The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature 1/4

Richard H. Smith

book source

MK: Many people I talk to don’t believe they experience schadenfreude. It’s hard to tell if they’re saints or posers. Let’s read this book to find out.

1/ The Highs of Superiority

  • Schadenfreude - pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune. I’ll use the term “joy” for brevity, but don’t get confused: I mean evil joy, of course!

  • Social comparisons explain why we’re succeeding or failing: failure is a result of low relative ability; success is a result of high relative ability. Misfortunes occurring to others can be pleasing as they upgrade or self-evaluations.

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau: with greater contact among people in our more recent history, an increase in social comparisons increased. [MK: I’m not sure how the assumption that humans are mostly solitary creatures without the need for comparison reconciles with a well-known fact that humans are social creatures, and status based on comparisons has always been part of our lives.]

  • People comparing themselves to peers have higher self-esteem; comparing themselves to “better” people lowers the self-esteem; comparing themselves to “inferior” people doesn’t change the self-esteem.

  • Maintaining a positive sense of self is a motivating behaviour. One reliable way to do this is finding out one’s “competitive edge”: being better than others on some prized attributes. “Others” may mean whoever will lose in this comparison.

  • There’s nothing like a little success to blunt the influence of low self-esteem.

  • People who stand to gain psychologically from another person’s misfortune indeed get a boost to self-esteem from comparing themselves with someone suffering a setback. This is especially true for people with low self-esteem or a threat to their self-esteem.

  • People do differ in ways that consistently matter in terms of survival and reproduction. Differences provide advantages leading to higher status; thus, people are highly attuned to variations in rank on any attributes that grant them advantages. Inferiority feels bad, superiority feels good.

  • Mating used to be the culmination of the game: an offspring is likely to inherit adaptive superiority. Couples are usually matched in terms of physical attraction; jumping over the rank usually leads to rejection.

  • People easily sense their mate value from how they’re treated by others, and their feelings of satisfaction parallel actual and perceived mate values.


  • Status means access to prized resources and mating opportunities. Staying in low status leads to the removal of a person from a gene pool.

  • One doesn’t have to be the best of the best: oftentimes it’s sufficient to be relatively better than the nearest peer. Spending more time on improving one’s advantage after that is wasteful.

  • Most people, however, are happy with high status.

  • One route to high status is through the reduction in status of others, especially those of higher status. Especially when one can participate in or cause this fall from grace for others.

  • Social comparisons are all but inevitable: even children within the same family may think that one gets more than the other one. This is culture-dependent, but in life people also tend to rank themselves to the right of the normal distribution, because it’s easier to live being “better” than others.

  • Perceptions of superiority and inferiority are interlinked, but there also are downward comparisons.

2/ Looking Up by Looking Down

  • The current trend for reducing alcohol consumption is severely limiting the opportunities for people to embarrass themselves and for others to enjoy the show.

  • Reality television (the humilitainment) is a good example of viewers enjoying misfortunes of other (usually – higher class) people.

  • Downward comparisons may bring pleasure to the extent that criminals would enjoy hitting and even killing other (usually – helpless) people to feel better (and to compensate for the alleged past wrongs) and “pay back”.

  • People who have suffered or who have chronically low self-esteem enjoy watching less fortunate suffer – this brings joy.

  • Such opportunities can be passive or active. Passive opportunities are all around us – stories in the tabloid press or rumours. Active opportunities involve derogating others or deliberately causing harm, creating downward comparison opportunities.

  • The victims of such activities are people of lower status or “safe” targets, as cultural norms tend to turn a blind eye on such behaviour.

  • Extreme antisocial behaviours usually occur in groups in which people become deinvidualised and thus feel less responsible for their behaviours and less aware of their motivations. (direct quote)


  • The superiority theory of humour: laughter often stems from a sudden sense of superiority. [MK: I think a lot of responses to standup comedy jokes fit this profile.] The pleasure is more likely to occur in those who are “conscious of the fewest abilities in themselves”. The negative event is safe to the listener, because it’s happening to someone else.

  • Humour is known for relieving insecurities in the workplace, sexual life, personal inferiority by providing a flattering social comparison. The butt of the joke is often a “safe target” (see above) to the point when insults sound funny as the “victim” can’t fight back.

  • Applying evolutionary psychology, one can come to another conclusion: the experience of laughter resembles “winning”. Humour is about “who wins what and who loses what”. We are winning because of someone else’s stupidity.

  • Culturally acting extremely happy about winning is not too appropriate, with a notable exception of sports when winners are not frowned upon when they go wild in their celebrations. It kind of makes sense if we look at the chance of survival from a competition standpoint.

  • Many managers would agree that the “us vs them” mechanism is a very powerful motivator. This applies to making fun of the “outgroups” for the purpose of feeling better and making “ingroups” more cohesive.

Part 2.