Schadenfreude

“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments – there are only consequences.” This dictum, which we owe to Robert Ingersoll – the American agnostic and freethinker – might well have been invoked by Archbishop Léonard when he was explaining why he had used the phrase “a sort of immanent justice” in talking about the early spread of HIV/Aids. The problem was caused, as happens to our Pope from time to time, by overestimating the sophistication of his audience.

Actions have consequences, and few will deny that in both developed and developing countries, widespread incidents of freely chosen sexual behaviour made, and make, a major contribution to epidemic Aids.

But what interests me here is schadenfreude, which roughly means taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Our first, instinctive, reaction is to lay the blame at the Aids sufferer’s door. After all: “If you will behave in that way, what would you expect?” Whether or not that sounds cruel the psychologists describe it as a defence mechanism. Because we are threatened by the presence of the disease we take comfort from knowing that we do not behave in such reprehensible ways. We do this in many areas, for example: blame for being overweight, blame for provocative behaviour in questions of rape, blame for carelessness in mislaying a credit card. As long as the sufferer can be seen to have shared the blame we, the faultless, are safe.

More recent studies, described by Emily Anthes in the December issue of Scientific American Mind, show that envy is processed in the brain area that deals with pain, while schadenfreude is processed in the area that deals with rewards: “Thinking bad thoughts can feel good…a satisfaction comparable to eating a good meal.”

There are plausible evolutionary reasons for schadenfreude. A major dynamic in the human race is competition, whether this is for the best mate, or the most land, or the greatest material success. At one level we would want everyone to be successful. At another we know that places at the top table are few. Thus, even while we commiserate with the losers, we rejoice internally at their fall. All the more room for us!

The hopeful idealists who, for instance, try to eradicate competition in schools to save the losers from a sense of failure, are swimming against the tide. Children are innately competitive, as every parent knows. If we were to eliminate competition from our society we would ensure long term decay.

The principle which Karl Marx popularised: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” has proved, and will always prove, incompatible with human nature as a whole.

This competitive characteristic can often be more powerful between groups than between individuals. And, while individuals might be somewhat ashamed at displaying schadenfreude, groups are less likely to be inhibited. While this may be a useful boost to cohesion and determination in, say, a rugby team, it can also take the form of racial contempt and other forms of prejudice. In wartime this characteristic will be deliberately intensified. Not only will the enemy be given deprecating and dehumanising nicknames, but we can find ourselves admiring the behaviour of “our side”, while deploring the similar behaviour of our opponents. Our victories are magnified, while our defeats are minimised – or even converted into a form of victory. Dunkirk is an obvious example.

It has been suggested that such atrocities as the Rwandan massacre and the Holocaust may, at least in part, be attributed to schadenfreude. For instance a strong current of antisemitism in the German population could arguably have allowed them to welcome the Jewish persecution while denying responsibility for it at the same time. And anyone who thinks that the recent Church scandals have not given secret pleasure to many people, even to some within the Church, knows little about human nature. “I told you so” is a cry of victory not of compassion.

There have been several recent studies which confirm that people with a high sense of power are less compassionate than others. They are more likely to see the mass of people as inferior and of little consequence. This tendency is so indurated that I imagine that the medieval clergy – with most of the power, the money and the education – must have found it hard to avoid despising the laity.

Conversely, a recent study shows that when someone in a high position (particularly one which we feel is undeserved) slips on a metaphorical banana skin, it is likely to be our sense of inferiority which triggers our pleasure.

Clearly schadenfreude, like so many of our lower instincts, is the opposite of virtue. How would we like to be treated ourselves? For my part, I would like you to describe me in terms of any good qualities I might have, leaving my shortcomings in the background. And indeed I have to hope that God will judge me in a similar way.

But I find it only too easy to spot other people’s bad qualities first, and to suspect that they are largely to blame for their own misfortunes. I must remind myself continuously that the forgiveness of my trespasses must be matched by my forgiveness of the trespasses of others’. Not of course – now that I realise that your virtues are abundant and your vices few – that there is much that I need to forgive.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Schadenfreude

  1. John Candido says:

    Schadenfreude is a fact of life. It is one of those unpleasant aspects of humanity that we all need to be aware of, and correct ourselves as our self-awareness slowly dawns on us. It is so easy to put the boot into people. Dam! Life is so hard at times isn’t it?
    How extremely interesting it was to read within ‘Schadenfreude’, that part of the explanation of the emergence of the Holocaust within German society, apart from the overwhelmingly erroneous belief in and recourse to racism, is Schadenfreude. I have never thought about the possible relationship between Schadenfreude and the Holocaust for both instigators and bystanders.

