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Schadenfreude December 26, 2010

Posted by frewon9 in Inspirational.

just for the fact but theres a reason why so many since 2008 are doing it

Schadenfreude (pronounced /ˈʃɑːdənfrɔɪdə/, German pronunciation: [ˈʃaːdənˌfʁɔʏ̯də]) play audio Audio (US) is pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. This German word is used as a loanword in English and some other languages, including Danish and Swedish.

Linguistic analysis

Spelling and etymology

In German, Schadenfreude is capitalized, as are all nouns; when used as a loanword in English, however, it is not, unless the origin of the word is meant to be emphasized. The corresponding German adjective is schadenfroh. The word derives from Schaden, “adversity, 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”. A distinction exists between “secret schadenfreude” (a private feeling) and “open schadenfreude” (Hohn, a German word roughly translated as “scorn”) which is outright public derision.

English equivalents

Little-used English words synonymous with schadenfreude have been derived from the Greek word ἐπιχαιρεκακία. Nathan Bailey’s 18th-century Universal Etymological English Dictionary, for example, contains an entry for epicharikaky that gives its etymology as a compound of epi (upon), chaira (joy/charity/heart), and kakon (evil). A popular modern collection of rare words, however, gives its spelling as “epicaricacy.”

A more common English expression with a similar meaning is ‘Roman holiday’, a metaphor taken from the poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” by George Gordon, Lord Byron, where a gladiator in Ancient Rome expects to be “butcher’d 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.

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”. The medieval church taught morose delectation as a sin. French writer Pierre Klossowski maintained that the appeal of sadism is morose delectation.


The Buddhist concept of mudita, “sympathetic joy” or “happiness in another’s good fortune,” is cited as an example of the opposite of schadenfreude. Alternatively envy (or its German near-equivalent “Glückschmerz”), 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 may be termed empathy, pity or compassion.

The transposed variant “Freudenschade” seems to have been multiply invented to mean sorrow at another person’s success.

Literary usage and philosophical analysis

The Book of Proverbs mentions an emotion similar to that now described by the word 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 the term epikhairekakia (alternatively epikairekakia; ἐπιχαιρεκακία in Greek) as part of a triad of terms, in which epikhairekakia stands as the opposite of phthonos, and nemesis 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 person actually takes pleasure in another’s ill fortune.

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.”

Susan Sontag’s book “Regarding the Pain of Others”, published in 2003, is a study of the issue of how the pain/misfortune of some affects others, namely whether war photography and war paintings can be helpful as anti-war tools or if 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.”

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.

A 2006 experiment 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 having a painful experience. Researchers expected that the brain’s empathy center would show more stimulation when those seen as good got an electric shock than they would 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 else got a shock that the male thought was well-deserved.

Brain-scanning studies show that schadenfreude is correlated with envy. Strong feelings of envy activated physical pain nodes in the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex; the brain’s reward centers (e.g. the ventral striatum) were activated by news that the 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.

Goodbye, schadenfreude; hello, fail.

When Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson testified before the Senate banking committee last month about Paulson’s proposed bailout bill, a demonstrator in the audience held up an 8.5-by-11 piece of paper with one word scrawled on it in block letters: “FAIL.” Earlier in September, Sarah Palin’s interview with Charlie Gibson was dubbed by some bloggers an “epic fail.” Grist magazine invoked the phrase when John McCain told a Maine TV reporter that Sarah Palin “knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States.” And just last week on the Atlantic‘s Web site, Ta-Nehisi Coates found the theory that Bill Ayers ghost-wrote Barack Obama’s memoir so “desperate” he called it an “Epic Fail.”

What’s with all the failing lately? Why fail instead of failure? Why FAIL instead of fail? And why, for that matter, does it have to be “epic”?

It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the first reference, given how common the verb fail is, but online commenters suggest it started with a 1998 Neo Geo arcade game called Blazing Star. (References to the fail meme go as far back as 2003.) Of all the game’s obvious draws—among them fast-paced action, disco music, and anime-style cut scenes—its staying power comes from its wonderfully terrible Japanese-to-English translations. If you beat a level, the screen flashes with the words: “You beat it! Your skill is great!” If you lose, you are mocked: “You fail it! Your skill is not enough! See you next time! Bye bye!”

