adopted in English:" shaa-duhn-froy-duh ".

But what can you say? The precision of the term is also remarkable. As a rule, there is little room for interpretation: malicious joy is the malicious, the sweet joy of the mishap, the misfortune, the harm of another.

You probably know the feeling, and one or the other incident will surely come to mind.

Schadenfreude in 3,2,1?

Here is a prime example from my very personal repertoire: Summer vacation 2018. While my girlfriend is sunbathing by the pool, I decide to swim a few laps on my own - and take a shower beforehand, as it should be.

You can imagine the rest: I slip, fall and slide all the way to the shower; braked and cushioned by the muddy, sodden lawn.

At the same time, I also parked backwards next to a "careful, slippery" warning sign. Great class!

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Warning, slippery! Slapstick or schadenfreude?

I can imagine how my friend can't stop laughing on her lounger. I don't even have to stand up for that. But I also contributed to the amusement of all the rest of the visitors - and especially the children in the pool.

But even I can't stop myself laughing, how am I supposed to blame the other? After all, it was a picture-perfect fall.

Stop! It's about more than just humor

But wait a minute, Dr. Lea Boecker, psychologist at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, explains my prime example - which, strictly speaking, is not one at all: "What we often call schadenfreude in everyday life is not what we mean in research Understand schadenfreude, "she says.

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Lea Boecker works and researches at the Leuphana University in Lüneburg. Her specialty: Schadenfreude.

And she has to know, after all, Lea Boecker deals with the phenomenon non-stop. Your last study, for example, dealt with the purpose of schadenfreude.

"We refer to these short, funny everyday moments more as slapstick or locate them in humor research," she says. Schadenfreude is also defined as a positive emotion, but it is a much more complex feeling in which many factors play a role.

First of all, schadenfreude is a passive and indirect emotion. "If, for example, I trip someone up myself and they slip, or I shoot and score a penalty myself, then it's not malicious pleasure because I actively brought it about myself," explains Lea Boecker.

Gloating or pity

Schadenfreude happens when we observe something and when we are not involved in the mishap that happens to someone. "Then we can either feel sorry for us, or schadenfreude," said Boecker. "When something good happens to someone, we can be jealous or we can be happy."

They are closely related to completely different feelings: The direct alternative to schadenfreude, for example, is pity. What we ultimately feel depends heavily on the relationship with the person to whom something is happening. And that is precisely the crux of the matter: "In order to be able to experience malicious pleasure, we must have acquired the ability to take on perspectives," says Boecker.

In psychology and cognitive science this is called "Theory of Mind" (ToM). The term describes the ability to empathize with other people and to guess their perspectives - this includes feelings, needs, ideas, intentions, expectations and opinions.

"So I first have to understand what the misfortune means for the other," says Lea Boecker. "And then I can decide whether I'm happy about it or not and whether I feel sorry for it," says the psychologist.

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The alternative to schadenfreude: compassion or compassion.

Pure happiness!

Well. Schadenfreude is by no means simple. Nevertheless, my pool experience has left its mark, or shall we rather say: questions. Is schadenfreude good - or bad? Do all people feel schadenfreude? And what happens in our brain?

"There are different ways of measuring that," says Lea Boecker. Glee can be proven, for example, with certain questioning techniques, but also with the help of brain scans. "And that actually brought some interesting results," the psychologist knows.

Because schadenfreude is an extremely complicated emotion, but neurologically it is very simple: "When we are happy about someone else's mishap, the reward center in our brain is activated." In other words: Schadenfreude looks exactly like pure happiness and feels like it too. That makes the feeling so nice.

One universal phenomenon, different triggers

"Even if the German term is often used, we now know that even in countries that have no word for it, schadenfreude is a universal psychological phenomenon," says Lea Boecker.

Researchers have been getting to the bottom of schadenfreude for around the 90s. Or at least try. "In fact, the phenomenon has not yet been well researched," says Lea Boecker from Leuphana University.

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Schadenfreude looks and feels like pure happiness!

Unsympathetic? Unfair? Think? Haha!

However, it has now been clarified what triggers malicious joy. One factor is sympathy. "If I don't like someone very much, for example if they belong to an outgroup - another football team - then there is a kind of rivalry," says Boecker. If the opponent then has a mishap, glee is the result. Competition is also a trigger, for example.

Another factor is the "degree of merit" or the sense of justice. "For example, if someone is very self-confident or arrogant, or has acted morally reprehensible, then one is happy when this person is punished. In that moment it feels right." The glee turns into a moral emotion, notes Boecker.

