We’ve all experienced it – that feeling of smug
happiness at another person’s misfortune
. From someone slipping on a banana peel to a jerk receiving a dose of instant karma, there’s something satisfying about this strange emotion. Why is that? Are we living in an “Age of Schadenfreude”? Should we feel guilty about feeling it? And for crying out loud, how do we say it in English? Listen in to find out!
About Our Guest
Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith is a cultural historian and author of The Book of Human Emotions. In 2014, she was named a BBC New Generation Thinker, and her TED talk The History of Emotions has over 1.5 million views. She is currently a Wellcome Trust research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. In her previous career, she was a theater director. Her latest book, SCHADENFREUDE: The Joy of Another’s Misfortunes is available for purchase.
TOXIC RELATIONSHIPS SHOW TRANSCRIPT
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Narrator 1: Welcome to the Psych Central show, where each episode presents an in-depth look at issues from the field of psychology and mental health – with host Gabe Howard and co-host Vincent M. Wales.
Gabe Howard: Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Show podcast. My name is Gabe Howard and with me as always is Vincent M. Wales. And today we have a great guest all the way from the U.K. We’re fairly certain that this is our first guest who actually lives in… is it England? Can we say England or do we have to say U.K.? It shows you how well travelled I am.
Tiffany Watt Smith: You can say… I’m in London, you can say England or U.K.
Gabe Howard: Wonderful. I have heard of London, so I feel very good… but before we move much smurther… Ugh. Let me start that over… But before we go much smur… [Laughter from guest and co-host.]
Vincent M. Wales: Am I experiencing schadenfreude?
Gabe Howard: Oh, man… Yes! We did that on purpose, everyone, so that I could introduce Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith. She’s a senior research fellow at the Queen Mary University of London Centre for History of Emotions and she’s the author of a couple of books, one of which is the Book of Human Emotions and a new book that’s out, Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune. Right out of the gate, Tiffany, welcome. Thank you so much for being here and…
Tiffany Watt Smith: Thank you for having me.
Gabe Howard: Thanks for mocking my mispronunciation of everything. I want everybody to know that I did that intentionally for illustrator purposes.
Vincent M. Wales: Uh huh. Uh huh. Great. All right, I have to ask this right up front: what exactly is the Centre for the History of Emotions?
Tiffany Watt Smith: Well, we are a group of researchers in London – there’s a few different research groups around the world who look at the history of emotions. But what we look at is how ideas about emotions have changed over time, how different some emotions come into fashion, like boredom in the 19th Century and others sort of drop away so that there are some emotions which used to exist that no longer do. But the main thing we’re really interested in is trying to understand the origins of some of the emotions that we care most about today. So a lot of us look at the histories for example of happiness and the whole wellbeing agenda and we look at the history of anxiety and shame and things like that. I mean look at all kinds of sources whether we’re looking at literature and art or philosophy and medicine to try and understand the way thinking about emotions has changed across time.
Gabe Howard: That is very cool and of course one of the things that you are looking into is the emotion where somebody gains joy when something bad happens to another personm which is referred to as – and I’m going to butcher the wordm I always do – Shroydenfrada.
Vincent M. Wales: You sure did!
Tiffany Watt Smith: Schadenfreude, yeah, again on purpose. Good mispronunciation.
Vincent M. Wales: Yes.
Tiffany Watt Smith: So schadenfreude. Yeah. Literally, “schaden” from harm or damage, and “freude” meaning joy, so “damaged joy.” And it means the glee or quiet smug self-satisfaction that we might feel when witnessing someone else’s accidental misfortune or minor mishap.
Vincent M. Wales: Yeah, we’ve all experienced that and I think a lot of us, immediately following that, experience guilt for feeling that way.