Normally, this sort of game would vanish into the cultural ether. But in the lulz-obsessed echo chamber of online message boards—lulz being the questionable pleasure of hurting someone’s feelings on the Web—”You fail it” became the shorthand way to gloat about any humiliation, major or minor. “It” could be anything, from getting a joke to executing a basic mental task. For example, if you told me, “Hey, I liked your article in Salon today,” I could say, “You fail it.” Convention dictates that I could also add, in parentheses, “(it being reading the titles of publications).” The phrase was soon shortened to fail—or, thanks to the caps-is-always-funnier school of Web writing, FAIL. People started pasting the word in block letters over photos of shameful screw-ups, and a meme was born.

The fail meme hit the big time this year with the May launch of Failblog, an assiduous chronicler of humiliation and a guide to the taxonomy of fail. The most basic fails—a truck getting sideswiped by an oncoming train, say, or a National Anthem singer falling down on the ice—are usually the most boring, as obvious as a clip from America’s Funniest Home Videos. Another easy laugh is the translation fail, such as the unfortunately named “Universidad de Moron.” This is the same genre of fail that spawned Engrish, an entire site devoted to poor English translations of Asian languages, not to mention the fail meme itself. A notch above those are unintentional-contradiction fails, like “seedless” sunflower seeds or a door with two signs on it: “Welcome” and “Keep Out.” Architectural fails have the added misfortune of being semipermanent, such as the handicapped ramp that leads the disabled to a set of stairs or the second-story door that opens out onto nothing. Even more embarrassing are simple information fails, like the brochure that invites students to “Study Spanish in Mexico” with photos of the Egyptian pyramids. These fails often expose deep ignorance: One woman thinks her sprinkler makes a rainbow because of toxins in the water and air.

The highest form of fail—the epic fail—involves not just catastrophic failure but hubris as well. Not just coming in second in a bike race but doing so because you fell off your bike after prematurely raising your arms in victory. Totaling your pickup not because the brakes failed but because you were trying to ride on the windshield. Not just destroying your fish tank but doing it while trying to film yourself lifting weights.

Why has fail become so popular? It may simply be that people are thrilled to finally have a way to express their schadenfreude out loud. Schadenfreude, after all, is what you feel when someone else executes a fail. But the fail meme also changes our experience of schadenfreude. What was once a quiet pleasure-taking is now a public—and competitive—sport.

It’s no wonder, then, that the fail meme gained wider currency with the advent of the financial crisis. Some observers relished watching wealthier-than-God investment bankers get their comeuppance. It helped that the two events occurred at the same time—Google searches for fail surged in early 2008, around the same time the mortgage crisis started to pick up steam. And the ubiquity of phrases like “failed mortgages” and “bank failures” seemed to echo the popular meme, which may have helped usher the term out of 4chan boards and onto blogs. It’s rare that an Internet fad finds such a suitable mainstream vehicle for its dissemination. It’s as if LOLcats coincided with a global outbreak of some feline adorability virus. The financial crisis also fits neatly into the Internet’s tendency toward overstatement. (Worst. Subprime mortgage crisis. Ever.) Only this time, it’s not an exaggeration.

Most Internet memes have the lifespan of fruit flies. But there’s evidence to suggest fail is here to stay. For one thing, it’s easier to say than failure. (Need for brevity might explain why, in Webspeak, the opposite of fail is not success but win.) And there’s a proud tradition in English of chopping off the endings of words for convenience. Between Old and Middle English, many nouns stopped being declined, says Anatoly Liberman, an etymologist at the University of Minnesota. Likewise, while Romance languages still conjugate their verbs, English keeps it relatively simple: I speak, you speak, we speak, etc. It’s also common for verbs to become nouns, Liberman points out. You can lock a door, but it also has a lock. You can bike, but you can also own a bike. There was great fuss a century ago among readers of the British magazine Notes and Queries when it used the word meet to refer to a sporting event. It’s not surprising that failure would eventually spawn fail.

This Is Your Brain on Schadenfreude

Now that schadenfreude, which I always thought meant “shades of Freud” but actually means taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, has been located in the brain, I am awaiting news on the location of ennui, angst, misery, malaise and “feeling pretty.”

Skip to next paragraph 


Ruth Marten

I was actually hoping for anomie as well, but that was when I thought it was something like ennui. Apparently, if we are to believe the several dictionaries I consulted, anomie isn’t exactly a state of mind but a kind of disconnected lack of direction or morals.

I think my expectations are reasonable. After all, brain scans – which were used in the detection of schadenfreude – have clearly reached the level of sophistication required to identify states of mind described by complicated German words. Soon they will advance to states of mind truly expressible only in French, and ultimately to the kind of internal experience until now captured only in our best musical comedies.