    One of the salient features of racism between expressions of it pre-World War Two and its occurrence post-World War Two, is that before World War Two, racism was far more highly visible to others than after the war. Examples of which within Germany were municipal signs that said ‘No Jews Allowed’, ‘Juden Verboten’, ‘Judenrein’, ‘Germans Only’, or words to that effect. These highly visible, racist, and commonplace signs are thankfully no longer with us in advanced western societies. It is a mark of a civilised person living within a civilised society to abhor racism and to work against it in tactful, vigorous, and vigilant ways, regardless of its manifestation.

    Of course it goes without saying that racism has not gone away despite the modern-day absence of racist signs. In modern western democracies, racism no longer has explicit signs. Racism is now largely implicit thanks to the work of a group of international geneticists who held a conference after the end of World War Two and announced to the world that there are no innate differences between people of different racial backgrounds.

    Compassion is the obvious antidote to Schadenfreude. I do find myself praying to the Lord at times when the only possible avenue worth contemplating is kicking someone to death!

  2. RMBlaber says:

    I was watching the new BBC4 series ‘The Brain: A History’ earlier this evening (6th January, 9.00 pm), and one of the experiments referred to was the notorious Milgram Experiment, which demonstrated the extent to which people will subordinate their own moral judgements to an external social authority, even when that authority is telling them to do things which go against what their consciences are telling them. For an account, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment.

    The Yale social psychologist Stanley Milgram, himself a Jew, was trying to understand how the ordinary German people had allowed themselves to become participants in a systematic programme of mass slaughter. He reasoned that they were not all psychopaths, but merely obeying the default programme of human beings in any given society, which is to defer to those in authority and obey the social norms and rules. What happens, however, when an entire society, as in the case of Nazi Germany, or Stalinist Russia, becomes, in effect, psychopathic?

    John Candido is right to say that Schadenfreude played a part in the success of the Nazi Party’s rise to power, and its consolidation of power. The Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei was saying to the German people: ‘You have lost a war, you are forced to pay crippling reparations to the victors, you have suffered crippling hyper-inflation and now terrible unemployment and poverty, and what is the cause of all this?’ And came out with a simple answer – the International Jewish-Bolshevist Conspiracy, or just, the Jews. After that, beating up a Jew and smashing his shop window – well, that was just a bit of fun, and quite justifiable, and why not burn down a few Synagogues into the bargain?

    But before we get all virtuous, and say, ‘How terrible!’, it is as well to remember the vicious anti-Semitism of certain Catholic priests, and the anti-Semitic writings of Christian theologians as various as Martin Luther and St John Chrysostom. We are in no position, as Christians, to proclaim ourselves free of the sin of racism. In Rwanda, the Hutus who were massacring the Tutsis were ‘Christians’; in Bosnia, the men were massacred the Muslim men and boys of Srebenica were ‘Christians’. Racism has not disappeared from the Earth even now.

    Thinking about the persecution of minorities, and our unfortunate tendency to take such perverse delight in their suffering, it is as well, too, to remember the famous words attributed to Pastor Niemoller: ‘They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and by that time, there was no-one left to speak up.’

    • John Candido says:

      It is really important to note the racism in our own ranks throughout our history. The evidence of its awfulness will never be exclusively found outside our own church, and is a salutary reminder of its perennial insidiousness and its universal application to all cultural and social contexts. I really don’t think that racism will ever disappear, no matter how educated or refined we may all become. I am afraid it is here to stay, unfortunately. In fact, I think that we are all racist to some extent. I think that we all have at least an easy and comfortable preference for one ethnicity over another, which is usually our own. I think that in the light of this unfortunate reality, we not only have to be aware of our proclivity towards Schadenfreude, we also need to be aware of our hardwired proclivity to the innate and implicit racism within us all. Thank you for your wonderful reply.