Tiffany Watt Smith: Absolutely. I mean I think that this is one of the reasons why I was so drawn to this topic. I mean not many people write about schadenfreude. Although certainly over the centuries, people have wondered about this emotion. Why do we feel it? What kind of situations do we feel it in? Is it ever morally okay to feel like this? And certainly I think what I found was that schadenfreude is a hugely interesting and often quite paradoxical feeling/emotion because, on the one hand, it seems to be rather possibly spiteful or malicious even, you know sort of enjoying seeing someone who is more successful than you not getting that promotion, enjoying seeing that effortlessly attractive friend getting dumped, you know whatever whatever that thing is. But at the same time, schadenfreude does link in to some of those things that we value most in our human societies. The thing that stands out most to me is justice. One of the reasons why we feel schadenfreude, often, is because we feel that someone’s getting a kind of deserved comeuppance. It’s only fair that they should suffer in some way. So you know someone shoves past you in the queue at the supermarket and then their credit card is declined, or they steal your parking spot and then bang the front of their car. You know, these little things that kind of give us a little jolt of pleasure in our day. I think we think, well, it’s karma. You know, they deserved it. Maybe next time they won’t be so you know… try to get one over on us and so on. So I think the schadenfreude might seem quite antisocial, but actually often when we think about it more, we can understand that is really connected to you know very cherished ideas about justice and fairness, as well.
Gabe Howard: You brought up the word karma. Is this just karma? Is it something more? And is there an English word for this or is it really just schadenfreude. I’m gonna get it right before the end of the show.
Tiffany Watt Smith: There is no English word for this particular pleasure, although over the centuries people have had a go at trying to invent one. So around the 16th Century, someone tried to introduce “epicaricacy,” but that is a real mouthful and that definitely did not catch on because about a hundred years later, you’ve got people saying oh why don’t we did we have a word for this in English?
Gabe Howard: And I can’t pronounce that word either so I’m glad that one didn’t work.
Tiffany Watt Smith: Yeah, that was a terrible ugly word. It comes from the ancient Greeks for this particular feeling. But certainly many other cultures and languages have a word for this, but you better to ask me to pronounce it, because I definitely can’t. But they are in Danish and in French, the Japanese have a saying, a really wonderful saying, that the misfortunes of others taste like honey. So this idea is around in many different languages, but in English I can only assume that over the centuries we’ve found the idea so distasteful and believe that it’s not us that feel like this but any other people, that we’ve just never quite given this a name.
Gabe Howard: It’s interesting that you said only other people feel this way when we’ve all felt this way. I personally felt this way and I consider myself to be a good person. I know that Vin has felt this way and and I will personally vouch that Vin is a good person. But it is sort of a… like you said, people feel guilt about it. What is up with that? Is it just part of our makeup? Is there a biological need to feel this way? Why… you study emotions; why do we have this?
Tiffany Watt Smith: So there’s lots of different questions there, and just to say upfront I absolutely recognize the guilt and the discomfort around it. And even after having spent a long time writing a book about it, in which I was in the situation where I have to confess my terrible schadenfreude crimes, I still feel a certain amount of awkwardness talking about it. So maybe the question about why we might feel guilty about it we can come back to, but there’s certainly lots of reasons why we might feel this emotion and yes, why we might be primed to feel like this. You know I’ve already mentioned about justice and how important it is actually that we enjoy seeing transgressors get some kind of comeuppance and it’s fairly obvious, I think, to assume that you know those pleasures are have been ingrained in us from a very early stage in our social evolution, because human society depends on justice to run smoothly. So it makes sense that we would enjoy seeing transgressors exposed or embarrassed or punished in some way. Again, I think that makes sense in forms of fairness you know when we sense that someone has perhaps got a bigger slice of the cake than we have, you know someone who’s very wealthy or seems to have all the talent or all the lark or you know… and then we see that person sort of not quite get what they want. You know, perhaps get tripped up in some way, that the enviably good looking person in your school gets a huge spot on the day of the dance, something stupid like that. It gives us a little a feeling of you know that the playing field has been leveled again. Things feel a bit fairer. Again, very important for our society to survive, but also important because you know we find ourselves as humans living in groups constantly comparing ourselves to one another, trying to make sure that we are not falling too far behind, and making sure that we can get a good share of the resources and so on. And so in these kind of small, competitive ways, which are completely normal and natural, even if they don’t always feel very pleasant, then schadenfreude does play an important part, because it’s sort of a little moment of recognition that oh yes this person that we were competing with, you know, slightly fallen behind and that makes us feel a little boost that we might be just about getting ahead. I think that kind of completely normal.