Tania Singer at University College London and her colleagues, who published a schadenfreude paper in Nature, were not actually searching for schadenfreude when they used functional magnetic resonance imaging to watch the brains of subjects in action. Their primary interest was variation in levels of empathy, which can be detected by the activity in “pain-related areas” like the “fronto-insular and anterior cingulate cortices” of the brain when a person is watching someone else in pain.

First the experimental subjects watched people playing a game in which some cheated (bad people) and others played fair (good people). Then they watched the same people suffering from a painful stimulus.

The empathy circuits lighted up in both men and women when bad things happened to good people. When bad things happened to bad people, the women in the study were still empathic. But not the men. Not only did they show less empathy toward bad people, but the reward center in the left nucleus accumbens lighted up. All that translates as “Serves him right!”

I wouldn’t exactly call that schadenfreude, although Nature made it the core of its press release and most news coverage emphasized the big German word. Dr. Singer didn’t actually put the word in her paper, either, but in an interview she defended the idea that the emotion she was viewing came under the heading of schadenfreude. She did acknowledge that the word included other feelings.

When someone slips and falls on the ice, celebrities have wardrobe malfunctions and rich people lose money, your reward center may light up. Sometimes envy inspires schadenfreude. Sometimes it’s just a good camera angle. Another example, not mentioned in the Nature press release, might be when a competitor, say the journal Science, publishes papers by Dr. Hwang Woo Suk that turn out to be fabricated and you (Nature) publish a paper by the same author about an improbably cloned Afghan hound that has held up to scrutiny so far.

There is a small flaw in my wish to see what part of the brain lights up when Maria sings “I Feel Pretty” in “West Side Story.” With brain scans, a lot depends on context. What Dr. Singer and colleagues saw was a reward center lighting up and the empathy circuits dimming. She said the same reward center might also be active in anticipation of chocolate, for instance, and in drug addiction.

Still, even if we need to bring in context, there is a great big world of emotions and mental activity out there to be scanned. There’s amusement, bemusement and disillusionment. One could be dazed, or confused, or dazed and confused. Would those be different?

Not to mention the blues. There are the morning blues, the poor man’s blues, the white boy blues, the Chicken Cordon Blues and the “blues you get from trying to keep your Uncle Bill from dying and he afterward forgets you in his will.” Are they all the same?

These questions may not be answered in my lifetime, but I hope for the resolution of one question that has always plagued me, the difference between ennui and boredom.

Suppose one performed brain scans of adolescents refusing to do their homework, prisoners serving life sentences and graduate students suffering from ennui. Based on the self-assessments of adolescents I know, I predict that the prisoners and the adolescents will show similar brain activity – anger toward the warden turned inward.

I don’t know where that happens in the brain, but I’m betting the graduate students are just going through periods of involuntary celibacy and trying not to be obvious about their desperation.

Neuroscience of Envy and Schadenfreude

by NotoriousLTP

I don’t think I am alone in saying that I often feel a little envy and schadenfreude towards my peers. Science is a particularly competitive business with few remunerative rewards, so a lot of my self-worth is tied to comparisons with my peer’s successes and failures. I won’t deny being envious when someone gets a Science paper. And while seeing the abject failure of my peers isn’t high on my list of priorities, I won’t deny the small satisfaction that I get when someone who breezed through their PhD gets taken down a peg.

These aren’t happy-joy-joy emotions. They don’t make me swell with pride for the future of humanity. They aren’t pleasant, but they are nonetheless humane in that — except for saints — they are general to the human species.

Takahashi et al. study the neurology of these darker emotions. The authors use fMRI to examine the activation in the human brain that comes when we feel envy and schadenfreude. The authors find that these abstract emotions activate very visceral systems in the brain — which says interesting things about how the brain is organized.

Takahashi et al. measured the activation in 19 healthy subjects brains using functional MRI while the subjects visualized a variety of scenarios.

The subjects were asks to visualize being the protagonist in scenarios that college students might face. For example, here is an envy-evoking scenario that the subject was asked to visualize with themselves as the protagonist (from the Supplemental material):

Student A did well in his final examinations, but the protagonist did not. Student A is talented in baseball but the protagonist is not. Student A is popular among girls and has a beautiful and intelligent girlfriend, but protagonist is not popular and does not have a steady girlfriend. Student A is successful in the job interview and is getting along well at the company he wanted to join, but the protagonist is not. The salary of student A is good and he enjoys a metropolitan and western life style (living in a luxurious condominium downtown, owning a high-class European car, collecting watches, travelling overseas, going to a fancy French restaurant, and having many opportunities to meet girls), but the protagonist’s salary is not good and he is not able to enjoy a metropolitan life.

