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

Richard H. Smith

Part 3.

9/ Envy Transmuted

  • Envy is in fact usually suppressed by people, but this gives way to an even more likely instance of schadenfreude if the person suffers and makes this suffering more likely.

  • People are usually skilled in working around their sense of inferiority; narcissistic wounds are healed by finding reasons to feel good at least in something.

  • When we weigh our strengths and weaknesses, we’re usually guided by a preferred image of a superior self (who doesn’t feel envy, too).

  • Acknowledging envy towards an otherwise good person, who just happens to have advantages over us, is painful and hurtful to the internal image of self. And it’s not something that we can admit to others as it’s humiliating. God forbid we try to act upon this hostile feeling.

  • Lots of Biblical events are linked to or are driven by envy. Envy is a deadly sin personified in the Satan (who just happened to envy Jesus). Other religions have a similar contempt for envy. For the religions establishing firm strata (i.e., a place for everyone in the pecking order) experiencing envy indicates the presence of discontent with one’s place, which is dangerous as it questions / challenges the God-given order.

  • Envy produces multiple levels of self-deception and public posturing. One may believe they act upon some other emotions, but others will see envy for what it is.

  • Envy often comes mixed with a sense of injustice – either towards one’s undeserved disadvantage, or someone else’s unearned advantage, which is resented. The logic here is that the equality of starting conditions should lead to the equality of outcomes (anyone familiar with how socialism actually works will laugh this statement off). But this absurd belief that in similar conditions the rewards should be balanced and thus “fairness” leads to resentment.

  • An element of our reactions to inequality roots in how we reacted to it when we were children. Insistence on equality is sticky.

  • People don’t respond well to inequality in things they can’t substantially change: being born to a wealthy family, having a certain body shape or a musical talent. But most cultures promote acceptance of these differences in starting conditions. Differences in ability are not considered an injustice.

  • Envy comes hand in hand with guilt for experiencing this bad emotion. Righting the “wrong” by acting in a hostile way and restoring “justice” is repugnant.

  • From the evolutionary standpoint, envy coupled with the desire to act is a practical and adaptive feeling: let’s rid the other person of the undeserved advantage and take their place. This creates competition (no one said it has to be healthy) and the gene pool evolves accordingly.

  • Ressentiment: a prolonged period of envy produces a debilitating sense of impotence causing even the strongest emotions to be suppressed. It creates particularly ugly emotions when advantaged people suffer leading to aggression and cruelty.

  • Feelings of inferiority prime people to take out their frustration and anger on successful people, feeling schadenfreude if the latter fail. (“Vengefulness of the impotent”)


  • The difference between “grandiose” and “vulnerable” narcissists is the degree of belief in own superiority and confidence in how other people see them.  [MK: Needless to say, most narcissists are vulnerable.]

  • Vulnerable narcissists feel entitled to special treatment (to prove their superiority to themselves) and are taken aback when they don’t receive it. It’s a guise for low self-esteem and a defence from a feeling of inferiority.

10/ Dark Pleasures Unleashed

  • The danger of envy is that it can motivate to take action to bring about a misfortune for the envied and the associated pleasures. This applies to observers, too.

  • Prejudice is not equal to envy: prejudice against poor Hispanics is very different from prejudice against successful Asians or Jews. Only the latter incites envy towards the group with high status and competence.

  • The “Warmth” dimension simply means the level of perceived threat a group poses to the own group and to the status quo. [MK: Maintaining a constant or increasing level of threat is a very powerful tool to manipulate societies.] The competence dimension indicates the level of admiration vs envy when it comes to the competition for scarce resources (e.g., jobs).

  • Groups with stereotypically higher status and economic advantages are perceived as more competent; if they’re also perceived to be in competition with us, they will be low on warmth, therefore threatening. A combination of high competence and low warmth causes envious prejudice.

  • Scapegoating may include a combination of both portraying a vulnerable outgroup as inferior (dirty, unmannered) and superior (powerful, smart) at the same time. This increases the intensity of prejudice.

  • Admitting envy is equal to admitting personal inferiority, which is shameful and therefore concealed. It’s even possible to fool oneself, but usually at the cost of dehumanising the target. Since individual emotions in a group setting are blurred, collective action against a person or an outgroup is more likely and severe.

11/ How Would Lincoln Feel?

  • One can condition themselves by feeling empathy instead of schadenfreude when someone has a misfortune. This can be done by paying more attention to the situational factors.

  • First, we need to start with avoiding the fundamental attribution error by realising that people behave the way they do not solely (or mainly) because of their internal qualities, but also because the situations may call for it.

  • While it’s such a cliché, succumbing to knee-jerk reactions, especially when it comes to snap judgements of someone’s character, without understanding the other side’s story, is harmful. Many things are simply the opposites of what they look like from the outside. But our brains are wired to come to snap conclusions with zero cognitive effort – and this behaviour needs to be looked at.

  • The practical use of this “revelation” is that someone’s aggressive behaviour may not be a symptom of ill character, but rather a response to a very disturbing situation. There may be no reason for schadenfreude, as the person doesn’t “deserve” what was coming to them.

  • MK: the book mentions the now-debunked Milgram experiment on obedience to authority.  It’s sad. And it makes for a large portion of the chapter, which I had to skip (the right conclusion derived from a wrong premise is wrong).

  • MK: looking at the situation first and at the people’s reactions and emotions second was the first thing I had to learn when I started doing corporate governance. Most situations are too complex to understand them instantly; starting with people confuses matters even further.