Gabe Howard: So it’s like a boost of confidence that maybe pushes us a little further and allows the gap to shorten a little you know from the “we can’t overcome” to “wait, I see a possibility.”
Tiffany Watt Smith: So the pleasure isn’t simply you know ha ha you’ve fallen flat on your face, it’s also a sense of optimism and potential for us, for our thing that we’re trying to get going. One of the areas I think this is really fascinating with actually is in relation to work, in the workplace, there’s so much schadenfreude in the workplace. Particularly, I think, in relation to those who are our superiors you know, our bosses and so on, and there’s nothing sort of more delightful really than seeing that person who wields power over you. you know. experience some minor embarrassments. because it allows us to kind of feel that you know that that sort of possibly not very nice boss. you know. when they have or experience some sort of mishap, it allows us to kind of see a little chink, little glimpse of possibility where we might sort of steal back a tiny bit of power of our own. Psychologically I think that’s very important.
Vincent M. Wales: So basically what you’re saying is that despite this sounding like a rather spiteful and awful emotion to suffer, we might actually get something positive out of it.
Tiffany Watt Smith: I think of course we do get something positive out of it because it is gives us pleasure and that is hugely important. But yes that positivity may actually sort of extend to thinking about ways in which we form more coherent and stable societies, which I think is the unexpected thing about schadenfreude. I think schadenfreude works in all kinds of other ways too. One of the things that found again and again in the research on this emotion is that it really does help bond groups together, and this isn’t unexpected. I think we’ve all seen this example with rival sports teams. You know schadenfreude is you know taking pleasure in you know the own goal of the other side. That’s one way in which a team can really bond together, it’s not just that you put the other side down, it’s also that you laugh together, you feel pleasure together, laughing together is a very bonding and important experience. Now of course that can go too far and it can have quite unpleasant effects, so we can talk about that perhaps in a bit. But we do see schaudenfreude playing this really important role in cohering groups together. Actually, there’s been some research on laughter that suggests that this may have really been a very important mechanism far far back in the evolutionary past. There was a study done at the University of Oxford by Robin Dunbar who’s an evolutionary psychologist. And he was looking all kinds of laughter, but fell on looking at… a sort of belly laughing, you know when you’re laughing so hard that it actually hurts. And it’s only humans that have this kind of laughter. And he found that people only ever laughed like that in response to slapstick. So people falling over, you know, hitting themselves on the head with buckets and so on. And he found that when people laughed like that, then shortly after they were able to withstand much greater pain than they were beforehand or if they laughed in some other way.
Gabe Howard: So The Three Stooges were saving lives. [laughter]
Tiffany Watt Smith: Well this is what he’s suggesting, he’s saying that perhaps this kind of slapstick entertainment has been part of our you know our cultural heritage for a really really long time. And when our distant ancestors were all laughing together around a fire at someone, you know, pretending to get hit on the toe with a hammer, that actually that laughter was important not just because it bonded people into those groups that were crucial for survival, but also because it allowed people to cope in very hostile and dangerous environments where there was a lot of pain. I thought it was really intriguing.
Gabe Howard: We’ll see you in about 30 seconds after these messages from our sponsor.
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Vincent M. Wales: Welcome back, everyone. We’re here with Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith discussing schadenfreude.