  3. st.joseph says:

    This is a very interesting subject, and what I find now as I am approaching my three score and ten years,and ,that one does not need to have so much knowledge about a lot of subjects
    One only needs a little knowledge of everything.
    So all I have to do is to tap into a web site and it tells me all!
    I didn’t know what that word meant-but it has become clear to me ,that it does affect all sorts of situations.
    The hidden ‘schadenfreude’ we find in those who think they know this in themselves and openly admit it-like John Candidos version of himself, when he admits he feels like kicking someone-he prays to the Lord. Very honourable, to prove to himself he has self restraint.
    Then we find the hidden ‘schadenfreude’in those who dont recognise it in them selves
    Those who will continually persecute the church and are kicking it all the time..and feel they are justified in openly proclaiming their dislike of something that has been around for 2000 and odd years,
    Would they speak so harshly on the way muslims profess their faith(kneeling, bowing)
    many times a day(I am pleased to say I have many muslim friends in Turkey)
    Would they also openly criticise Jews, (I also have many friends who are Jewish)
    What is it about the Catholic Church that makes those who say they belong to it,
    but their hatred is so obvious,feel they are at liberty to criticise.
    This is hidden ‘schadenfreude It was obvious before the Holy Father came,
    .The Catholic Church is accused of being homophobic-that is quite laughable when we know that the shoe is on the other food.
    Christians love. There are those who just hate the church full stop, and yet some are quite happy to be called a christian when they carry this in their heart and dont accept it as schadenfreud.And would just love to see it disappear-so that they could start a new one with their own beliefs.Perhaps the ‘reformed catholic church.’Oh I thought we had that in the 15th century, maybe the New Reformed Catholic Church.
    That may not be an accurate definition of schadenfreude-but it is one of the ways I see it. And I think Fr Hodgsen (If I have spelt his name right without me going back into the last post) has helped me to come to that conclusion.

  4. st.joseph says:

    P.S It has also helped me to come to the conclusion that this will be my last post.,a conclusion that I came to ‘before ‘Quentin told me he had some complaints ,that my comments were too ‘strident,’ too long and too repetative, and too often if they have been ‘repetative’ it has been in answer to the repetative questions that were asked only on the Church.
    I do hope my last post on Shadenfreude has said it all
    It seems as though I have tweaked a few tails, with my Othodox Catholocism.

    Sincerely St Joseph..

    • Quentin says:

      I think, st.joseph, that it would be a great pity for you to stop commenting. You express a vitally important point of view to which other contributors should attend. All these things are a matter of degree.

      So do please come back from time to time — and keep us on our toes!

      • st.joseph says:

        Thank you Quentin for your reply and for your kind remarks.
        I will look in from time to time,and would appreciate you e.mailing me the secondsightblog subjects.

        Kind Regards st.joseph.

  5. Mr Rubio says:

    St Joseph, I agree with Quentin; keep posting.
    PS Work harder on the spelling, please!

    • st.joseph says:

      Thank you Mr Rubio, and for your advice.
      I have asked my grandson to tell me how to spellcheck,copy and paste, as I don’t have a programme
      I found it most interesting,and have spent a lot of time today checking my spelling’
      I started the blog over 12 months ago and I found I’think’ nine mistakes in that time.
      At the end of this year, I believe I have made a lot- lot more-going into Jan’and I know the reason for that’now’ with increasing my insulin my eyesight has been failing a little. Checking my ‘spelling ‘I realised that it was more of a typographical error on the keyboard , as I don’t touch type, and it has prompted me to have an eye test.
      So what I am coming round to say is ‘While I was checking my spelling, I thought I would check JC’s as well.
      I only got as far as a couple of his comments and gave up ,when finding 15 so I dont think I have done so bad. I dont know how many I might find of his if I go through the whole blog!
      But I am not that interested in putting fault on spelling mistakes.
      But I would like to thank him for bringing this to my notice, or else I would have continued typing blindly.

      • John Candido says:

        Well done st.joseph! SecondSight needs a spread of views, from the left, centre, and right, if it is to really come alive. It is of immeasurable value to the blog if we have a mutually respectful community of participants, that are free to express their opposing but considered viewpoints. It is through opposing points of view that are respectfully expressed, that we will all be equally enriched through our involvement. Much like a tutorial at university or a well conducted interview on radio or television with several participants, it will exercise our minds and be in the public interest.

        As Quentin has said, SecondSight needs you and others like you, to keep your antagonists on their toes. But remember, you will be greatly appreciated if you debate us rather than harangue us! There is an enormous divide between a debate and a shouting match in public, if you know what I mean. Please by all means attack our points of view, but not us! John Candido.