A comparable schadenfreude-evoking scenario might involve the protagonist doing much better than a comparably-situated student. The scenarios were varied to include the gender of the subject (other students might be assigned the same gender as the subject to help them relate), the degree of similarity between the subject and the other students, and how well they were doing in comparison. Analysis of the resulting brain scans compared activation in different brain regions under envy-evoking, schadenfreude-evoking, and neutral scenarios. The subjects were also asked to rate their relative feelings of envy and gloating in each scenario.

They were three key findings:

  • When the subjects were asked to visualize scenarios where someone similar to them was doing better than they were — envy-evoking — they show greater activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The level of increased activation correlated with increased self-reported feelings of envy. The ACC is associated with conflict or error detection — when the expected response or scenario is not what happened. It is also shows activation during pain, such as empathetic pain or the pain associated social exclusion. Interestingly, the ACC activation in this task was only increased when the subject could relate to the object of their envy. The authors’ interpreted this finding that when a subject cannot relate to the other person — when they are not “self-relevant” — you don’t feel envy towards them: “That is, if the possession of the target person is superior and the comparison domain is self-relevant, we feel intense envy. When the comparison domain is not self-relevant, we do not feel strong envy, even if the possession is superior. When the comparison target is neither superior nor self-relevant, we are indifferent to the target.”
  • When the subjects were asked to visualize scenarios where someone similar to them was doing worse than they were — schadenfreude-evoking — increased activation was shown in the ventral striatum, and increases were correlated with increased self-reports of schadenfreude. However, like the previous experiment, these correlations were only observed when the person was someone they related to — i.e. someone they could envy. Activation in the ventral striatum is typically associated with rewarding stimuli. Hence, the authors interpreted the activation with schadenfreude as a feeling of pleasure.
  • Finally, the degree of activation in the ACC from envy and the degree of activation in the ventral striatum from schadenfreude were positively correlated. Likewise, the degree of self-reported envy and schadenfreude were positively correlated. Both results suggest that the two feelings may be related.

The authors use these findings to propose a neurological mechanism that relates both envy and schadenfreude. Our feelings about the relative states of people can be rewarding or painful. However, these feelings of pain and pleasure can be mediated in a variety of ways. One such way is how we relate to the other person. It is hard to get worked over someone that you don’t know or is nothing like you. How much you can empathize with a person determines how much you can envy them or feel schadenfreude about them. Likewise, these feelings are determined by your relative position — not your absolute position. You gauge whether an event gives you pain or pleasure not by how you did, but how you did in relationship to comparable others.

What do I take away from this study?

I think this study is interesting for two reasons.

For starters, this paper is cool is because the subjects really aren’t experiencing envy or schadenfreude. OK, scratch that. They are really experiencing it — their brains really are activating — but why are they activating? I mean, they are just being read scenarios. They are not the kid who didn’t get the job he wanted and watched someone else get it. Rather they were asked to visualize the experience, and the authors saw comparable activation. This study is cool because it reveals yet again the power of imagination in the human emotional experience. The mere act of imaging is sufficient to evoke true emotional experiences.

More importantly — and this is a point made in the Faculty of 1000 review of the article by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky — this is but one more in a series of studies that suggest that human beings experience abstract feelings using the same systems by which we experience concrete feelings. What do I mean by that? Say you are feeling the pain of social exclusion. We speak of that as “pain,” but that we mean more of an abstract, nebulous longing. However, the evidence suggests that the mechanisms by which we experience abstract pain are literally the same mechanisms by which we experience physical pain. The situation is similar for reward: you take pleasure at running or doing your job; therefore, you activate the same systems by which you experience ecstasy at a wonderful meal or sexual release.

Abstract emotions in the brain are implemented through the systems associated with concrete emotions. Or to repeat a neologism that Sapolsky uses in his review: the brain shows “onto-concreteness.”

Or to coin a totally new (and potentially useless) phrase: all emotion is reified.

This observation has fascinating evolutionary implications. It would appear that many of our sophisticated human emotions have evolved by “piggy-backing” (another of Sapolsky’s words) on relatively primal brain systems. We have developed complex emotions not by evolving new brain structures but by applying old ones to more complicated uses.





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