Gabe Howard: I think that comedians for a long time, and even myself, I’m not a comedian, but I do public speaking, and I know that if I make fun of myself, then the audience is more likely to laugh and there’s comedians that have made their whole careers about talking about how they’re bad friends bad, you know, they’re ugly or they’re fat or they’re worthless or they’re pointless or, you know, this self-deprecating humor is just very common in our society. Is that an example of schadenfreuden? Nope… still got it wrong.
Tiffany Watt Smith: I think that that is really one of the most neglected forms of schadenfreude in that when people write about schaudenfreude, they really don’t often talk about this particular phenomenon. And I think this is an example of how we use schadenfreude all the time. I mean, if you start a new job, you know you’ll go into that office or that new group of people and you will tell a self-deprecating story of some terrible disaster that happened to you on the way to work. You know, you do it not just to entertain people, but so that you are seen as less of a threat. You know, that the kind of person who is coming into a new group or is the outsider always seems like a threatening person. So those kind of stories allow people to laugh at you and laugh with you, laugh at your expense, I suppose. And that’s, you know is a way of being accepted into the group as much as it is a way of giving everyone else pleasure. And as you say, you know it’s an absolute staple of standup comedy. Standup comics know that people enjoy hearing about the suffering of other people. And standup gives them a license to enjoy it, I think.
Gabe Howard: And schadenfreude is also an example of the millionaire with the tax problem or the very tall person who bangs his head on the doorway and things like that. These are all little examples of where they have something very desirable, but that desirable thing also has a negative. So maybe it’s like every silver lining has a cloud? Or am I oversimplifying or undersimplifying?
Tiffany Watt Smith: I think one of the things that I found when I was trying to tackle writing this book was that you know this is a very complex emotion. You know there are some emotions which feel like quite simple to think about because it’s a trigger and a response. And it’s kind of one thing you know, scary bear you know your heart rate races and you and you run away. Schadenfreude isn’t quite like that kind of emotion. It’s what psychologists call the cognitive emotion. So a cognitive emotion means that it is involved with appraising and judging a situation and doing all kinds of sort of very fast mental calculations to work out whether someone really deserves it whether it’s really funny or whether in fact this person needs our help, whether they really injured themselves or whether they’ve just sort of suffered some minor embarrassment. Yes, all of these complicated things are going on when we experience schadenfreude. And we experience it in relation to a kind of vast range of different sorts of phenomena or in a vast range of different kind of situations. So sometimes it can be as simple as someone slipping on a banana skin or the Three Stooges. And sometimes it’s to do with you know that seeing someone who we think has behaved really unfairly being called out or lambasted in the media. And yeah and sometimes it is these situations where we feel, you know we almost tell ourselves that, you know there’s a highly desirable trait, you know being very tall, being very glamorous. I don’t know, being very clever or being able to speak twelve languages, you know has in fact got its downside. And this is part of a little trick we will play on ourselves and I’m sure we all do it. You know, a way of just making life’s inevitable unfairnesses that little bit more palatable. It’s not just us that experience difficulty, failure, embarrassment. You know everyone does. And I think that’s what we want to remind ourselves of that, continually.
Vincent M. Wales: I don’t think it should be any surprise to anyone that the schadenfreude is a complex emotion because most emotions are. You think about all the different forms of love that we have. The Greeks had several different names for the different types. So it stands to reason that that this would be in the same category, right?
Tiffany Watt Smith: My last book, The Book of Human Emotions, and I did a TED talk about this as well, makes exactly this argument that it doesn’t really make sense to distinguish between very simple emotions and complex or cognitive emotions because actually all emotions have this very powerful cognitive element and in fact you know even something as simple as apparently simple as fear has a hugely rich history and changes so much across different cultures that actually fear emerges as a very complicated emotion that seems to have very different kind of physical and experiential responses when we feel it. So, yeah, thanks for pulling me up on that because actually, you know I want to make the point that schadenfreude is perhaps more of an appraisal or a judgment-based emotion than some others. But as you say, you know all emotions have this richness and complexity.
