The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature 2/4

Richard H. Smith

Part 1.

3/ Others Must Fail

  • “For me to win you need to lose” is a typical zero-sum game where there can’t be two winners. The pleasure of winning is incomplete without the pleasure of the opponent losing.


  • In competitive sports “other” team’s mistakes are cheered for as much as the “our” team’s successes. Not nice, but a part of life.

  • People are quick to embrace group identity, even if the belonging criteria are arbitrary. It helps enhance self-esteem by finding the criteria on which the “our” group surpasses the “other” group. But an unexpected side effect is that ingroup members start discriminating against the outgroup members.

  • [MK: The example in the book is about sports, but I guess it can be extrapolated more broadly.] Any bad news about the outgroup is good news for the ingroup: it causes a pleasing emotional gain.

  • Is there an invisible line where a misfortune stops causing a cheer, like an injury to an opposing team’s player? The book provides examples that lead us to think that no, another side’s loss (however gore) is good news for “our” team. [MK: since I don’t follow any sport, this conclusion is very surprising.]

  • MK: And guess what? I’m not alone: the more emotionally involved the people are into an outcome, the more joy they experience from the other side’s misfortune (up to a point, where if the injury is severe, there’s at least some remorse). People like me actually feel sympathy for the injured players, but this behaviour becomes less common the more of a fan the person is.

  • MK: I wonder (and I’m sure the book will touch on this at some point) if this applies to hard and/or emotional negotiations, too. I guess so, otherwise the saying “negotiations are successful if both sides believe they’ve got a better deal than the counterparty” won’t hold true.

  • Intergroup dynamics [MK: my favourite topic] tell us that groups end up being more competitive than individuals. Within the group people can’t look greedy, so they focus their attention to outgroups; there’s an emerging duty of loyalty to the group, too.

  • Any potential conflicts arising from competitiveness within a group can (and are) channelled to outgroups, and it’s socially acceptable. The individual risks are diffused across the entire group, so the responsibility becomes elusive. Left unchecked, this can become a “gateway drug” opening doors to wars, genocide and other terrible events.


  • Interpretation of political events are through the “win/loss” lens, even at the detriment of the country as a whole. Welcome to the partisan instincts in action.

  • MK: a crazy example that I’m honestly struggling to explain is when economic numbers are out, and they’re not too good, there are always people who express schadenfreude, they are joyous that the people in power can be brushed with a dirty paint over the results; it’s never about the country, it’s always “us vs them”.

  • Sadly, if one political party sends its troops in a faraway land to fight for what the party or its prominent members think is “right”, the opposing party (-ies) find guilty pleasure in counting the dead soldiers’ bodies claiming that “this shouldn’t have happened”.

4/ Self and Other

  • People can’t publicly admit that most emotions are driven by raw and narrow self-interest; pretending to be selfless, but usually self-interest overrides altruism. “What’s in it for me?” becomes a prevailing question. Especially if a misfortune happens to a friend or someone we know.

  • Napoleon famously said: “Never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake”. [MK: a very common room in a boardroom is “always let another person make a fool of themselves” – it’s quite useful, actually, when it applies to someone full of themselves.]

  • If there’s one person whose works have created an army of manipulative drones – it’s Dale Carnegie; the completely artificial behaviours of his adepts are fooling no one. But, unfortunately, these manipulations have merit: if someone is self-centred, they can be easier manipulated by someone complimenting them.

  • MK: many social theories get debunked every year, but still there are hordes of people who keep behaving as if these theories hold at least some water. I can’t help but let them make annoying fools of themselves.

  • If we are among people who know us [MK: I’m not sure if the author is going to mention it later in the book, so let me be first to explain – this is important because of the repeat interactions with these people, i.e., the social cost of acting wrong], we feel guilty if we focus on ourselves and not the group or family, and this becomes publicly known. But self-control comes at an emotional cost.

5/ Deserved Misfortunes Are Sweet

  • Movies: justice-inspired revenge is supposedly linked to schadenfreude. Evil must not go unpunished.

  • Another shared standard for deservingness is that bad people deserve a bad fate and punishment, and good people deserve good fate and reward.

  • Deservingness has the advantage of seeming to be unrelated to self-interest because the standards for determining justice appear objective, not subjective (personal and prone to bias). In the past religions approved schadenfreude because god’s justice was served.

  • Seeing a hypocrite fall is a very pleasant emotion. Finding glaring flaws in someone who’s in-your-face perfect or accuses others of being imperfect is a solid source of joy. That’s why there are no tears shed for the people who teach others how to live a happy and fulfilling life – only to put a bullet in their own heads.

  • The need to look perfect is a part of politicians’ lives, too. And they also fail, of course.

  • Over time people have become intolerant for behavioural inconsistency to the point that it can amount to the loss of trust. Hypocrites are also annoying and should be avoided when possible. [MK: yes, the presence of a vegan in a meat-eating society is a good example, regardless of the fact if this vegan eventually gets caught for eating smoked ribs.]

Part 3.