And then there is also superiority as a triggering factor. As described above, schadenfreude is often associated with envy. "It can have very different dimensions," says Lea Boecker. "For example, I can envy someone their athletic performance, their attractiveness, their income, their fame." When such a mishap happens to someone, the reward center kicks in. We feel great joy.

Lea Boecker has demonstrated this on the basis of lottery games: The most malicious joy was when someone superior lost money. In this case pity prevailed among the losers.

Of course, many factors can also come together: We find people unsympathetic, they are superior to us and they somehow deserve it. "Then the glee is particularly great," says the psychologist. "That often applies to people who are in public and who also polarize." In this case, you can think of prime examples for yourself.

When do we get gleeful?

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences have got to the bottom of the origin of schadenfreude in other ways: At what age do we feel schadenfreude? When do we want to watch what we think is a deserved punishment?

And how do you find out if children are the test subjects? The implementation was actually quite trivial: the researchers entertained the little test subjects with a puppet theater. There were sympathizers among the dolls and of course a villain.

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Sorry, somebody's got to be the villain here

The result: The four- and five-year-olds showed no differentiated behavior towards the opposing figures. Here we are back to the topic of perspective adoption. The six-year-olds, on the other hand, experienced a kind of joy when they saw bad guys suffer. The scientists read that from the children's facial expressions, which speaks volumes.

It's in our blood

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology observed something similar in chimpanzees. There was no theatrical performance here, but animal keepers slipped into the roles of good and bad caretakers.

An extraordinary number of chimpanzees went to the cost and effort to see how the unloved keeper is punished. To do this, they had to open a heavy door to an adjoining room in order to observe the scenery.

In the case of the friendly person, however, the chimpanzees did without it. Or - quite the contrary: Many even protested loudly against the fact that the nurse is brought into pain.

Chimpanzees can also experience a kind of malicious pleasure

Chimpanzees also enjoy fair punishment

"Our results show that children as young as six and even chimpanzees want to punish unjust behavior and feel an urge to observe how others are punished for their unsocial behavior," explains Natacha Mendes, scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and one of the two first authors of the accompanying study. Accordingly, this is where the evolutionary roots for this behavior lie. This is essential for organizing life in communities.

"We can't say for sure whether the children and the monkeys actually feel malicious pleasure. Their behavior is a clear sign that both children from the age of six and chimpanzees have the urge to watch, as others do for be punished for their uncooperative behavior, "adds Nikolaus Steinbeis, also first author of the study and scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

What is the social function of Schadenfreude?

"So far, emotion researchers have often dealt with what Schadenfreude does to you personally, and why it is triggered," says Lea Boecker. "But it is also exciting to observe such complex emotions in the social field: What does it do to the other person to whom I express malicious pleasure?"

In short: What is the social function of Schadenfreude? Lea Boecker pursued this question together with psychologist Jens Lange from the University of Cologne.

Above all, dominance can trigger malicious pleasure - and as a result regulate hierarchies

haughtiness comes before the event

This is where the superiority factor comes into play with Schadenfreude. "You can actually only achieve a high status through two things," says Lea Boecker: "Through prestige and dominance."

Take the status of a manager or a professional athlete as an example: Both positions can be achieved by being recognized and respected by others for good performance. You can also achieve this high status through dominance, with the help of intimidation and aggressive behavior, for example.

"Our research shows that especially people who have achieved their high status through dominance trigger a lot of malicious glee," explains study author Lea Boecker.

That may not come as a surprise, because it is not particularly personable after all.

Schadenfreude helps

But: This is where the social advantages of schadenfreude come into play. If such dominant people are exposed and exposed to genuine malicious glee, it can get them off their high horse. "If people dare to express malicious pleasure, that regulates the dominance of the person concerned down," explains Boecker.

And that has further behavioral consequences: Because then we may also dare to give this person back again.

"Schadenfreude is often not particularly desirable socially, because the empathic response would usually be pity," says Lea Boecker. At the same time, Schadenfreude also has a lot of social potential. "Schadenfreude is fun, schadenfreude can increase one's self-esteem, regulate hierarchies and can also compensate for the dominance of other people."

"But there are still a lot of unanswered questions that have not yet been clarified," says Lea Boecker. "For example, how it feels for the Schadenfreude victim, what consequences it has for the person, how Schadenfreude behaves in the group and all that. You don't know much about it yet."

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