Do you bask in other people’s misfortune?
The idea that you should feel bad when someone else experiences a loss or some other form of adversity is ingrained in most people’s sense of moral responsibility. Young children can scream with delight when they win a family board game, but this unworthy reaction usually becomes less and less acceptable in those over the age of 8 or 9. As an adult, you may still experience that sense of joy when you’ve defeated your opponents, but you know you must refrain from expressing it openly.
Feeling happy at the expense of another’s losses is an emotion psychologists refer to as Schadenfreude, a German word combining the words Schaden (harm) and Freude (joy). Although this is a common emotion, is it inevitable that people will enjoy the harm done to others? You may have heard that a small electrical fire destroyed your neighbor’s kitchen. Isn’t it likely that you’ll be more sympathetic to them than triumphant?
According to new research by Lea Boecker and colleagues at the University of Lüneburg (2022), the emotions that fall into the fortune of others (FOEs) category can range from “assimilative” or empathetic to “contrastive” or unempathetic. The German authors build a model of FOEs and examine the factors that determine whether people experience assimilative or contrastive emotions towards the happiness and unhappiness of others, abbreviated as “(mis)happiness”.
A four-part model of emotional reactions to (mis)happiness
Based on a book chapter by Richard Smith from the University of Kentucky (2000) from the year 2000, the German authors state that social comparisons are at the center of people’s emotional reactions to the (un)happiness of other people. Fluctuations in emotion, Smith argues, in situations involving other people are determined by the vagaries of social comparison. Looking up you wish you had what others have, looking down you feel like you’re on top.
In the four-part model by Boecker et al. the four FOEs depend on the combination of upward and downward comparisons people make in response to desirable and undesirable outcomes. If the person you are comparing yourself to has an unfavorable result, you become jealous. Maybe you weren’t invited to a friend’s gathering outdoors and wish you had. When the weather is nice, you envy everyone who was there. However, when something bad happens to the people you compare yourself to, you experience the emotion of glee. Because of this, you might be happy if the outdoor gathering is marred by a sudden downpour.
When the product of the two dimensions creates congruence, your assimilative emotions will arise instead. Thinking back to the kitchen fire, you will feel sympathy because you can “look down” on the other person without feeling threatened by their superiority over you. At the other end of the spectrum, you feel what the German authors call “happy” when you don’t see the other person as more desirable than your own qualities should something good happen to them. Without the taint of wanting something someone else has, you can enjoy their good fortune, not their bad fortune.
The role of fairness
As Boecker and her colleagues point out, part of what drives the FOE model is the process of fairness. This is because “a wealth of studies have shown that people dislike inequality, also known as inequality aversion”. Because of this belief in fairness, “happiness and unhappiness that increase inequality evoke unpleasant emotions, while those that decrease inequality evoke pleasant emotions” (p. 58). In other words, the further a person’s relative rank gets from your own, the worse you’ll feel.
To test their theoretical model, U. Lüneburg’s team designed a series of nine online experiments simulating a lottery where participants could compare their wins and losses with alleged opponents. The experimenters varied the exact terms of the lottery, but the basic premise was that the contestants either lost, won, or came out straight on the outcome of the lottery. Participants rated their emotional responses on a scale from little to very much (e.g., “no glee at all” to “much glee”).
After confirming their initial prediction that envy and glee would be highest in upward comparisons and joy and empathy would be highest in downward comparisons, the authors varied additional factors in subsequent experiments to more closely examine why these emotions occurred and whether they did so would be translated into behavioral responses to the “opponent”.
So, emotional responses to other people’s success or failure exist on a scale you can imagine. As a result, you don’t view the outcomes of others, favorable or unfavorable, in a vacuum, but always in terms of what they mean to you. So you will be envious of a winner who is in some way ranked higher than you, since that person “threatens not only comparative concerns but also self-esteem” (p. 76).
On the plus side of the equation, participants generally showed empathy for other people’s misfortune rather than gloating, especially when the misfortune was particularly severe. The authors suggest that this finding supports the idea of a “sympathy bias” and also note that social comparisons can still alter this overall dynamic.
When it came to satisfaction, this prosocial emotion occurred most predictably when people felt equal to the winner on the social comparison scale. Interestingly, as shown in two of the experiments, they actually felt this emotion most strongly when they weren’t even competing with the other person with the positive result. Perhaps that’s why game show viewers take so much pleasure in seeing a capable champion achieve his goal.
How to become more empathetic to others
From this broad look at the social comparison process, you can now understand that the emotions you feel towards others, both in relation to their successes and failures, all occur in a relative sense. Given that it doesn’t feel good to negatively compare yourself to others, the German results also suggest that there are ways to get to the bottom of the ‘congruence’ scale of self-other comparison.
When you see someone getting something you would like, like an opportunity to attend that outdoor gathering, ask yourself why that’s important. Do you feel that by inviting these other guests they are better than you? Are they more popular? When you feel your upward social comparison process kicking in, you can begin to bring it back down to eliminate your aversion to inequality. Maybe they are invited for a reason you don’t understand. Maybe you will be invited to the next party. In fact, the more pleasure you allow yourself, the more likely you are to get on the next guest list.
To sum up, Taking pleasure in other people’s misery need not be an inevitable result of the social comparison process. By understanding the full dimensions of the FOE model, you can move towards the fulfilling end of the emotional continuum.