Gabe Howard: Now Vince and I are based here in America and I know you live in London, so this might be somewhat of a difficult question to answer just because, you know the different cultures, but we both have the Internet. And when somebody falls down or gets hurt or something bad happens, that video or message will will go viral pretty easily, whereas when somebody does something well or something good, it doesn’t get seen as much and you know, in America we have a lot of unrest as far as you know political parties and race and even you know gender and sexuality. Are we living in the age of schadenfreude? Are we just excited when bad things happen to people that we have dubbed our enemies? And I know that’s a big big question. But it seems like we’re almost searching out for bad things to happen to people. And you know with with Facebook and the Internet it’s easier and easier to find.
Tiffany Watt Smith: Yeah, I mean this phrase “an age of schadenfreude” was again was one of the reasons why I became interested in this topic, because you know when you’re a historian of emotions, you know this kind of phrase you know we’re living in an age of blah blah blah emotion is very tantalizing, you know, what is it about this emotion that makes people feel like it really defines the spirit of their time? And you certainly get over the centuries people saying well you know how in the 18th Century you were living in an age of sympathy. The 19th Century living in an age of boredom. In the early 20th Century, we’re living in an age of anxiety. Anyway now we are living in an age of schadenfreude. I think I do absolutely recognize what you’re describing, which is that sort of apparently insatiable hunger for the spectacle of failure. You know, whether that is or particularly, I think, if that is a politician. But certainly anyone in our sort of disliked you know enemy camp, as it were, and we see that person mess up in some way, there’s a kind of celebration. And celebration seems to be more public than it ever has been. I think there’s two important things to think about. I mean one is obviously that schadenfreude has always been with us. But it is a lot more visible now than it used to be because of the Internet, because of the ways in which we can demonstrate and register our pleasure in likes and shares you know thumbs up and so on. And you know that that would never have been that would just wouldn’t have been possible in the same way, you know even 30 years ago. So in a sense schadenfreude is much more visible than it used to be. But there’s also something about the way in which the Internet works that I think possibly exacerbates our schadenfreude. As I said we’ve spent a lot of schadenfreude when we feel or perceive that someone’s misfortune or mishap is deserved in some way. Now if you spent 10 minutes wandering around your local streets, you’re probably not going to encounter many situations that outrage you. And many examples of terrible injustice being carried out. But if you spend 10 minutes wandering around the internet, you are going to see lots of injustice coming at you. Whether that’s looking at the news, whether that’s looking at even at your local Facebook group with everyone complaining about that slighting or the person who doesn’t pick up their dog poo or whatever it is. You know, so there’s all sorts of unfairnesses and outrage being prompted online. But also it’s much easier for us to register our disapproval, to tell someone off, and to enjoy the spectacle of someone being told off when they’re online than it is in our face to face interactions. Because of course you know if you see someone on the street doing something wrong, you’re unlikely to march up to that person and tell them off and you’re certainly not going to stand there and point and laugh at them if someone else tells them off, because you know you might get punched or, you know you might risk some other kind of social embarrassment. But you know when we’re online, you know we’re completely protected from that. And there’s very little risk in calling someone out and enjoying it. So I think that the Internet I think makes schadenfreude a much more visible. But it also I think creates an environment where we can really let our schadenfreude rip and that is something that I think is really important for us to be aware of. And that’s why I think this emotion is very interesting for us to think about now, and because as you say schadenfreude becomes hugely powerful when we are divided into enemy camps and, you know when we’re we’re in rivalries and these rival groups are set against each other. You know, study after study shows that schadenfreude is very powerful when we’re in groups and very powerful when we’re rivals. And so it’s a very you know it’s a powerful combination of things you know very strong divisions, for example politically as there are here in the UK at the moment certainly. And then also this platform, online platforms, that make it very easy to share and enjoy our glee at the other side’s misfortune. So that was a very long answer to that question. I mean there is another reason why I think that the age of schadenfreude might have caught our attention at moments, and it might be that we’re feeling… I think we are feeling more schadenfreude than before. And I think it’s definitely more visible. But we’re also more anxious about schadenfreude, I think, for the last hundred years there’s really no articles published with the word schadenfreude in the title. But since about the year 2000, there’ve been hundreds published. So there’s a sudden influx of interest amongst psychologists and philosophers and social scientists and so on about schadenfreude. And this real interest comes off the back of you know the surge of interest from the 1990s onwards in empathy. So schadenfreude in this context is presented as the opposite of empathy or the failure of empathy, empathy’s shadow… And so this is a sense why people got quite anxious and worried about schadenfreude. But since empathy is so desirable, what does schadenfreude tell us about ourselves? Now I personally think this opposition between schadenfreude and empathy is problematic and doesn’t quite work. But nonetheless this is one of the reasons why we’ve got so interested in schadenfreude today.
