Postscript to Schadenfreude

In my recent post I wrote about schadenfreude – that nasty quirk of human nature which leads us to take a secret pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Here are a couple of additional points, relevant to the subject.

Researchers in three American universities have established that those whose natural instinct is to be positive about other people are themselves judged in a positive way. That is, others rate them as agreeable, conscientious and emotionally stable.

By contrast, those who normally judged others negatively were themselves apt to be seen as disagreeable, antisocial and narcissistic.

As one of the researchers said “You stand to learn a number of different things about a person from just observing whether the person describes others positively or not.” So, quite apart from the need to avoid schadenfreude on the grounds of Christian love, there are very valuable social rewards as well.

Which brings me on to the question of gossip. Schadenfreude is the fuel on which gossip runs. I recall from the Penny Catechism the distinction between calumny and detraction. Calumny is to tell a lie about a person: detraction is to tell the truth to another’s disadvantage.

Of the two, calumny is the most insidious and the most harmful. After all, who could blame you for saying nothing else but the pure truth? In fact you might even have a duty to pass on this savoury nugget. That is all the more tempting because there are indeed a few instances in which passing on the truth, or even well grounded suspicions, may be one’s duty.

In the case of calumny there may be an opportunity to correct the falsehood; with detraction the sufferer just has to grin and bear it. Even Iago knows “Who steals my purse steals trash…but he who filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”

Calumny is cruel theft. And I daresay that more evil is done through careless gossip than through many of the more dramatic vices. And often, though I can only speak for myself, one can be caught off one’s guard and fall prey to calumny without thinking about it.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Postscript to Schadenfreude

  1. Iona says:

    “A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent” – William Blake.

  2. st.joseph says:

    When the church teaches the Truth.the intent is for the good of our soul
    Would She be wrong to keep silent-to prevent ‘hurting’ ones feelings.?
    When one knowingly takes a persons character- with assumptions ,it is endangering their own soul.
    Do they have a ‘duty’to remain silent?

  3. Quentin says:

    I don’t think this blog has anything to do with judging character. That is God’s work: Judge not that you may not be judged.
    What we can, and should do, is to judge ideas and query facts – always giving our reasons. Our manner should be that which we use if we were speaking to someone face to face. Christian courtesy is, and must remain, a characteristic of this Blog.

  4. Mr Rubio says:

    Excellent article. I agree that it is easy to gossip and calumniate more or less thoughtlessly; modern technology facilitates this, allowing one as it does to put words into permanent form so quickly and to so many people (many of whom remain strangers). Unfortunately we seem to have lost the habit or discipline of more patient communication: making the effort to understand, first, what has been said, then its meaning and, finally, its significance.
    I heard a vatican official once say (I can’t remember the context): “Think much, say little, write nothing”. A counsel of perfection perhaps, and certainly not good for the blogosphere (!), but I find some wisdom in it.

  5. claret says:

    ‘Write nothing’ is good advice if what is written is hurtful or could be construed that way.
    Another wise man ( It may have been Dale Carnigie,) once wrote that whenever he wrote a critical letter he would put it in his a desk drawer overnight. He inevitably found that next day he had changed his mind about posting it !
    I can think of a couple of ocasions that I have been so full of righteous indignation that I did not follow that advice. Within 24 hours I had regretted that I did not do so.

  6. RMBlaber says:

    To tell a lie about someone is clearly a worse sin than to tell a truth about someone to their disadvantage, when to do the latter is unnecessary. (After all, it may sometimes be a moral and civic duty to do precisely this, if – say – a criminal offence has been committed, and it becomes incumbent on us to inform the police of the identity of the guilty party.)

    However, ‘telling the truth in hate’ is not the Christian way, which is that of ‘speaking the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15). Nor is lying about one’s brothers and sisters in Christ, nor indeed about anyone. It is Satan, after all, who is described as the ‘Father of Lies’!

    I have certainly been ‘calumniated’ (in the Penny Catechism sense) in this ‘blog recently, and could easily give way to resentment and anger as a result. However, I have no wish to do that, and I freely forgive the individual responsible.

    As for Schadenfreude, a recent fMRI study by Takahashi, H, et al, published in Science, 323 (5916): 937-9, DOI: 10.1126/science.1165604 (13th February, 2009),
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19213918 ,
    showed that, when volunteers were shown scenarios that typically evoke envy, whether of another’s higher social status, income, wealth, greater social and interpersonal skills, or any other perceived unfavourable disparity, there was neural activation in part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and specifically with a sub-region associated with pain and aversive responses.

    Schadenfreude-evoking scenarios, on the other hand, produced activation in the ventral striatum and medial orbitofrontal cortex. These two regions form a reward circuit in the brain, which are also activated when good food is eaten, ‘recreational’ drugs are taken, or money is won. When the objective fMRI readings were compared to the subjective reports of the volunteers, the researchers found that there was a strong correlation between the strength of the emotion felt and that of the electrical signals recorded.

    Thus envy is painful, whereas Schadenfreude is pleasurable. We envy those who are more successful than ourselves, and take delight in watching them slip on a banana-skin. An evolutionary biologist might speculate that envy is a psychological spur – a negative behavioural reinforcement – to make us more anxious to compete in a highly competitive world, as the Palaeolithic must have been, and as our world still is – but what of Schadenfreude? Is that merely the other side of the behavioural coin – the positive reinforcement to match the negative? Is taking pleasure in the misfortune, or failure, of others, just another aspect of our biology, and what has made us so successful, hitherto, as a primate species?

    ‘And he, shall he,/Man, her [Nature’s] last work, who seem’d so fair,/Such splendid purpose in his eyes,/Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,/Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,/Who trusted God was love indeed/And love Creation’s final law -/Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw/With ravine, shriek’d against his creed -/Who lov’d, who suffer’d countless ills,/Who battl’d for the True, the Just,/Be blown about the desert dust,/Or seal’d within the iron hills?’ (Tennyson, ‘In Memoriam AHH’, LVI.)

    If we cannot rise above our animal nature, then I fear the answer must be ‘yes’.

    • st.joseph says:

      Interesting comment. Just one problem
      This person who calumniated you who ever it was, has checked with police statistics and found that paedophilia occurances are across the board with
      homosexuals, lesbians.So a small contact with the Police Department will tell you the same !
      To accuse someone of an untruth is a grave sin against the eight
      Commandment .

  7. John Nolan says:

    While being prepared for confirmation (many years ago!) I was perplexed as to why the catechism taught that detraction was a greater sin than calumny. My teachers could not enlighten me. Some years later I found out that in the case of calumny the victim can restore his reputation by nailing the lie; the victim of detraction has no such recourse. I also asked, regarding the “four sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance”, what was sodomy, only to be told “you don’t need to know that at your age (8)”. I suppose that nowadays it’s on the primary school sex-ed syllabus.

  8. st.joseph says:

    I was told be a police Inspector that paedophilia goes aross the board, with heterosexuals, homosexuals and lesbians
    There is no record of how many statisiscally-but it is a criminal offence and all are found guilty-across the board meaning all three, not just alone to heterosexuals.

    The statistics I found on the topic of Autonomony and obedience Nov 29th 2010 to which I took to be true, as it was not challenged by you or anyone else.
    Aparrently it was asked for by Cardinal Ratzinger, in the paedophile cases.
    You can view it for your self as it is too long to re-type.

  9. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Quentin.I hope it makes clear to you the comment I made in reply to yours on the 4th January. 1.28pm, in the topic ‘The Slippery Slope.’
    If it had been read properly by some as I suggested at the time ,it would have saved unnecessary accusations and discourteous comments which cause disharmony.
    I speak for myself too!

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