Study: Taking pleasure in another person's pain is biological

Schadenfreude may be a biological reaction.
By Evan Bleier  |  Oct. 28, 2013 at 10:23 AM
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(UPI) -- Two researchers who were inspired to investigate how stereotypes affect an individual’s ability to experience empathy found that many people often experience schadenfreude -- pleasure at others’ misfortunes -- and that the reaction is biological.

Carnegie Mellon University assistant professor Mina Cikara and Princeton professor Susan Fiske found that envy is often an early indication that someone is primed to experience schadenfreude.

Through a series of four experiments, Cikara and Fiske determined that people smile more when an individual that they envy has a problem or experiences discomfort. The experiments also looked into "intense fandom" with regard to sports teams, and scenarios involving attitudes toward a hypothetical rich banker.

Their findings were published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

"Jealousy and envy are highly correlated," Fiske said. "When we ask people on surveys who is envied in American society, they report the same groups: objects of jealousy. This is all very much based on stereotypes. And so, in this study, we sought to better understand who is among these envied groups and whether that envy and jealousy elicits a harmful response."

"We were interested in the conditions under which people fail to empathize with one another and how, for some of those people, they experience happiness at another's expense," added Cikara. "We wanted to start in a place where people would be willing to express their opinions and willingness to harm more freely, like we see in sports. We asked ourselves: what is it about rivalries that elicit a harmful response? And can we predict who will have this response?"

The researchers found that "dimensions predicting envy are high status and competition, and, when you move those around, the envy goes away."

Fiske and Cikara believe that the results of their study have far-reaching implications.

"Around the world, the American government is seen as high status and competent but not necessarily as a group sharing other people's or countries' goals. So, as far as other people are concerned, we're the world's bullies, and we have data that show that," said Fiske.

"A lack of empathy is not always pathological. It's a human response, and not everyone experiences this, but a significant portion does," Cikara said. "We need to remember this in terms of everyday situations. If you think about the way workplaces and organizations are set up, for example, it raises an interesting question: Is competition the best way to get your employees to produce? It's possible, in some circumstances, that competition is good. In other ways, people might be preoccupied with bringing other people down, and that's not what an organization wants."

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