Vincent M. Wales: Well I had a question that you already answered…
Gabe Howard: That’s how good you are!
Vincent M. Wales: Yeah I was going to bring up compassion and empathy and you’ve already touched on that, so great.
Gabe Howard: We really appreciate it.
Vincent M. Wales: And we are probably about out of time, too.
Tiffany Watt Smith: Okay. Oh sorry I just rattled on.
Gabe Howard: No please don’t apologize, it’s fantastic. Thank you so much. We learned so much. I saw a Broadway musical, Avenue Q, where they had a song that had schadenfreude in it and it was you know funny, obviously they explain it for the purpose of humor, not for education. So we’re very excited to have you on this to lend to it because it’s a very popular musical here in the States so I imagine a lot of people have some little bit of information about schadenfreude but not as much as you just gave us. So we really appreciate it. How do we find you? What’s your website, book?
Tiffany Watt Smith: I have a university website so if you just Google my name that will come up. I’m on Twitter.
Gabe Howard: What’s your Twitter handle?
Tiffany Watt Smith: DoctorTiffWattSmith.
Gabe Howard: Beautiful beautiful. And of course your book, is it available on Amazon, where fine books are sold?
Tiffany Watt Smith: I’m sure it’s available anywhere where fine books are sold.
Gabe Howard: Excellent. And you have the two books, what are the name of the two books?
Tiffany Watt Smith: So there The Book of Human Emotions and this one is called Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another’s Misfortune.
Gabe Howard: Wonderful, thank you so much for being here, we really enjoyed having you.
Vincent M. Wales: Yes we did.
Tiffany Watt Smith: Thanks for having me. It’s great to talk to you.
Gabe Howard: You’re very welcome and thank you everybody else for tuning in and remember, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private, online counselling anytime, anywhere by visiting betterhelp.com/PsychCentral. We’ll see everybody next week.
Narrator 1: Thank you for listening to the Psych Central Show. Please rate, review, and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you found this podcast. We encourage you to share our show on social media and with friends and family. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/show. PsychCentral.com is the internet’s oldest and largest independent mental health website. Psych Central is overseen by Dr. John Grohol, a mental health expert and one of the pioneering leaders in online mental health. Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who travels nationally. You can find more information on Gabe at GabeHoward.com. Our co-host, Vincent M. Wales, is a trained suicide prevention crisis counselor and author of several award-winning speculative fiction novels. You can learn more about Vincent at VincentMWales.com. If you have feedback about the show, please email [email protected].
About The Psych Central Show Podcast Hosts
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is also one of the co-hosts of the popular show, A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast. As a speaker, he travels nationally and is available to make your event stand out. To work with Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Vincent M. Wales is a former suicide prevention counselor who lives with persistent depressive disorder. He is also the author of several award-winning novels and creator of the costumed hero, Dynamistress. Visit his websites at www.vincentmwales.com and www.dynamistress.com.