  6. claret says:

    Before we all don ‘sackcloth and ashes’ let us instead give ourselves the occasional and metaphorical ‘pat on the back.’ There is still a lot of good out there and most of it can be found without too much difficulty. Do we always mean what we say when we claim some kind of superiority? I am not sure that we do but the cliches still roll off the tounge. A desire for popularity perhaps rather than any hostile intent.
    A person once asked Jesus ‘who is my neighbour?’ One might assume that the Samaritan had a brief thought of schadenfreude too, until he was filled with compassion.

    • tim says:

      Specifically, the person was a lawyer. “But tell us, Rabbi, how are we to interpret the term ‘neighbour’ in this context?” For me, this is one of the accounts in the Gospels that carries immediate conviction – I can hear it being said.

  7. Quentin says:

    st,joseph, I’ll certainly keep you on the list. Perhaps you’ll be inspired!
    Quentin

  8. michael horsnall says:

    Hmmmm schadenfreude…sounds like a kind of pop or the kind of sweet thing you might buy to go with your Costa coffee…Never heard the word defined before but know it off by heart in the inner man..we all do. No need for the dreaded Sackcloth&Ashes though…. since that would just be vanity! Its nice to label these things occasionally though. The real issue is to fight the thing as best you can on the terrain of your thought life by whatever means you can.

  9. John Nolan says:

    There is an element of Schadenfreude in so-called reality TV, harmless enough in “I’m a Celebrity…”, sometimes verging on the cruel as in “X-Factor”. I think a spot of gloating is excusable when politicians, after years of spending our money and bossing us around, are caught with their fingers in the till. And it’s great when super-egos get taken down a peg or to, as happened to Stephen Fry in the run-up to the papal visit when he made a comment which showed a breathtaking ignorance of history.
    My joy at the election of Benedict XVI was not exactly diminished by the palpable dismay of the liberal Catholic pundits trundled out by the BBC the following morning. One ex-nun, a clear note of desperation in her voice, said something along the lines of “He’s got to show he’s prepared to listen to us”. Priceless.

  10. Mr Rubio says:

    It is simply a matter of the heart. If you would take pleasure in another’s misfortune, even someone you dub an enemy, then you have a small heart or one that is not, for the time being at least, working normally. You may be puffed up with knowledge and power but can you serve? Can you ever see God?

  11. Iona says:

    John – I must have missed Stephen Fry’s breathtakingly ignorant remark. Could you enlighten me (so that I can indulge in a bit of Schadenfreude)?

  12. John Nolan says:

    Iona,
    Fry was pouring scorn on the idea of the Vatican as a sovereign state and said it was not entitled to diplomatic recognition since it had only existed since 1929 as a result of a dodgy Concordat with a Fascist government. It was gently pointed out to him in a letter to (I think) The Times that for centuries the Holy See has played a key diplomatic role, particularly in the arbitration of international disputes. Examples given were the Treaty of Tordesillas (1498) which prevented conflict between Spain and Portugal in the Americas and more recently (1980s) the successful arbitration in the Beagle Channel dispute.
    Fry probably realized he had shot himself in the foot; thereafter he left most of the Benedict-bashing to others in the “Protest the Pope” movement. Incidentally, in British English if you use “protest” as a transitive verb it means “proclaim” – I’d have thought “the cleverest man in Britain” would have picked up on that one.

    • Iona says:

      Thank you, John. Now you have jogged my memory I realise that I did hear about Stephen Fry’s silly mistake at the time.

      Interesting about the use of “Protest”. I first met it, I think, in “Fanny Hill”, when a woman condemned to execution had her sentence commuted because she “protested her belly”, i.e. claimed to be pregnant. I thought it was an archaic use which had recently made a come-back.

      • John Nolan says:

        I suppose the most common use of protest as a transitive verb would be in the expression “to protest one’s innocence”. To omit the “against” if it is something you disapprove of is an Americanism . In a similar way in US law you “appeal your sentence”, a usage which sometimes unfortunately crops up on the BBC.

  13. st.joseph says:

    John, you are to sensitive to critcism, regarding your comment on the 11th
    If it seemed that I was attacking you, which I wasn’t, at least I had the decency to apologise. More than what you did when you had your burst of ‘what ever it was’
    People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
    A bit of ‘schadenfreude’ on your part.
    Oh and by the way-I was singing not shouting !We raise our voices in praise of the Lord.

  14. st.joseph says:

    John ,your comment was on the 12th.Not the 11th!

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